Now that the New START is in limbo following Russia’s self-imposed suspension, what will be the status of the world’s nuclear forces in general and that of Russia and the United States in particular?
As of September 1, 2022, it was estimated that the US had 1420 deployed warheads and 659 deployed strategic delivery systems. And Russia had 1549 deployed warheads and 540 strategic launchers.
But altogether, deployed and deployable, the number of nuclear warheads is much more. Reportedly, Russia has 5,977 nuclear warheads in its arsenal. The US has 5,428 warheads. Together, these two nations own about 90 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads.
While American officials, including President Joe Biden, have not said anything significant about the US nuclear weapons and launching platforms following the derailing of the New START, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said, “We will continue to develop and strengthen our armed forces, taking into account potential military threats and risks.”
As revealed by Putin in his address to the Russian military last week, some of the major weapons systems that Russia will deploy by the end of this year are particularly noteworthy. He said Russia would continue mass production of air-based hypersonic Kinzhal systems and start mass supplies of sea-based Zircon hypersonic missiles.
“With the adoption of the Borei-A nuclear-powered submarine project Emperor Alexander III into the navy, the share of modern weapons and equipment in the naval strategic nuclear forces will reach 100 percent,” Putin said, adding, “in the coming years, three more cruisers of this project will replenish the fleet’s combat strength.”
It may be noted that Emperor Alexander III was launched in late December. It is the seventh Borei-A class submarine – which can each carry 16 Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
However, the most significant announcement by Putin was his decision to deploy the newly tested Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) by the end of 2022.
It is a liquid-fueled missile and is dubbed Satan 2 by NATO countries. It was planned in 2016 and was supposed to have been deployed last year. But that has not been the case, as it is said to be still in the testing phase.
Incidentally, according to the Western press, US officials believe that Russia carried out a test of the Sarmat just before US President Joe Biden visited Ukraine last week, but the test failed.
The Russians have not commented on that report. However, its first test in 2017 and the test in April 2022 were said to be successful.
Of the five ICBMs that could end the world, the Sarmat missile is said to be the deadliest one. The other four are America’s Trident D5, also known as the Trident II (launched from a submarine); Russia’s RS-12M Topol-M, also known as SS-29 (a road-mobile and silo-based system); LGM-30G MINUTEMAN III (US land-based ICBM); and China’s DONGFENG-41 (mobile and based on Taian HTF5980 special wheeled chassis with a 16×16 configuration).
The 35-meter (115 feet) Sarmat missile, which Putin says will make Russia’s enemies “think twice,” has a range of 18,000km (11,185 miles).
According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, it weighs 220 tons and can reportedly carry up to 15 light nuclear warheads as part of a MIRV (Multiple Independently Targetable Re-Entry Vehicles).
It can also deliver hypersonic Avangard glide vehicles that can travel further and faster, flying in an unpredictable path to spoof missile defenses. It is said that Sarmat can fly a trajectory over the South Pole, so it is entirely immune to any current missile defense system.
As an ICBM, Sarmat is feared because of its capacity to carry so many warheads. In contrast to the overall inventory of nuclear weapons, the number of warheads in global military stockpiles –– which comprises warheads assigned to operational forces –– is increasing.
There have been reports that while the US, France, Israel, and possibly Russia have relatively stable inventories, China, India, North Korea, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom are increasing their stockpiles.”
It is against this scenario that the New START had a stabilizing role. Because both the US and Russia had planned their respective nuclear modernization programs based on the assumption that neither country would exceed the force levels, that situation has now changed with Russia’s noncooperation (though technically speaking, Russia has not opted out of the treaty and indicated that it would return once conditions change).
A recent Federation of American Scientists (FAS) report warns that in the absence of an arms-control measure, “US and Russian Strategic Nuclear Arsenals Could Double in Size.”
Some of the critical points that the report makes are as follows:
1 – The United States has a significant upload capacity on its strategic nuclear forces, where it can bring extra warheads out of storage and add them to the deployed missiles and bombers.
Although all 400 deployed US ICBMs currently only carry a single warhead, about half use the Mk21A re-entry vehicle capable of carrying up to three warheads each.
Moreover, the United States has 50 “warm” ICBM silos, which could be reloaded with missiles if necessary. With these potential additions in mind, the US ICBM force could more than double from 400 to 950 warheads.
2 – Without treaty limitations, the United States could also upload each of its deployed Trident SLBMs with a full complement of eight warheads rather than the current average of four to five.
Factoring in the small numbers of submarines that are assumed to be out for maintenance at any given time, the United States could approximately double the number of warheads deployed on its SLBMs, to roughly 1,920.
The United States could reactivate the four launch tubes on each submarine that it deactivated to meet the New START limit, thus adding 56 missiles with 448 warheads to the fleet.
3 – Russia also has a significant upload capacity. Several of Russia’s existing ICBMs are thought to have been downloaded to a smaller number of warheads than their maximum capacities to meet the New START force limits. Without the limits imposed by New START, Russia’s ICBM force could potentially increase from approximately 834 warheads to roughly 1,197 warheads.
4 – Warheads on submarine-launched ballistic missiles onboard some of Russia’s SSBNs are also thought to have been reduced to a lower number to meet New START limits. Without these limitations, the number of deployed warheads could be increased from an estimated 640 to approximately 832 (with a small number of SSBNs assumed to be out for maintenance).
5 – As in the US case, Russian bombers could be loaded relatively quickly with hundreds of nuclear weapons. The number is highly uncertain, but assuming approximately 50 bombers are operational, the number of warheads could potentially be increased to nearly 600.
In sum, if both the US and Russia upload their delivery systems to accommodate the maximum number of possible warheads, both sets of arsenals could approximately double in size.
“The United States would have more deployable strategic warheads, but Russia would still have a larger total arsenal of operational nuclear weapons, given its sizable stockpile of nonstrategic nuclear warheads which are not treaty-accountable,” the report says.
And that is a discomforting scenario. It is all the more worrisome as it will have a cascading impact on other nuclear-armed states, particularly China, to increase their nuclear forces.