Year 2021 in Review: The Results of Russia’s Nuclear Weapons Modernization

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 6

Avangard hypersonic missile system (Source: TASS)

Russia continues to press ahead with its nuclear weapons modernization program; but since not all goals were achieved the previous year, in 2021 the Russian military industry was forced to step up production.

Last year, the Strategic Missile Forces (SMF) were ordered to deploy for combat duty 13 launchers armed with Yars intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) as well as UR-100N UTTH launchers topped with the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle (, December 21, 2020). These tasks were completed. One regiment of the SMF’s Barnaul Missile Division was re-equipped with mobile-based Yars ICBMs, while a missile regiment of the Kozelsk Division was filled out by equipping it with a ground variant of this complex (, November 29, 2021). The Dombarovsky Division, meanwhile, received two missiles with the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle. Having received six launchers within three years, the first regiment of this division was completely re-equipped. In total, apparently, the Strategic Missile Forces received 15 ICBM launchers in 2021 (Izvestia, August 10, 2021). These modest accomplishments aside, however, Russia’s nuclear arms modernization efforts during the past 12 months saw wide-ranging delays affecting its flagship projects.

Russia has not been able to test its newest intercontinental ballistic missile, the RS-28 Sarmat for several years. The military still needs to conduct at least five test launches before beginning operational production. The phase one tests launches were originally scheduled for the start of 2019 (RIA Novosti, December 17, 2018). Last year was also supposed to see the first Sarmat flight tests, but those never occurred. The number of planned launches was first reduced from three to one; and then all were postponed to 2022 (TASS, May 5, 2021, October 11, 2021, November 9, 2021, December 20, 2021).

Despite the lack of tests, the Sarmat’s entry into service is still announced for 2022. Yet those plans seem far too optimistic. To complete the tests, Russia will first need to build a new testing site. At the end of December 2020, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stated that a test range for flight trials of the Sarmat missile, near the village of Severo-Yeniseisky, in the Krasnoyarsk region, would be built in 2021 (, December 21, 2020); later reports conceded, however, that the completion of this launch site is expected only by the end of 2022 (Izvestia, February 5, 2021).

The Ministry of Defense also projected to begin state tests of the upgraded Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bomber (Tu-160M version) aircraft in 2021. In March, the first upgraded Tu-160 equipped with new NK-32-02 engines was handed over for preliminary tests (, March 10, 2021), with the second Tu-160M coming in September (, September 17, 2021). These deliveries, too, represented ongoing delays: in 2017, Alexander Konyukhov, the CEO of PJSC Tupolev, said that new (built from scratch) modified Tu-160 (Tu-160M2 version) bombers would start to enter service in 2021 (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, March 9, 2017). But to date, the defense ministry has yet to receive any new Tu-160s. The incomplete modernization of the dedicated Kazan plant has been hindering aviation production. And apparently, the facility has still not produced a number of needed components—they will be taken from other combat aircraft to complete the necessary test flights of the upgraded Tu-160s (Business Online, November 23).

According to initial government plans, the Prospective Air Complex for Long Range Aviation (PAK DA—code-named Poslannik), a next-generation stealthy strategic bomber currently under development, was supposed to make its maiden flight in 2021 (TASS, January 23, 2016 and May 26, 2020). However, since this Tupolev aircraft is produced at the same Kazan plant as the Tu-160, problems with the construction of the Blackjacks are being reproduced in the Poslannik. The expected assembly in 2021 was not completed, and, of course, the plane has still never flown. According to the to the last statement on the subject by the first deputy chairperson of the Board of the Military-Industrial Commission, Andrey Yelchaninov, work on the PAK DA is on schedule and fully funded for the entire duration of the state contract. Deliveries of this aircraft will apparently be provided for by the next armament program (i.e., 2024–2033) (Interfax, December 9).

Over the course of the past year, Russia’s Strategic Nuclear Aviation Forces were replenished with four upgraded Tu-95MS Bear strategic missile carriers, and efforts began on the deep modernization the Tu-95MSs (up to the Tu-95MSM version). On August 24, at the Army 2021 International Military-Technical Forum, the Ministry of Defense signed a contract with PJSC Tupolev to heavily modernize the fleet (, August 25). The number of aircraft to be upgraded was not revealed; but the entire remaining inventory of operational Tu-95MS Bears comprises around 55 aircraft.

In 2021, Minister Shoigu expected to receive two nuclear-powered Borei-A-class (Project 955A) submarines, Knyaz Oleg and Generalissimo Suvorov, armed with Bulava ballistic missiles (, December 21, 2020). Thanks to accelerated tests, on December 21, Knyaz Oleg was transferred to the Russian navy; but Generalissimo Suvorov has yet to even be launched. Shoigu declared that the submarine will enter service in 2022 (, December 21, 2021), yet a source in the defense industry suggested a more realistic date is 2023 (TASS, December 28, 2021).

Last year, after more delays, the navy was also supposed to accept the submarine Belgorod, which is designed to carry the Poseidon (a.k.a. Status-6) autonomous nuclear-tipped super-torpedo (TASS, December 24, 2020). State tests of the submarine were planned to be completed by the end of 2021 (TASS, October 1), but this did not happen. Due to the disruption of the test program, Belgorod still cannot be transferred to the navy. Nikolay Budnichenko, the CEO of Sevmash, declared in mid-December that the nuclear submarine will complete its state tests in 2022 (TASS, December 22, 2021).

At the same time, the first test-launch of the Poseidon “super weapon” was supposed to take place in the fall of 2020 (, May 26, 2020). Further information about the imminent launch appeared in February 2021 (, February 12, 2021). But that trial never happened. Another vessel designed to carry and launch the autonomous nuclear torpedo—the first submarine of the new Khabarovsk-class, which was supposed to be launched in the first half of 2021 (TASS, November 7, 2020)—also failed to materialize.

Plans penned two years ago called for the share of advanced weapons in the Russian nuclear triad to increase from 86 to 88.3 percent by the end of 2021 (, December 21, 2020); and according to official data, that share reached 89.1 percent by last December (, December 21, 2021). Yet this was largely because the Russian Armed Forces received new weapons based on technologies developed long ago. Taking into account last year’s restrictions, which negatively affected the implementation of nuclear weapons modernization, the current plan has had to not only fulfill the objectives for 2021 but also compensate for the shortcomings of the past. Meanwhile, Russia’s latest-generation nuclear weapons and delivery vehicle projects still remain unrealized. Existing problems with production and testing are, therefore, unlikely to allow for the full implementation of 2022 plans.