The information below comes from a report compiled in December 2013. Some of the numbers have changed since then, but the other information remains largely accurate, with only some updated information needing added about the Borei and Bulava missile saga (which will appear in a future post). If you would like to contribute to the ongoing project to compile a more accurate estimate, please see our Projects Page.
The Russian stockpile is exceedingly more complex than the American stockpile. It is also less transparent. The Russian non-strategic arsenal is also significantly larger, though estimates on it vary widely. The Russians do not provide aggregate numbers of their arsenal, and the United States does not release information about it other than as provided as part of New START, which does not count physical warheads. Russian modernization programs are also more opaque than the United States’ programs. Therefore, the chart below shows a lower confidence estimate of Russian stockpiles than the U.S. estimates in our other post.
As mentioned, the Russians view nuclear weapons with greater utility than the United States. In addition to a variety of tactical weapons, they deploy defensive weapons, which the United States abandoned in the 1970s. These include missile, air, and coastal defense weapons. The Russians also possess a number of nuclear and nuclear capable, ground based short-range missiles, tactical air dropped bombs, and naval weapons including torpedoes (Sutyagin 2012).
The Russians have invested in upgrading their delivery systems through redesign and replacement rather than modernization and upgrade. This is another key divergence from the United States and reflects the different role played by nuclear weapons in Russian military and strategic thinking.
The Russian nuclear arsenal was generally newer at the end of the Cold War, benefiting from development programs in the Soviet Union that peaked in the mid to late 1980s. This was largely in response to the American build-up of the 1970s and early 1980s. In addition to contributing to Soviet economic collapse, these systems meant that for much of the 1990s the Russian arsenal was newer than that of the United States. The Russians also continued to look to modernize their arsenal during the 1990s, though not without significant difficulty (Podvig 2001; Blank 2011).
The Russians generally announce ambitious new projects that they then struggle to fulfill. Cost overruns and technical issues typically delay the fielding of new systems well beyond originally forecast dates. The Topol program suffers serious production issues. Then there is the ongoing saga of the new Russian Borei class submarines and the Bulava missile system. The Bulava has suffered a high failure rate in testing and has yet to go operational. Borei submarines continue to undergo design changes and delayed production. The Russian Navy currently faces the prospect of deploying its new missile boats with no associated missiles (Blank 2011).
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