The United States has not modernized or upgraded its nuclear forces for roughly 30 years, except for building 21 B2 bombers shortly after the end of Cold War, when the plane’s production was cancelled. And it will be another decade at the earliest when the United States begins to build the planned new nuclear deterrent force.
By contrast, the Russians are undertaking a massive modernization of their nuclear weapons that will be completed in 2022. According to for Defense Department nuclear expert analyst Mark Schneider “The Russians have a program to deploy right now the SS-27 [land-based] missile Mod 2. Each missile carries at least four nuclear warheads.”
Schneider further notes, the Russians are “deploying a new ballistic missile submarine called the Boray-class, or the 955. It’s carrying a new ballistic missile called the Bulova-30… a six-warhead missile.”
Are the Russians also designing new nuclear systems for regional war-fighting? Schneider believes they are, explaining: “They have two nuclear-capable stealthy cruise missiles. The KH-102 has a 5,000 kilometer range and is stealthy. The other one is the KH-101, which is nuclear-capable.”
Interestingly, says Schneider, “Here we have a weapon that has just been used in Syria with the conventional version. The KH-101 could [also] be used for precision low-yield nuclear attacks.. Russia is also modernizing the existing bomber force with the new cruise missiles and a variety of upgrades of weapons capabilities on the Blackjack, or TU-160 bomber. The Russians in 2015 announced a program to build 50 more improved versions of the TU-160.”
As for ICBMs, the Russians are developing, says Schneider “with an intended deployment date between 2018 and 2020, a new heavy ICBM called the Sarmat. It will carry 10 heavy or 15 medium nuclear warheads. That would make it the most destructive ICBM or missile of any time in the world.”
Schneider says the Russians are also “building a fifth generation ballistic and cruise missile submarine…to be [deployed] around by 2020. They are developing a new stealthy heavy bomber. It carries both nuclear cruise missiles and now reportedly hypersonic missiles.”
In the face of such modernization, former Secretary of Defense William Perry argues in the New York Times that if the United States simply slows down and eliminates key parts of its own nuclear modernization program, the Russians will feel compelled to slow down or stop their own systems.
But as former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown warned us many years ago about the Soviet Union, “When we build, they build; when we don’t build, they build.” Given the very extensive Russian modernization program outlined above, what would the Russians actually stop building in return for American unilateral restraint? Wouldn’t it be more likely that Moscow would ignore the US restraint and continue to build as well?
Since the end of the Cold War, for over two decades now, the United States has gone on what one top USAF general characterized as a nuclear “procurement holiday” where we simply delayed or stopped any nuclear modernization effort for our submarines, land based missiles, bombers, warheads and command and control systems.
That is why our newest nuclear armed submarine is 20 years old; our nuclear land based missiles are 46 years old; our newest nuclear capable B2 bomber is approaching 20 years old (but is based on 1970’s stealth technologies) even as our venerable nuclear armed B-52’s are now approaching their fifth decade of deployment.
Even as the United States has slowed, delayed and otherwise not moved forward, the Russians, despite their economic troubles, have put together defense budgets that according to the Swedish Defence Research Agency will now allocate 1 trillion rubles to nuclear modernization.
Even during the Cold War and the age of détente, US restraint didn’t affect change in Russian behavior. In the 1970’s, the US delayed the current Ohio class submarine by seven years; repeatedly stopped funding for the B-1 bomber; and failed for a decade to agree on a deployment option for our new MX land based missile. By contrast, the Soviet Union expanded its nuclear and conventional military arsenal.
Said America’s top military leader, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a 1979 report to the President, “Regrettably, the record shows that we have tended to underestimate Soviet forces and programs…while hoping for reciprocity for US weapons restraint…that ominous future …[of] slowing gathering clouds…has been getting steadily nearer.” General David Jones continued, “Soviet power for more than a decade has assumed an increasingly ominous character. Its most worrisome feature from my viewpoint is the steady, relentless, concentration on building offensive military power.”
Although the United States had undergone “a decade of slips, reductions and cancellations” that “retarded US modernization appreciably,” the Soviet reaction was one of a continued major military build-up.