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Russian nuclear forces, 2004

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Russian nuclear forces, 2004
July/August 2004
Vol. 60, No. 4, pp. 72–74

The past year has seen a renewed interest in nuclear weapons by President Vladimir Putin and the Russian military. There are several reasons for this: the abandonment of the START II treaty; the impending deployment of the first stage of a U.S. ballistic missile defense system; and NATO's April 1 enlargement eastward to include seven new nations, among them the three Baltic states. [1]  Perhaps most important is Russia's apparent need to maintain modern nuclear forces approximately equivalent to those of the United States as a symbol of great power status, a relic of Cold War thinking that remains alive in Washington as well as in Moscow. "No other country of the world has such weapons systems," Putin boasted following ICBM test launches in February. "It means that Russia has been and will remain one of the biggest nuclear missile powers in the world. Some people may like it and some may not, but everyone will have to reckon with it." [2]

Despite rhetoric about a new relationship with Russia, the Bush administration has been unable to persuade Moscow to renounce a competitive military relationship between the two countries, at least in the area of nuclear forces. Almost 15 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, an arms race continues apace, albeit much less intense and much less publicized than in the past.

Russia has approximately 7,800 operational nuclear warheads in its arsenal. This includes about 4,400 strategic warheads, a decrease from last year due to the withdrawal of nearly 70 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) from operational service. Our estimate of operational non-strategic nuclear weapons--3,400--remains unchanged from last year (see
Russian Nuclear Forces, 2003, July/August 2003 Bulletin).

Estimating the size, composition, and status of the Russian nuclear stockpile has always been difficult due to the lack of official information provided by Russian authorities. At the end of the Cold War in 1991, the Soviet Union may have had as many as 35,000 nuclear weapons, though not all of them were fielded. Estimates of the rate at which the weapons were dismantled vary widely, from hundreds to 1,000-2,000 per year. U.S. Defense Department and CIA estimates suggest that Russia dismantled slightly more than 1,000 warheads per year throughout the 1990s. A few oblique Russian statements have hinted at a faster rate. It has been impossible to determine the pace of dismantlement, whether it has been steady or intermittent, or what the size of the arsenal was when the effort began. Based on the best available information, we estimate that the total current arsenal of intact warheads is around 17,000. Of those, almost half (7,800) are considered active and operational; the balance occupies an indeterminate status. Some may be officially retired and awaiting disassembly; others may be in short-or long-term storage--categories similar to U.S. categories of "responsive force" or "inactive reserve."

Intercontinental ballistic missiles. Russia's ICBM reductions continue a trend toward a leaner force that began several years ago. The remaining force, however, appears to be strongly shaped by Bush administration decisions to abandon the START II treaty and to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.

Russia has 130 operational SS-19s, four fewer than a year ago. The SS-19 was supposed to be scrapped under START II, but after the Moscow Treaty was signed, Russia decided to "slow down" withdrawal. [3] President Putin announced in October 2003 that Russia would deploy "tens" of additional SS-19 missiles with "hundreds of warheads" beginning in 2010, possibly with the divisions at Tatishchevo and Kozelsk. [4] The SS-18 missile force was to be retired under START II, but again, after the Moscow Treaty, Russia announced that it would stop withdrawing SS-18s and would keep them in service for another 10-15 years. [5] Nevertheless, some SS-18s have been withdrawn. There are 120 now in service: 52 at Dombarovski, 22 at Kartaly, and 46 at Uzhur.

The 10-warhead SS-24 missile was also scheduled to be scrapped under START II, but Col. Gen. Nikolai Solovtsov, head of Strategic Missile Forces, announced in August 2002 that Russia would retain one division, probably the one at Kostroma, where 15 rail-based SS-24s remain operational. Two other divisions, at Krasnoyarsk and Bershet, have been disbanded, according to the January 2004 START memorandum of understanding (MOU).

Russia reduced its SS-25 force from 342 operational missiles in 2003 to 312, as of January. The road-mobile SS-25s are deployed at nine locations. Reductions in the SS-25 force occurred at Yoshkarola (nine missiles), Yurya (nine missiles), Nizhni Tagil (nine missiles), and Barnaul (three missiles).

Modest production continues of SS-27 (Topol-M) missiles. Because Russia is retaining the MIRVed (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles) SS-27s, it feels less urgency to steadily produce and deploy them. A regiment of six silo-based SS-27s entered service at the Tatishchevo missile base on December 21, 2003, bringing the number of Russia's SS-27s to 36. The missiles are housed in former SS-19 and SS-24 silos. The first mobile version of the SS-27, carrying a single war-head, is expected to become operational this year. In April, Russia test-launched this version from the Plesetsk facility; one more test-launch is expected before the missile enters service. Interfax quoted an unidentified military officer who said the mobile SS-27s might carry four to six warheads each. [6]

Development of the next generation of weapon systems appears to be under way. According to several reports, Russia is developing a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a throw weight (maximum payload) of 4,400 kilograms that can carry  up to 10 warheads. [7] In early 2004, Putin reiterated previous statements, saying that Russia may be working on a maneuverable warhead for ICBMs that will be "capable of hitting targets at intercontinental range with hypersonic speed and high precision and with the possibility of deep maneuver both in terms of altitude and direction." [8]

In December 2003, the Russian military announced that 10 ICBM test launches were planned for 2004. Three had been conducted by the end of April: an SS-19 on February 18, and Topol-M tests on February 18 and April 20.

Nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). With 14 operational submarines, the Russian SSBN fleet is the same size as last year: two Typhoons, six Delta IVs, and six Delta IIIs. (A third Typhoon and a seventh Delta III may be used for testing.) This is a dramatic reduction compared with 1990, when Russia reported 62 operational SSBNs. Operational Northern Fleet SSBNs are based on the Kola Peninsula at Nerpichya (only Typhoons) and at Yagelnaya; operational Pacific Fleet SSBNs are based on the Kamchatka Peninsula at Rybachi (only Delta IIIs), 15 kilometers southwest of Petropavlovsk.

After nearly 10 years in overhaul, in December 2003 the Typhoon-class Dmitri Donskoi test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) from the White Sea, and the sub may enter full operational status this year. The Dmitri Donskoi has been modified as a trial platform for the new SS-N-27 missile, but there are conflicting reports about which missile was test fired in December. The Archangelsk, another Typhoon sub, test-fired two SS-N-20 missiles on October 15, from the White Sea.

Two Delta IV SSBNs are being refitted. A third, the Yekaterinburg, reentered service in January 2003 after a six-year, non-refueling overhaul. The Pacific-based Delta III Svyatoy Giorgiy Pobedonosets completed an 11-year refueling overhaul in November 2003, which indicates that at least a small number of Delta IIIs may continue to serve in the Pacific well past 2005, the announced retirement date for the force. [9]

Three Borey-class SSBNs are under construction at the Severodvinsk shipyard in northern Russia, all behind schedule. The first boat, the Yuri Dolgoruki, is scheduled for delivery in 2005 or 2006. The keel of the second boat, the Alexander Nevsky, was laid down in March 2004. All three subs should be in service by 2012. Each will carry 12 SS-N-27 (Bulava-30) SLBMs, which will be MIRVed and have a range of more than 8,000 kilometers. A modified Typhoon SSBN will begin testing the SS-N-27 this year.

Over the past year, the Russian Navy has conducted eight SLBM test launches, three of which failed spectacularly. During a naval exercise in the Barents Sea on February 17, the Delta IV SSBN Novomoskovs attempted to launch two SS-N-23 missiles; Putin was observing from the nearby Archangelsk. Both tests were aborted due to technical problems. The next day, the Karelia managed to launch an SS-N-23, but the missile was blown up when it strayed from its planned trajectory. On March 17, the Novomoskovs finally succeeded in a second attempt, during which an SS-N-23 was launched from the Barents Sea and later hit the Kura target range on the Kamchatka Peninsula.

The Russian Navy resumed SSBN deterrent patrols in 2003, after not conducting any in 2002 and only one in 2001, according to the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence. Since 1990, the number of patrols had declined steadily. Even after resumption, the number is a far cry from the U.S. SSBN patrol rate of more than 60 a year.

Strategic aviation. Russian strategic bombers include 78 aircraft of three types: 14 Tu-160 Blackjacks, 32 Tu-95 MS6 Bear-H6s, and 32 Tu-95 MS16 Bear-H16s. After a Blackjack crashed in September 2003, all aircraft were grounded until mid-January. Strategic bombers are part of the Russian Air Force's 37th Air Army. According to the January 31, 2004, START I MOU, all Blackjack bombers are deployed at the Engels Air Base, while Bear bombers are deployed as follows: 15 H16s at Ukrainka in Siberia (79th Heavy Guard Bomber Regiment), 13 at Engels (121st Heavy Bomber Regiment), and four at Ryazan. Twenty-five H6s are at Ukrainka, five at Engels, and two at Ryazan.

Russian strategic aircraft carry AS-15A/B (Russian designation Kh-55) air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs), AS-16 short-range attack missiles (SRAMs), and/or nuclear bombs. Combined, the 78 aircraft are assigned an estimated 872 cruise missiles and bombs. Each Blackjack can carry up to 12 AS-15B ALCMs or AS-16 SRAMs and bombs. The Bear H16 carries up to 16 AS-15A ALCMs and bombs; the Bear H6 can carry up to six AS-15A ALCMs and bombs. A nuclear variant of a new cruise missile (Kh-102), similar to the U.S. advanced cruise missile but with a prop engine, has been under development for more than a decade for Blackjack and Bear bombers and was reported in January 2002 to be in the final stages of development. Similarly to the United States, Russia may convert some ALCMs to non-nuclear missiles (Kh-555s). Flight tests of converted ALCMs have taken place.

Fourteen Blackjacks are based at Engels, eight of which were transferred from Ukraine to Russia in late 1999 and early 2000 in exchange for partial payment of Ukrainian natural gas debt to Russia. The operational status of the eight bombers is unclear; they may have needed repairs, but in March 2002 air force commander-in-chief Vladimir Mikhailov announced that all Tu-160s would undergo modernization of avionics, communication equipment, and weapon systems. The modernization will extend their service lives and allow them to carry "new types of missiles with conventional and nuclear warheads." In addition, three to six Blackjacks were scheduled to be completed by 2003 and added to the force, but this has not yet happened.

Strategic bombers participated in a large-scale exercise in February, during which Bear bombers from Engels simulated AS-15 cruise missile strikes against targets at the Kola base. The exercise also involved ICBM and SLBM launches and deployment of a military communications satellite.

Strategic defense forces. The anti-ballistic missile system around Moscow includes 100 underground interceptors designed to carry one nuclear warhead each. The system, known as A-135, consists of two layers of interceptors: an outer ring of four launch complexes armed with 32 Gorgon interceptors, each carrying a 1-megaton warhead; and an inner ring of four launch complexes armed with 68 Gazelle interceptors, each carrying a 10-kiloton warhead. There were rumors in 1998 that the nuclear warheads had been replaced with conventional warheads, but this seems unlikely given the technical difficulties and costs involved in developing an effective non-nuclear ABM system. In addition to the ABM interceptors, a considerable number of mobile SA-10 Grumble surface-to-air missiles may also have nuclear capability against some types of ballistic missiles.

Nuclear Notebook is prepared by Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Inquiries should be directed to NRDC, 1200 New York Avenue, N.W., Suite 400, Washington, D.C., 20005; 202-289-6868.

1. Russian Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov said in March 2004: "Russia keeps a close watch on NATO's ongoing transformation and hopes for complete removal of direct and indirect anti-Russian elements from the military plans and political declarations of its member states. However, if NATO remains a military alliance with an offensive military doctrine, Russia will have to adequately revise its military planning and principles regarding the development of its armed forces, including its nuclear forces." David Holley, "Russia Sees U.S. NATO Actions as Reasons to Watch Its Back," Los Angeles Times, March 26, 2004.

2. Federal News Service, Inc., "President Putin's Remarks at a Press Conference in Plesetsk," Feb. 18, 2004.

3. Russian Federation, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "Concluding Remarks by President Vladimir Putin at a Meeting with Russian Armed Forces Commanders, Moscow, October 2, 2003," Daily News Bulletin, Oct. 3, 2003. According to a report in Izvestia, this concerns 30 missiles. Dmitriy Litovkin, "‘We'll Get All of Them from Capetown to Beijing,'" Izvestia, Oct. 21, 2003.

4. Litovkin, ibid.

5. The initial announcement in 2002 stated that the SS-18 would be retained through 2016, but the head of Strategic Missile Forces said in December 2003 that the timeline was 10-15 years. "Russia Plans to Keep SS-18 ICBMs for at Least 10 More Years," NTI Global Security Newswire, December 18,  2003.

6. "Russia Deploys Strategic Nuclear Missiles,"Associated Press, Dec. 22, 2003; and "Russia Deploys New Missile Batch," Associated Press, Dec. 22, 2003.

7. "Russia Deploys New Missile Batch," Associated Press; and "Russia to Continue Developing Strategic Nuclear Forces," Xinhuanet, Dec. 22, 2003.

8. Federal News Service, Inc., "President Putin's Remarks at a Press Conference in Plesetsk."

9. A. D. Baker III, "World Navies Are in Decline," Proceedings, March 2004, p. 36.

Strategic forces




Year deployed

Warheads x yield (kiloton)

Total warheads











10 x 550/750






6 x 550/750


SS-24 M1




10 x 550






1 x 550






1 x 550














SS-N-18 M1




3 x 200 (MIRV)






10 x 100 (MIRV)






4 x 100 (MIRV)













Tu-95 MS6

Bear H6



6 AS-15A ALCMs or bombs


Tu-95 MS16

Bear H16



16 AS-15A ALCMs or bombs






12 AS-15B ALCMs, AS-16 SRAMs, or bombs








Grand total





ALCM—air-launched cruise missile; AS—air-to-surface missile; ICBM—intercontinental ballistic missile, range greater than 5,500 kilometers; MIRV—multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles; SLBM—submarine-launched ballistic missile; SRAM—short-range attack missile.

2004 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists



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