Report to Congress on Russia’s Nuclear Weapons

May 29, 2024 9:48 AM

The following is the May 21, 2024, In Focus Congressional Research Service report, Russia’s Nuclear Weapons.

From the report

Russia presents an “acute threat” to the United States and its allies, according to the 2022 National Defense Strategy. The 2022 Nuclear Posture Review, a Biden Administration review of U.S. nuclear policy, states:

Russia remains the U.S. rival with the most capable and diverse nuclear forces. Today it is unique in the combination of strategic and non-strategic nuclear forces it fields that enables nuclear employment ranging from large-scale attacks on the [U.S.] homeland to limited strikes in support of a regional military campaign [in the Euro-Atlantic region].

Since Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons against the West, stated that Russia has deployed nonstrategic nuclear weapons to its ally Belarus, and declared the suspension of certain Russian obligations under the New START Treaty that limit U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces. Congress may choose to examine U.S. deterrence and risk reduction policy toward Russia.

Force Structure

According to a recent nongovernmental estimate, Russia has around 1,710 deployed nuclear warheads based on a triad of strategic delivery vehicles roughly consisting of 326 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), 12 ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) with 192 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and 58 strategic bombers. Russia has not exchanged official data with the United States about the structure of its strategic nuclear forces since 2023. Russian officials have stated, however, that Russia continues to abide by New START limits, thus maintaining rough parity with U.S. strategic nuclear forces. According to one nongovernmental estimate, the United States has around 1,770 deployed nuclear warheads.

Russia is concluding a modernization of its strategic nuclear forces that focuses in particular on the development of the SS-X-29 (Sarmat) heavy ICBM, the SS-27 Mod 2 (Yars) ICBM, and the Dolgorukiy (Borei) class SSBN, according to a 2024 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) assessment. Russia deploys the majority of its strategic nuclear warheads on ICBMs. A separate Russian military service, the Strategic Rocket Forces, commands these silo-based and mobile ICBMs. Russia can field most of its ICBMs and all of its SLBMs with multiple warheads on each missile, according to a nongovernmental source.

Russia also has a variety of dual-capable systems (which are able to use conventional or nuclear warheads), including precision strike missiles, of various ranges and modes of launch, that are not limited by any arms control agreements. The Russian military could deploy these systems with nuclear warheads, enabling their use as nonstrategic nuclear weapons. Russia has rejected U.S. efforts to negotiate limits on Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons, describing these weapons as an offset to U.S. and NATO conventional superiority. The State Department estimated in 2024 that the Russian military has between 1,000 to 2,000 nuclear warheads for nonstrategic weapons; nongovernmental organizations attribute 1,558 warheads to these systems.

Russian officials have expressed concerns about the survivability of Russian strategic nuclear forces, given advances in U.S. long-range conventional strike and missile defenses. In 2018, President Putin announced that Russia was developing new delivery vehicles, including an ICBM-mounted hypersonic glide vehicle, a nuclear-powered cruise missile, and a nuclear-capable autonomous underwater system. According to 2024 testimony of NORTHCOM Commander General Gregory Guillot, “Russia intends for these systems to challenge U.S. defenses and guarantee Russia’s ability to retaliate after a first strike.”

Download the document here.

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