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Part I: Strategic Rocket Forces

Strategic Rocket Forces and the Rest of the Nuclear Triad 

In the pantheon of Russian spending priorities, Strategic Rocket Forces come first. R&D funds are focused on creating advanced ballistic missile systems that can be fired from both stationary and mobile launch platforms, developing combat equipment for defeating missile defenses, and modernizing command and control. Though Russian capabilities in the nuclear domain may seem irrelevant to the practice of hybrid warfare, keep in mind that military theorists like American General Matthew Ridgeway postulated that it is specifically because great powers cannot risk a large conventional war escalating into a nuclear exchange that small-scale conflicts and proxy wars have become so common in great power competition. The mobile rail-based RS-24 Yars (or Topol MR) is being deployed to replace the Soviet-era R-36 and UR-100N ICBMs. It is a multiple independent reentry vehicle (MIRV) equipped, thermonuclear armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The much-publicized RS-28 Sarmat is a MIRV equipped, thermonuclear armed ICBM. The Sarmat is designed to accommodate an optional Avangard YU-71 hypersonic boost-glide vehicle. 

The Avangard boost-glide vehicle is a hypersonic glide vehicle equipped with a warhead that is released from an ICBM. Once boosted to its suborbital apogee of about 100km, the glide vehicle separates from the ICBM, and then glides at over Mach 20 towards targets ranging up to 6,000km away. The Sarmat and Avangard are designed to defeat any and all NATO missile defense systems.  These weapons systems will ensure Russian strategic deterrence for at least another generation. The Avangard boost-glide vehicle was supposed to enter service in 2019, but development and production delays pushed the delivery date to January 2020. 

Two Avangard boost-glide equipped UR-100N ICBMs have already been deployed with the 13th Red Banner Rocket Division at Yasny, Orenburg Oblast. Many experts believe widespread procurement of the Avangard boost-glide warhead is unlikely due to the expense and difficulty of producing such a technically complex system for the Russian Military Industrial Complex. The Sarmat ICBM itself went into production in 2020 and is projected to be deployed in sometime 2021.   The Bulava submersible-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) had been in development for some time prior to GPV 2020. Russia’s single remaining Typhoon class submarine, designed for a complement of R-39 SLBMs, was retrofitted for the Bulava SLBM (the R-39 SLBM was decommissioned) as a platform for test launches. Following testing, the Bulava was put into production for the Russian Navy’s new Borei-class ballistic missile submarine. There are currently 3 Boreis in active service, 1 awaiting commission, and 4 under construction. All either currently carry or are slated to carry the Bulava. 

The Russian Navy will continue to field its Delta IV-class ballistic missile submarines, armed with older R-29 SLBMs, alongside the Borei-class. The few remaining Delta III-class submarines are being phased out as the new Borei-class takes to sea.  Russia is also exploring new methods of deploying nuclear ordinance through advanced submarines, most likely to counter American advances in anti-ballistic missile defense systems like the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. The Poseidon is an autonomous, nuclear-tipped, nuclear-powered torpedo that is designed to be deployed from nuclear submarines. It is capable of traveling at high-speed (over 100 knots) underwater through the world’s oceans until it reaches a carrier battle group or coastal city target (presumably of the United States). The Poseidon torpedo is approximately 2m in width and 24m in length, and has a maximum operating depth of 1,000m. The Poseidon is estimated to be capable of delivering a 100 megaton nuclear warhead to targets from a range of 10,000km (or 5,400 nmi).  To carry and deploy the Poseidon torpedo, the Russian Navy is also developing the Khabarovsk-class submarine, a scaled down, highly automated variant of the massive Borei-class ballistic missile submarine. The Khabarovsk was laid down in 2014, was launched in the fall of 2021, and is expected to complete sea trials by 2023. The second ship of the class, the Ulyanovsk, was laid down in 2017, and is expected to launch in 2027. 

Both ships will be sent to join the Northern Fleet.  The Russian Navy has also invested heavily in developing the Belgorod, an advanced Antey-class (NATO designated Oscar-class) submarine that is also armed with the Poseidon torpedo. The Belgorod was first laid down in 1992, and after a long and tumultuous construction, was put to sea in 2019. Her crew is now fully trained and the vessel is undergoing sea trials before formal commissioning. In addition to its contribution to Russian nuclear deterrence, the Belgorod is also tasked with “special missions” that include dominating the Arctic Ocean continental shelf, deploying Russian maritime SOF units, and intelligence collection: possibly from tapping undersea telecommunications cables and deploying networks of undersea sonar listening stations. The cruise missile compartment typical on other Oscar-class submarines has also been replaced with a launching station of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) and mini-submarines (most likely to support the deployment of maritime SOF units).  The air component of the Russian nuclear triad will continue to rely on the Tupolev Tu-95MS and the Tu-160M2 strategic bombers. The Tu-160M2 is the backbone of the Russian strategic bomber fleet, and in 2015 the decision was made to modernize active versions with new avionics and targeting systems and to restart production. An advanced strategic bomber program designated the PAK DA is on hold. The strategic bomber fleet will complement new long-range cruise missiles including the Kh-102 Raduga. Russia has prioritized development of long-range standoff weapons such as the Kh-102 (range 4,500-5,000 km), not just for nuclear payloads, but also to enable “non-contact warfare” in conventional military engagements. The Kh-47M2 hypersonic cruise missile was unveiled in March 2018 and development will continue via GPV 2027.