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Modernization of Nuclear Weapons: How it Influences Strategic Stability

October 27, 2022

Vladimir Leontiev

Modernization of nuclear arsenals is inevitable. Does this mean that strategic stability status quo is endangered by technological advancement of existing arsenals? It depends both on the understanding of strategic stability and strategies of modernizing weapons. The analysis of Russian and US examples of nuclear modernization is presented in a memo by Vladimir Leontiev, Deputy Head of the Non-Proliferation and Arms Control Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry. 

What is strategic stability? 

It is important to understand what we mean by “strategic stability.” Is that a traditional notion related to capability to inflict unacceptable damage in retaliatory second strike or something more general? Russia favors a broader vision which includes both military and political aspects of stability and emphasizes deliberate restraint and avoiding of actions that could be perceived by others as menacing, leading to reactions intended to restore the balance that was compromised. Full definition may be found in Statement on Strengthening Global Strategic Stability which was signed in June 25, 2016 by President Vladimir Putin and China’s Chairman Xi Jinping.

What does modernization of nuclear weapons include?

It is common knowledge that any development in arsenals modernization may have an impact on strategic stability status quo ranging from irrelevant to critical. This is to say that any nuclear weapons modernization is potentially sensitive. However, it is necessary to understand that the term “modernization” covers a broad range of activities, including the following ones:

  • Improving of an existing weapon,
  • Upgrading of an existing weapon (with or without enhancing its potential),
  • Introducing new variants of an existing weapon,
  • Introducing new types and kinds of weapons,
  • Upgrades and improvements concerning communications, intelligence, targeting, command and control systems, basing facilities, platforms, etc. 

Nuclear weapons are also affected by developments in adjacent areas such as missile defense, antiaircraft and antisubmarine warfare, long-range precision-guided weaponry and so on, which is an important aspect of modernization issue that should not be overlooked.

Can modernization be legal? 

The idea of modernization is widely present in the New START Treaty. Article V says that subject to the provisions of this Treaty, modernization and replacement of strategic offensive arms may be carried out. It also stipulates that when a Party believes that a new kind of strategic offensive arm is emerging, that Party shall have the right to raise the question of such a strategic offensive arm for consideration. 

The Treaty gives definitions of “new type” and “variant” of strategic offensive arms and describes proceedings for their insertion into the framework of the Treaty. They include notifications, exhibitions, data exchanges and inspections. Consequently, modernization carried out under the Treaty is orderly and transparent. The Parties receive all relevant information on new or modernized strategic offensive arms, their numbers, locations, outlook, technical characteristics, payload capacities, etc. Under such circumstances, modernization of nuclear weapons and their delivery means can hardly affect strategic stability in a negative way. 

Surely, New START is not a treaty on general and complete disarmament, it was never intended to be comprehensive and fully exhaustive, and quite a large number of issues remain outside of its scope. Still, it covers the most widespread assets that shape the backbone of today’s nuclear arsenals and determines basic parameters of international security and stability. That is why the Treaty’s underlying principles may be considered as universal standards that could be usefully applicable to other areas of arms control

Speaking of treaties, there is one more point to consider. It is well-known that Russia is modernizing its strategic nuclear forces. Over last five years an important effort was made to maintain high level of their preparedness and to improve their systems of command and control. Strategic Missile Forces have received 80 + ICBMs. 12 regiments were rearmed with new generation “Yars” missiles. The part of modern assets in Strategic Missile Forces has reached 66%, while their capacities to overcome adversary missile defenses have increased by 30%. Development of new prospective missiles, including a “heavy” one, is under way. Their characteristics would allow them to carry more efficient payloads and to use better missile defense penetrators. The Navy is receiving new generation platforms such as “Borey” submarines armed with strategic SLBMs. Consequently, modern submarines now make 82% of general number. 102 SLBMs were supplied to arm them. Submarines became more silent and more survivable, while their fighting capacity grew up by 25%. Five “Borey-A” submarines are being constructed. Strategic air forces are also being modernized. Tu-160M and Tu-95MC heavy bombers receive more powerful engines and improved avionics. They are also equipped for carrying more efficient ALCMs.   

This modernization was largely overdue, for certain assets were becoming really obsolete, while life-extension solutions have their limits. Russia is also obliged to take into account general evolution of its strategic environment that is anything but encouraging. Nevertheless, while modernizing, Russia strictly complies with its international obligations. By February 5, 2018 Russia fulfilled all requirements stipulated in Article II of the New START Treaty and will abide to them as long as the Treaty remains in force, that is till February 5, 2021 with possibility of a five-year extension. So, it is probable that most of the Russian modernization program will be carried out within the Treaty framework.

Why some modernization activities may become matters of concern? 

For the United States, strategic offensive arms modernization is also looming, but it is not synchronized with the Treaty life-span. The horizon is around late 20-ies and 30-ies. From the strategic point of view, this is a completely unchartered ground with no legal rules or institutional frameworks. It is difficult to forecast how the world will look like by then and what U.S. nuclear capacities Russia may have to face. It might be appropriate to start thinking about it in advance while there is still time to do it in a calm and candid manner. 

For instance, modernization of U.S. B-61 gravity nuclear bomb is currently under way. According to the information that is available, its modernization will lead to a radical change of the weapon’s characteristics. Variable yield may be reduced to as low as 0,3 kt; the bomb will become precision-guided, and its head cone will be modified to allow deep penetration into soil. Naturally, such changes will draw the attention of many experts familiar with European nuclear strategy issues, including NATO “nuclear sharing.” This practice is rather destabilizing by itself, but coupled with such modernization, things will turn much worse.

Modernized bombs will acquire certain capabilities they did not have before, meaning they are not intended to “impress” somebody or to strengthen “political linkage” across the Atlantic. On the contrary, modernization clearly shapes them for better practical use under certain scenarios that may and should raise concerns. A senior American official gave a hint to what it is about by publicly declaring that the purpose of these assets is to knock out Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons in case of a military conflict in Europe. This largely explains technical changes that B-61s are undergoing, for they will have to hit small mobile targets and hardened underground facilities located in relatively densely populated areas that are typical for the European theater of operations. Now, Russia’s Military Doctrine stipulates that its nuclear forces may be engaged only in two exceptional cases. One is countering overall attack involving WMDs. Another is a large-scale aggression against Russia that cannot be contained and repelled with conventional means, and when the very existence of our country is at stake. And that is when modernized B-61s and next generation dual-capable aircraft that deliver them enter the stage to make this impossible. It is clear that in this case modernization of nuclear weapons may carry a very serious blow to strategic stability.

How to make modernization transparent?

There is no doubt modernization of nuclear arsenals is inevitable. Nuclear weapons may use state of art technologies, but they are not pieces of art that should remain unchanged as long as they exist. In many cases modernization is just a matter of enhancing safety and security or is intended to facilitate production and maintenance. But there are also different situations that may become a matter of serious concern. To avoid complications, they should go together with a strong and frank political dialogue on international security and stability issues, which is instrumental for clarifying each nation’s worries, activities and goals. That is why Russia welcomes the resumption of discussions on strategic stability with the United States. We are looking forward to these discussions.