A recent interview in Kommersant with Marshall Billingslea, the special presidential envoy for arms control who represents the United States in negotiations with Russia on the extension of the New START strategic nuclear weapons treaty (Kommersant, September 21; see EDM, September 24), highlighted a key omission in the current round of bilateral arms control talks—the issue of non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNW). No international agreement covers NSNW; and for many years, Russia has adhered to the principle that it would not discuss “tactical” warheads so long as US B-61 nuclear gravity bombs remained deployed in Europe. Two primary political considerations underly Moscow’s approach: 1) the asymmetry between total and operational numbers of Russian NSNW and 2) Russia’s efforts to reassign forces responsible for NSNW strikes to instead take on strategic nuclear deterrence and/or conventional power-projection missions.
Russia’s recently adopted “Foundations of Russian Federation State Policy on Nuclear Deterrence” pointedly does not differentiate between strategic and non-strategic nuclear weapons (Kremlin.ru, June 2; see EDM, June 4). Yet NSNW is mentioned explicitly in article 37 of the less-known 2017 “Foundations of Russian Federation State Policy on Naval Affairs Until 2030” (Kremlin.ru, July 20, 2017). The latter document clarifies that, in case of conflict escalation, a demonstrative readiness to resort to military force using non-strategic nuclear weapons would be an effective deterrence measure. Put more simply, Moscow is prepared to engage in first use of NSNW in a conventional conflict. Even though such a demonstrative, first-use nuclear strike would be unlikely to cause significant or decisive damage, the explosion would aim to demoralize the adversary.
The most common expert estimates of the size of Russia’s current arsenal of NSNW vary widely: from 860–1,040 (Rusi.org, November 7, 2012) to nearly 2,000 warheads (Carnegie.ru, March 4, 2011; Tandfonline.com, March 9, 2020). However, NSNW is useless without working delivery systems, and here the perceived importance of the Russian stockpile begins to change completely. Over the past three decades, the number of such delivery systems has decreased. Many were retired, including some types of guided-missile nuclear submarines, while others suffered from degrading technical reliability when assigned NSNW roles, such as Su-24 tactical bombers. At the same time, while Russia has been determinedly pressing forward with its efforts to develop conventional precision-strike weapons (see EDM, June 20, 2017, October 2, 2018, September 4, 2019), the numbers of newly developed dual-capable delivery systems in its inventory are significantly lower than in Soviet times.
Further exacerbating the situation is the fact that the infrastructure maintained by the 12th Main Directorate of the Ministry of Defense, which is responsible for controlling Russia’s strategic and non-strategic nuclear warheads, bombs and related assets, is limited. This infrastructure consists of 12 central storage bases and a number of special logistic and security units subordinated to these bases and deployed close to assigned nuclear weapons combat units. So even when a particular naval, ground or aerospace forces base operates dual-capable delivery systems, if it has no special 12th Main Directorate unit close by, that base is officially not assigned to handle nuclear (including NSNW) weapons at all. Therefore, taking all these above factors together, the actual number of Russia’s operational NSNW assets arguably does not exceed 520 (Riddle, May 1, 2018) and is projected to decline further this decade.
In the absence of sufficient available delivery systems, trained personnel and necessary logistical/operational infrastructure, whatever stockpiles of NSNW warheads may exist can only be used in theory, thus undermining their true battlefield significance. Consequently, Moscow is constrained in its ability to convert these weapons into tradable diplomatic capital. Their main value, thus, comes from exacerbating the West’s threat perceptions of Russia’s tactical nuclear arsenal in order to pressure the United States and Europe to reconsider one of the pillars of Transatlantic unity—the deployment of US nuclear weapons in Europe.
The second consideration for the Kremlin regarding NSNW relates to ongoing Russian efforts to reassign other roles to their delivery systems. These priorities are demonstrated by Russia’s rearmament programs for 2011–2020 and 2018–2027. For instance, the modernization of 30 Tu-22M3 bombers, heretofore partially assigned to NSNW missions, will permit the same planes to carry out long-range bombing runs thanks to a new aerial refueling capability as well as the installation of engines, electronics and possibly weapons already standard in Tu-160 long-range strategic bombers (Interfax, May 26). Here the nominal threshold between Russia’s strategic and non-strategic nuclear weapons erodes. At the same time, Russia is retrofitting its long-range nuclear bombers to be able to carry out conventional operations: it used them in this way for the first time in Syria in 2015 (see EDM, November 20, 2015). In a similar vein, it is worth highlighting the ongoing modernization of the strategic missile-defense system around Moscow, which involves denuclearizing the associated interceptor missiles (AINonline, June 26, 2019). Taken together, these efforts are further limiting the numbers of dedicated NSNW delivery systems within the Russian Aerospace Forces.
The same phenomenon can be observed in the Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Мorskoi Flot—VMF). Russia is presently undergoing the challenging modernization of its 949A- (Oscar-II) and 971- (Akula) class guided-missile nuclear submarines. The aim is to make these vessels capable of conventional land-attack missions utilizing Kalibr and Oniks cruise missiles (Izvestia, April 28, 2017; TASS, August 25, 2020). Moscow wants to make its submarine forces more useful and flexible for conventional power-projection tasks in overseas operations as well as to decrease the role of NSNW in Russia’s naval planning. These weapons will thus be downgraded from tactical uses to a small number of exceptional purposes such as the nuclear de-escalation of conflicts (see above).
Russia’s deployment of dual-capable 9M729 (the land version of the Kalibr) ground-based long-range cruise missiles together with Iskander short-range ballistic missiles led to the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019. When equipped with conventional warheads, these missiles give Moscow offensive battlefield capabilities. However, the same missiles can be armed with low-yield, non-strategic nuclear warheads; and at that point, they become an important strategic deterrence tool against Russia’s regional neighbors in Europe and East Asia—at a cost that is significantly lower than intercontinental or submarine-launched ballistic missiles (ICBM, SLBM). So even though the number of operationally usable Russian NSNW warheads has been dropping, ongoing modernization of the Armed Forces has effectively been transforming these “tactical” weapons into an essential part of Russia’s nuclear deterrence strategy—a factor worth keeping in mind during New START negotiations with Moscow.