New Nuclear Triad: A Look Into the Future of Russia's Strategic Defenses

© Sputnik / Eugene Odinokov / Go to the mediabankA Tupolev Tu-160 supersonic heavy strategic bomber at the International Aviation and Space Salon MAKS-2017 in Zhukovsky
A Tupolev Tu-160 supersonic heavy strategic bomber at the International Aviation and Space Salon MAKS-2017 in Zhukovsky - Sputnik International
Earlier this month, Russia's Strategic Missile Forces announced that the branch's rearmament with new nuclear delivery systems and their carriers would be completed by the mid-to-late 2020s. Sputnik explores what exactly such rearmament entails.

Last week, the Russian Ministry of Defense released a series of videos showing the testing and/or deployment of several of Russia's new weapons systems, including the RS-28 Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, the Avangard hypersonic boost-glide vehicle, the Poseidon nuclear-capable torpedo, and the Kinzhal air-launched nuclear-capable hypersonic cruise missile. In one form or another, all of these systems are connected to Russia's strategic defense capabilities.

In his now famous address to lawmakers in March, Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated that under Russian nuclear doctrine, nuclear weapons may be used only in the event of a nuclear attack on Russia, or an act of conventional aggression so severe that it threatens the existence of the Russian state. "As such, I see it as my duty to announce the following: Any use of nuclear weapons against Russia or its allies, weapons of short, medium or any other range, will be considered a nuclear attack on the country. Retaliation will be immediate, with all the attendant consequences," the head of state emphasized.

Amid NATO's deployments ever-closer to Russia's borders, the US's construction of its anti-missile shield in Romania and Poland, and Washington's plans to spend over $1 trillion to modernize its nuclear arsenal, Russia's Defense Ministry has justified its own new or upgraded strategic weapons as tools meant "to enhance [the] defense capacity of Russia" and "prevent any aggression against [the] country and its allies."

On the Ground

A broad Russian effort to preserve the global strategic balance began in the 2000s, when the Bush administration first started the construction of its European nuclear shield, which the US claimed was aimed at containing an Iranian nuclear threat. In the early 2010s, after over a decade in development, the RS-24 Yars ICBM, capable of carrying up to six independently targetable warheads with a 300 kiloton yield apiece, began to be introduced into the Strategic Missile Forces. 

This process has continued into the present, with the Teikovo, Tagil and Novosibirsk region mobile formations recently armed with the system, and missile troops in Irkutsk and Yoshkar-Ola next in line for delivery. The 28th Guards Rocket Division in Kozelsk, in western Russia's Kaluga region, is set to be equipped with a mine-based variant of the RS-24 in the near future. Together with the Topol-M, Yars will serve as the backbone of the ground-based component of Russia's nuclear deterrent for decades to come. Yars missiles have an estimated range of 12,000 km.

In recent years, the Strategic Missile Forces have made a concerted effort to beef up protection along the missile troops patrol routes. These measures have included the deployment of the Typhoon-M counter-sabotage combat vehicle, whose advanced all-weather radio and optical-electronic surveillance systems enable it to detect intruders at a distance of up to 3 km, and vehicles at a distance of 6 km. For the future, the defense ministry has also shown an interest in the use of robotic systems such as the Nerekhta combat robot, which has proven itself in counter-sabotage and counter-terrorism exercises.

In the super-heavy ground-based missile category of Russia's nuclear deterrent is the RS-28 Sarmat, a silo-based liquid-fueled missile with a 11,000 km range. With an estimated yield of 350 kilotons in each of its 15 MIRV warheads, 10 heavier MIRV warheads, or warheads combined with large numbers of decoys, the RS-28 is seen as Russia's response to US missile defenses, and the Pentagon's Prompt Global Strike program. With the start of mass production of Sarmats planned for 2020, the first missile regiment is expected to receive them by 2021. The RS-28 will replace the R-36M2 Voevoda and RS-18A Stilet missiles in service today.

Complementing the Sarmat is the Avangard, a new hypersonic glide vehicle with a Scramjet engine capable of delivering both nuclear and conventional payloads at speeds of up to Mach 20. Able to maneuver while in flight, the system is essentially invulnerable to any existing or perspective missile defense system, and is expected to become fully operational in late 2018 or early 2019.

At Sea

The backbone of Russia's upgraded strategic capabilities at sea is the R-30 Bulava, a submarine-launched ballistic missile introduced in 2011 and deployed in 2013 aboard the lead ship of the new Borei class of strategic missile submarines, the appropriately named Yuri Dolgoruky ('Yuri the Long-Arm'). The Russian Navy has since commissioned two more Borei subs, with five more under construction and six more planned. By 2021, the Navy expects to be operating a total of seven of the subs in its Northern and Pacific Fleets.

With a range of 8,000 km and a launch mass of 36.8 tons, the Bulava can carry 6 MIRVs with a yield of 150 kilotons each or between 10 and 40 decoys, with the warheads capable of changing trajectory mid-flight.

The Boreis will replace the Akula-class (NATO reporting name Typhoon) ballistic missile subs, a massive Soviet-era design introduced in the 1980s and serving as the mainstay of the Soviet strategic presence at sea. Today, a single Akula, the Dmitry Donskoy, remains operational. Other missile-carrying subs, the Kalmar and Delfin-class vessels, continue their operations, but are also set to be retired as more Boreis come online.

Rounding out the Navy's new nuclear capabilities is the Poseidon, aka Status-6, a high-speed nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed torpedo expected to be carried by attack subs and described by Pentagon officials as a "major strategic threat" to US ports, coastal military installations and carrier battle groups.

In the Air

Rounding out the Russian nuclear trial is the air-based component, which is also expected to receive attention. At its core are the Tu-95MSM 'Bear' and Tu-160 White Swan bombers; each year, the Aerospace Forces receive several upgraded versions of each of the planes, with new technologies allowing the planes to remain up-do-date decades after their original introduction. Earlier this year, for example, the Defense Ministry announced that the Tu-160's new engines would add 1,000 km + to its 12,300 km range. As far as nuclear payload goes, the planes are armed with Kh-102 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, which have a range of 5,500 km.

The Tu-22M3, another strategic and maritime strike bomber, is perhaps the most perspective candidate for upgrades. In 2016, the Aerospace Forces received the Kh-32, a new nuclear-capable cruise missile with an assumed range of 1,000 km range and a top speed of Mach 4.1. 

Furthermore, in footage released last week, the Defense Ministry confirmed that the Kinzhal, a new air-launched nuclear-capable hypersonic, maneuverable cruise missile with a top speed of Mach 10 and a range of 2,000 km, had been tested aboard the Tu-22M3. Given the Tu-22M's 5,100 km range, the Kinzhal can be effectively be said to have gained intercontinental strike capability. The missile is already deployed, and has seen extensive flight training aboard the MiG-31BM supersonic interceptor aircraft.

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