During the Cold War, the Soviet economy mainly supported the military. Despite, or perhaps because of, its current economic problems, Russia today continues to put a large share of its national resources into nuclear weapons programs, equating great power status with nuclear capability which may exceed that of the rest of the world combined. Indeed, in 2009, ITAR-TASS, the country’s main official news agency, stated that Russia probably had between 15,000 and 17,000 nuclear weapons. The decay of conventional forces in the decades after the dissolution of the Soviet Union made nuclear weapons more important to Russia’s leaders.
Declassified Soviet and former Warsaw Pact documents indicate that the Soviets planned to use nuclear weapons first in a general war against the West. Today, Russian military doctrine reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in a conventional war. “The Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and (or) its allies, as well as in response to large-scale aggression utilizing conventional weapons in situations critical to the national security of the Russian Federation and its allies.” This publicly stated policy, developed by President Vladimir Putin when he was Secretary of the Russian National Security Council in 2000, likely understates Russia’s thinking on the use of nuclear weapons.
The 2010 and 2014 public versions of this doctrine read, “when the very existence of the state is under threat.” At first glance, this would appear to be a good change but, unfortunately, this is apparently not the case. In 2009, Russia announced that its policy on “the use of nuclear weapons as an instrument of strategic deterrence” would be in the “closed part” of the new military doctrine. There is no reason to classify nuclear doctrine if it is the same as the public version. Also in 2009, Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Russian National Security Council, indicated that in the proposed new version of the nuclear doctrine, released in February 2010: “We have corrected the conditions for use of nuclear weapons to resist aggression with conventional forces not only in large-scale wars, but also in regional or even a local one.” (Emphasis in the original.) A month later he said that Russian nuclear doctrine did “not rule out a nuclear strike targeting a potential aggressor, including a preemptive strike, in situations critical to national security.”2
In December 2009, then-Commander of the Strategic Missile Troops Lieutenant General Andrey Shvaychenko declared, “In a conventional war, [nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)] ensure that the opponent is forced to cease hostilities, on advantageous conditions for Russia, by means of single or multiple preventive strikes against the aggressors’ most important facilities. In a nuclear war, they ensure the destruction of facilities of the opponent’s military and economic potential by means of an initial massive nuclear missile strike and subsequent multiple and single nuclear missile strikes.” General Shvaychenko’s statement is what Russia calls “de-escalation of a conflict.”
Starting in 1999, Russia began to simulate the first use of nuclear weapons in large theater war exercises. That same year, Defense Minister Marshal Igor Sergeyev stated, “Our Army was forced to launch nuclear strikes first, which enabled it to achieve a breakthrough in the theater situation.” For many years, the Russian press has reported that large strategic exercises ended in a massive nuclear strike. In an exercise conducted in 2010, Russia reportedly simulated hundreds of missile launches, and “throughout the world, the mushroom clouds rose skyward.” In March 2014, early in the Ukraine crisis, strategic missile troops conducted an exercise that reportedly involved a “massive” nuclear strike. That May, Russia held a large strategic nuclear exercise presided over by President Putin. It ended in what the Defense Ministry called a “massive” nuclear missile launch.
In February 2015, Ilya Kramnik, military correspondent for the news agency RIA Novosti, wrote that the 2010 revision of Russia’s military doctrine “further lowered” the threshold for combat use of nuclear weapons.
Russia is modernizing extensively its nuclear forces to be able to “de-escalate a conflict” using a small number of strikes and, if necessary, launch a massive nuclear strike. Ongoing force modernization includes over a dozen new types of strategic delivery vehicles, and new precision low-yield nuclear weapons.3 A now declassified CIA report from 2000 links Russian nuclear doctrine to its new nuclear weapons development. “Moscow’s military doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons has been evolving and probably has served as the justification for the development of very low-yield, high-precision nuclear weapons.” 4 Russian journalists, including those writing for official news agencies, report that Russia has deployed some nuclear weapons with yields in the 50-200 ton range on its Bulava and Sineva submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).5 Russia is also reportedly developing low-collateral damage weapons. According to Vice Admiral Robert Monroe, U.S. Navy (Retired) and former director of the Defense Nuclear Agency, “Russia has followed exactly the opposite course from the United States. It has focused on low-yield weapons research, design, testing, and production.”
In June 2015, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work and then-Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral James Winnefeld observed, “Russian military doctrine includes what some have called an ‘escalate to de-escalate’ strategy—a strategy that purportedly seeks to de-escalate a conventional conflict through coercive threats, including limited nuclear use.” Work and Winnefeld categorized this strategy as “playing with fire.”6
Until recently, there appears to have been little or no thinking in the United States about how to deter Russian limited nuclear strikes under the de-escalation concept. This seems to be changing. In September 2016, then-Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter stated, “Across the Atlantic, we’re refreshing NATO’s nuclear playbook to better integrate conventional and nuclear deterrence to ensure we plan and train like we’d fight and to deter Russia from thinking it can benefit from nuclear use in a conflict with NATO, from trying to escalate to de-escalate, as some there call it.”7 Secretary Carter gave no details, but this appears to be a step in the right direction.
Deterring precision low-yield nuclear strikes is critical because small nuclear attacks could escalate into a large-scale war. The United States must make an in-kind retaliatory response more credible and do so at minimum cost. There are options for this. The United Kingdom has a sub-strategic Trident SLBM capability in which missiles intended for this role have just a single warhead, probably with a lower yield. The U.S. Navy could acquire a similar capability at minimal cost as part of the warhead life extension programs now under way, giving the nation a survivable low-yield deterrent. A guidance package similar to that proposed for conventional Trident could give such warheads precision strike capability at an affordable cost.
On the manned aircraft side, the readiness level of U.S. and NATO aircraft in Europe that are capable of delivering both conventional and nuclear weapons (currently weeks or longer, according to NATO) could be increased by adjusting training priorities. The option of an earlier initial operating capability for the F-35’s nuclear capability should also be considered.
NATO should revive an in-kind strike capability to deter a Russian nuclear attack against naval surface ships and ground forces as cheaply as possible. A nuclear-capable cruise missile, based on an existing or developmental missile, should be able to fill this role at minimal cost. The need for this capability is underscored by Russian officials, generals, and diplomats making threats against our allies. For example, in March 2015, Russia’s Ambassador to Denmark Mikhail Vanin declared, “I don’t think the Danes fully understand the consequence if Denmark joins the American-led missile defense shield. If they do, then Danish warships will be targets for Russian nuclear missiles.”8
In October 2016, President Putin declared that “brandishing nuclear weapons is the last thing to do.” Good advice, but he does not take it. Ukrainian Minister of Defense Colonel General Valeriy Heletey stated in September 2014, “The Russian side has threatened on several occasions across unofficial channels that, in the case of continued resistance, they are ready to use a tactical nuclear weapon against us.” In November 2016, Putin made a classic nuclear threat: “We have to take countermeasures, targeting the facilities that we perceive as a threat with our missile systems.”9 The Russian Defense Ministry threatened turning Romania into “smoking ruins.” ICBM force commander Colonel General Sergei Karakayev threatened “an intense attack carried out by Russian strategic units” in December 2015 against missile defense sites in Romania and Poland. NATO’s January 2016 annual report revealed that “recent Russian exercises include simulated nuclear attacks on NATO Allies and on partners.”10
Until President Putin starts taking his own advice, the United States and NATO need to maximize their nuclear deterrent capability as inexpensively as possible, sending a message that Russia will never gain an advantage by trying to “escalate to de-escalate.” This will be an important task for the Trump administration.
Status-6: Propaganda Stunt or New Doomsday Weapon?
In November 2015, a leaked Kremlin briefing slide disclosed the existence of the “Maritime Multifunctional System Status-6,” a nuclear-armed, fast, drone submarine capable of operating at a depth of 1,000 meters and with a range of 10,000 kilometers. This “accidental leak” was widely reported in the Russian press. However, the leak was apparently intentional because the Kremlin confirmed the story.11
The intent, as Russian journalist Alexander Golts has observed, was apparently to “scare the world” with a nuclear threat—now a standard mode of operation for the Putin presidency. Status-6 is an example of nuclear saber rattling that may be a way for Putin to devalue or undermine NATO’s missile defenses and efforts to secure its eastern member states.
Russian journalist Pavel Felgenhuaer warned that Status-6 “may further embolden the Kremlin to push for a new world order of its liking by intimidating the United States and its allies.”
The leaked Kremlin briefing slide stated the weapon was aimed at, “damaging the important components of the adversary’s economy in a coastal area and inflicting unacceptable damage to a country’s territory by creating areas of wide radioactive contamination...” Russian press reports say that the yield of Status-6 is 100 megatons12—a figure that is likely highly exaggerated. The government-operated daily newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta reports that to achieve “extensive radioactive contamination” the weapon “could envisage using the so-called cobalt bomb, a nuclear weapon designed to produce enhanced amounts of radioactive fallout compared to a regular atomic warhead.” Submarines—Project 09852 (a special purpose submarine based on the Oscar II class) or Project 09851 (the new Khabarovsk design)—could possibly carry up to six Status-6 drone submarines, according to several sources.
Why are the Russians developing such a weapon? The cost of nuclear-powered drone submarines must be high. Many Russian submarines and surface ships can carry nuclear-armed cruise missiles. In 2005, a Russian Defense Ministry publication stated, “The main strike force of the Navy consists of nuclear-powered submarines, armed with ballistic and cruise missiles with nuclear warheads.” In December 2015, President Putin revealed that the new Kalibr ship-launched cruise missile, which is being widely deployed and used in Syria, could carry “special nuclear warheads.” Deploying more of them would be cheaper than developing and producing Status-6. Moreover, ship-launched cruise missiles are not limited by the New START Treaty. Some question whether the Kremlin’s leak of the Status-6 project was just a propaganda stunt or a psychological operations trick. Trick or not, it is further demonstration that Russia constantly is entertaining new concepts of nuclear war and nuclear weapons that should be a major concern for the West.
2. “Russia to Broaden Nuclear Strike Options,” RT, 14 October 2009, http://rt.com/news/russia-broaden-nuclear-strike/.
3. Dr. Jacob W. Kipp, “Russia’s Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons,” Military Review, (May-June 2001), http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/documents/russias_nukes/russias_nukes.htm.
4. “Evidence of Russian Development of New Subkiloton Nuclear Warheads [Redacted],” Intelligence Memorandum, Central Intelligence Agency, 30 August 2000, approved for release October 2005, p. 6, www.foia.cia.gov/sites/default/files/document_conversions/89801/DOC_0001260463.pdf.
5. Ilya Kramnik, “Nevsky and Novomoskovsk: Two Submarines for Putin,” Sputnik News, 12 December 2010, http://sputniknews.com/analysis/20101215/161784522.html: Andrey Kislyakov, “Does Russia Need a ‘Wet’ Missile and One More Tank?,” Ria Novosti, 19 January 2008. “Russian Pundit Litovkin Argues Case of Bulava,” Ekho Moskvy Radio, 17 July 2009.
6. Robert Work and James Winnefeld, Testimony before the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives, 25 June 25 2015, p. 4, www.docs.house.gov/meetings/AS/AS00/20150625/103669/ HHRG-114-AS00-Wstate-WorkR-20150625.pdf.
7. “Remarks by Secretary Carter to Troops at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota,” 26 September 2016, www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/957408/remarks-by-secretary-carter-to-troops-at-kirtland-afb-new-mexico.
8. Julian Isherwood, “Russia Warns Denmark its Warships Could Become Nuclear Targets,” London Telegraph.com, 21 March 2015, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/denmark/11487509/Russia-warns-Denmark-its-warships-.
9. Vladimir Isachenkov, “Russia Rejects Western Criticism of Baltic Missile Buildup, AP English Language News, 22 November 2016, abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/nato-criticizes-russian-missiles-poland-lithuania-43714034.
10. The Secretary General’s Annual Report 2015, (Brussels: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, January 2016), p. 18, www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2016_01/20160128_SG_AnnualReport_2015_en.pdf
11. “Text of Russian TV reports featuring classified weapon system Status-6,” BBC Monitoring Former Soviet Union, November 2015, http://dialog.proquest.com/professional/docview/1732769739?accountid=155509.
12. “Status-6 and Nuclear Strategy Beyond the Tripod,” Geopolicraticus.wordpress.com, 12 November 2015, available at http://geopolicraticus.wordpress.com/2015/11/12/status-6-and-nuclear-strategy-beyond-the-tripod/. Patrick Knox, “Russian Nuclear War Plan Leaked: News Report Fails to Blur Out Top Secret Document,” London Daily Star, 11 November 2015, available at www.dailystar.co.uk/news/latest-news/475022/Nuclear-weapons-document-leaked.