Russia’s Nuclear Modernization

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Russia’s Nuclear Modernization

On May 13, 2019, Posted by , In Information Reports,Marren Haneberg,Nuclear Weapons,Russia,United States, With Comments Off on Russia’s Nuclear Modernization

By Marren Haneberg

On April 11, Russia announced that the RS-28 Sarmat missile reached its final testing phase (TASS, “Putin: Russia’s ICBM…”). The missile, an upgrade of the SS-18, is set to start production in 2021. Nicknamed “Satan 2” by NATO, it “has practically no range restrictions” and “is untroubled by even the most advanced missile defense systems” according to Putin (O’Connor).

The Avangard, a strategic ICBM with a gliding hypersonic maneuvering warhead, is one of six major nuclear weapons Russia is developing. Source:


The RS-28 Sarmat is one of six new nuclear weapons Russia is developing, as revealed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in his March 2018 State of the Nation speech. He also announced that Russia is developing a nuclear-powered hypersonic missile, dubbed Skyfall, capable of reaching any point in the world. Successful tests in January 2019 indicate that Skyfall “will likely be ready for combat as early as 2020” (Gault, Macias “Russia’s new hypersonic…”). It “would be impossible for [the] United States missile defense system” to counter Skyfall, according to Philip Coyle, board member of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and former US assistant secretary of defense (Gault).

An April 2018 estimate found that Russia had 1,800 warheads assigned to non-delivery systems. Compared to the US, Russia “kept thousands of battlehead nukes” after the Cold War, though “experts believe Russian non-strategic warheads are not mated to delivery systems,” and are stored in “about a dozen central storage facilities” (Brumfiel, NTI). 

Russian Navy

The largest beneficiary from Russia’s nuclear modernization is the Russian Navy, which has an inventory of 820 warheads and is developing its “next class of nuclear attack submarines” (Kristensen). The Russian Navy already launched one of these projects in 2014, the Severodvinsk. This submarine is possibly “equipped with a nuclear version of the Kalibr land-attack sea-launched cruise missile” and can launch the “possibly nuclear” S-N-26 anti-ship/land-attack cruise missile (Kristensen). Since the launch of the Severodvinsk, the Russian Navy has made modified the original design and announced “five more submarines of this class [were] at various stages of production” in December 2018 (TASS).

In summer 2019, Russia will start sea trials of a second submarine, Kazan. The boat will “join the Northern Fleet in late 2019” after live firing tests in the autumn (Gady, Kristensen). The Kazan, which is approximately 120 meters long,is 10 to 12 meters shorter than the Severodvinsk and can carry up to 32 Kalibr missiles, while the Severodvinsk can carry up to 40 of these missiles.

While these submarines represent technological advancement, their production is slow. The Severodvinsk is the only submarine in the Yasen M-class put into service so far, and the Navy’s drained budget only allows for the production of two more Yasen M-class submarines. The exorbitant costs of these submarines are mostly attributed to the technology onboard, which includes “new spherical sonar, dubbed MGK-600 Irtysh-Amfora, and a new fourth-generation nuclear reactor” (Gady). The new submarines are also quieter and built with less magnetic steel, reducing their magnetic signature.

Also under development is “a nuclear-powered unmanned underwater vehicle” which would deliver “massive nuclear ordinance” (NTI). This vehicle is “likely related” to an “unusually ‘dirty’ thermonuclear bomb,” Status-6, also called Poseidon, that would produce “significant amounts of radioactive fallout if detonated in coastal waters” (NTI). The “nuclear-powered, very long range, nuclear-armed torpedo” began underwater trials in December 2018 (Kristensen). So far, the US Navy has not announced development of a similar weapon (Macias “Russia’s nuclear-armed…”). US intelligence assessments estimate that the project will be complete in 2027, after which the Russian military will put at least 30 Poseidon underwater drones on duty.

Russian Air Force

After the Navy, the Russian Air Force is the military’s second largest user of non-strategic weapons, with 530 of these weapons assigned for delivery. The Air Force also has an estimated 68 strategic bombers and “a large but unknown number of nuclear gravity bombs” (NTI). Many of its bombers can deliver gravity bombs and air-launched cruise missiles. The organization is planning increased production and additional upgrades of its missiles and bombers.

The Russian Air Force is developing “a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle called Avangard,” which will “enter service in the near future” after over a decade of research and testing (NTI). The vehicle can possibly fly up to 20 times the speed of sound, and with this speed, Putin claims it will “be able to evade missile defenses for years to come” (Troianovski and Sonne).

Since December 2017, Russia has deployed a new long-range dual-capable air-to-surface missile, the Kinzhal, on experimental combat duty. The missile reportedly has a range up to 2,000 km and could be used against both land and sea targets. In 2019, “the Russian Aerospace Force is expected to receive its first batch of 12 Su-57 fighter jets,” which will be equipped with hypersonic missiles similar to the Kinzhal, “indicating that the Su-57s may also have a nuclear strike mission” (Kristensen).

Barriers to Modernization

These advancements in Russia’s nuclear forces are limited by funding barriers, “the question is less whether they can make it work and more of ‘how many can they afford’,” according to Michael Kofman, an analyst of the Russian military at CNA Corporation (Troianovski and Sonne). In February 2011, Vladimir Popovkin, Russia’s First Deputy Minister of Defense, announced Russia “would spend about $70 billion on Russia’s strategic nuclear forces between 2011 and 2020,” but this plan might have faced “shortfalls in funding” due to economic downturn (NTI).


Despite these funding shortages, in 2017 Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said “that 90% of the country’s strategic nuclear forces will be armed with modern weaponry by 2020” (Lopez, Gady). While funding shortfalls have pushed back some of its timelines for nuclear development, such as its submarine production, Russia has made serious advancements in its nuclear capabilities and, given NATO’s expansion and the INF Treaty’s collapse, will continue building its stockpile with increasingly dangerous weapons.


Brumfiel, Geoff. 2019. “The U.S. And Russia Are Stocking Up On Missiles And Nukes For A Different Kind Of War.” February 1. NPR.

Congressional Research Service. 2019. “Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons.” January 17.

Department of Defense. 2018. “Nuclear Posture Review.” February. Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Gady, Franz-Stefan. 2018. “Russia’s First Yasen-M Attack Sub to Begin State Trials in 2019.” December 8. The Diplomat.

Gault, Matthew. 2019. “Russia’s New Nuclear Missiles Squeeze Response Time.” March 27. Scientific American.

Kristensen, Hans M. and Matt Korda. 2019. “Russian nuclear forces, 2019.” March 4. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 75, no. 2, 73-84, DOI: 10.1080/00963402.2019.1580891.

Lopez, C. Todd. 2019. “4 Things to Know About the U.S. Nuclear Deterrence Strategy.” April 1. US Department of Defense.

Macias, Amanda. 2019. “Russia’s nuclear-armed underwater drone may be ready for war in eight years.” March 25. CNBC.

NTI. “Nuclear Weapons in Russia.” Nuclear Threat Initiative. Accessed May 3, 2019.

O’Connor, Tom. 2019. “Russia Tests ‘Satan 2’ Nuclear Missile and Drone That travels Under Water Amid Threats To Target U.S.” February 20. Newsweek.

Office of the Director of National Intelligence. 2018. “Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats on Russia’s Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty Violation.” November 30.

TASS. 2019. “Putin: Russia’s ICBM Sarmat in final testing phase.” April 11.

TASS. 2018. “Russia’s Yasen-class nuclear attack submarine Kazan to begin state trials next summer.” December 7.

Troianovski, Anton and Paul Sonne. 2018. “Russia is poised to add a new hypersonic nuclear-capable glider to its arsenal.” December 26. Washington Post.

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