As its war against Ukraine drags on, Russia continues to press ahead with its nuclear modernization program. In 2022, Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces (SMF) were ordered to deploy 21 launchers armed with Yars and Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and an Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle for combat duty (Kremlin.ru, December 21, 2021). According to the results from 2022, one regiment of the SMF’s Bologovsky missile division was re-equipped with mobile-based Yars ICBMs, while a missile regiment of the Kozelsk division was equipped with two ground-variant missiles from this complex (Mil.ru, December 15, 2022). The Dombarovsky division, meanwhile, received one missile with the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle for re-equipping its second regiment (Mil.ru, December 17. 2022). These accomplishments aside, the Sarmat missile, which was supposed to become the pride of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, has yet to be sent to the Russian Defense Ministry.
In a statement last summer, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that the Sarmat ICBM would be on combat duty by the end of 2022 (Interfax-AVN, June 21, 2022). Yet, this did not happen. For several years, Russia has been unable to test its newest RS-28 Sarmat ICBM, though the phase-one tests launches were originally scheduled for the beginning of 2019 (RIA Novosti, December 17, 2018). Overall, the military intended to conduct at least five or six test launches before beginning operational production (TASS, November 9, 2022). As such, a number of launch tests were scheduled to be held throughout 2022. However, in April 2022, only one such flight test of the Sarmat was conducted. The second test, scheduled for June 2022 (Kamchatinfo.com, June 2), as well as another attempt in July (TASS, July 12, 2022), were not conducted due to technical problems. In addition, the test range for flight trials, near the village of Severo-Yeniseysky in the Krasnoyarsk region, is still not ready, though the first phase of construction was planned to be completed by the end of 2022. Nevertheless, despite these myriad problems, operational production of the missile has already begun (Rg.ru, November 23, 2022).
Indeed, despite management problems, the Kazan Aircraft Production Association (KAPO) managed to execute and deliver two Tu-160M aircraft to the Russian Ministry of Defense in December 2022—one upgraded and the other brand new (Uacrussia.ru, December 30). However, the first delivery of the new Tu-160 was originally expected in 2021. The incomplete modernization (only about 40 percent of equipment was modernized) of the dedicated Kazan plant has been hindering aviation production for the past few years. Apparently, the facility has still not produced a number of critical components, which, as a result, were going to be taken from other aircraft to complete the necessary test flights of the upgraded Tu-160s (Business-gazeta.ru, November 23, 2021).
KAPO’s inefficiency has resulted in numerous lawsuits. For example, the Russian Ministry of Industry and Trade filed a lawsuit for 5.8 billion rubles ($84.5 million) against Tupolev (subsidiary of KAPO) as a penalty under the contract for the creation of a deeply modernized Tu-160M strategic bomber (Interfax, January 22, 2022).
Additionally, KAPO is engaged in the production of the Tu-214 passenger liner. Under the current conditions of Western sanctions, the long-term use of stolen Boeing and Airbus aircraft is impossible, and Russia has begun attempts to restore production of its own aircraft based on Soviet developments. As such, KAPO is tasked with organizing the production of 10 aircraft per year (Rostec.ru, April 21, 2022). The plant, which struggles to cope with the production demands for military aircraft, will also be forced to engage in operational civilian production, which will have a negative impact on the effectiveness of the execution of contracts for the production of more strategic bombers.
According to the initial plans, Tupolev, which is currently developing the Prospective Aviation Complex for Long Range Aviation (PAK-DA, code-named Poslannik), a next-generation stealth strategic bomber, was supposed to roll out the first prototype in 2021–2022 (Avisa.aero, July 12, 2018). However, since this Tupolev aircraft is being produced at the same Kazan plant as the Tu-160, problems in the construction of the “Blackjacks” are being reproduced with the development of Poslannik. In 2022, the only things Tupolev managed to accomplish in this regard were to patent the air-intake valve, start testing the ejection seat and conduct bench tests of the engine for the PAK-DA. Given the delays, the rollout of the aircraft is now planned for 2025–2026.
Outside of these significant production issues, in 2022, the Russian Ministry of Defense, as planned, received one Borei-class nuclear submarine, Generalissimo Suvorov, armed with Bulava ballistic missiles. While this production schedule was initially estimated by a source in the defense industry as hasty (TASS, December 28, 2021), it is far more important for the Kremlin to formally demonstrate continuity in the modernization of its strategic weapons; quality is not as critical. In this light, Russian officials believe that the production of nuclear weapons is stable enough to shorten their testing period.
In July 2022, after several delays, the Pacific Fleet received a Belgorod nuclear submarine, which is designed to carry the Poseidon (or Status-6) autonomous nuclear-tipped super-torpedo (Interfax, July 8, 2022). In October 2022, the Belgorod submarine had supposedly entered Arctic waters and was preparing to test the Poseidon torpedo without a nuclear warhead (Repubblica.it, October 1, 2022). However, no launch occurred. A second carrier of the Poseidon—a Khabarovsk submarine—also did not complete a test launch, though it has been planned to do so every year since 2020. Now, the test is planned for 2023 (RTVI, October 3, 2022).
According to the Russian Defense Ministry, over the past year, the share of advanced weapons in Russia’s nuclear triad increased from 89.1 to 91.3 percent (Mil.ru, December 21, 2022). This is due not only to the introduction of new weapons in the Russian Armed Forces but also the withdrawal and decommissioning of older systems. For example, in 2022, the Yekaterinburg Delta-IV-class submarine was withdrawn from the navy, and the withdrawal of the Topol missile complex from the SMF is in the process of being completed.
Despite the ongoing renewal of Russia’s nuclear triad, the development of the latest strategic nuclear weapons faces severe limitations. In truth, despite the difficulties with the creation of the Sarmat missile, Moscow is rushing the defense industry and insisting on the production of weapons with a reduced testing period. Overall, the industry could not cope with the plans for 2022 to create the latest weapons. And given the additional sanctions restrictions, the nuclear modernization plans for 2023 will most likely not be fully implemented either. At best, the execution of orders will be accompanied by a decrease in the efficiency and quality of the production process and the weapons themselves. As such, the Kremlin’s attempts at “nuclear blackmail” in 2023 may have a more reserved tone (see EDM, November 21, 2022).