How many nuclear weapons does Russia need?

This is the question posed by Ilya Kramnik in a recent article on the Voice of Russia radio website. Kramnik argues that Russia’s nuclear posture has been based on the notion of matching the United States, something that is patently impossible given that Russia’s GDP and yearly government budget are tens of times smaller than those of the US.

To this end, Russia has announced a plan for the rapid construction of a total of eight Borei class SSBNs by 2018, with one new submarine to be commissioned every year starting in 2013. While Kramnik argues (correctly, IMO) that this plan is somewhat overoptimistic, he believes that all eight will be completed by 2020 or 2021. But the fact that these submarines can be built (while new ICBMs are being built concurrently) does not negate the question of what is the opportunity cost of spending a huge percentage of this decade’s military procurement budget on new nuclear weapons that are unlikely to ever need to be used.

He argues instead that Russia’s posture should be based on having enough nuclear weapons to deliver a counterstrike that would inflict unacceptable damage on the enemy. This would allow for the Russian nuclear stockpile to drop from the current goal of 1550 warheads on 700 delivery platforms  (i.e. the limits set by the New START treaty) to 900-1200 warheads on 300-400 delivery platforms.

Kramnik notes that Russia’s defense industry is perfectly capable of maintaining the current posture. But limitations on the overall size of the defense procurement budget mean that this level of procurement of strategic nuclear forces can only be accomplished by neglecting the modernization of Russia’s conventional armed forces. And these are the forces that are desperately in need of new equipment in order to be able to successfully carry out missions in the regional and local conflicts that pose a much more likely short-term threat to Russia than the possibility of nuclear war with the United States.

This includes major platforms and systems such as multipurpose nuclear and diesel submarines, fighter aircraft, surface ships, air defense systems, tanks, and artillery. But it also includes more basic needs, such as modern precision-guided munitions, personal combat and communications equipment, etc. Kramnik points out that until such weapons are equipment can be procured in needed quantities, Russia’s position in the world will continue to weaken while its soldiers sustain a higher rate of casualties. And, he argues, this will all be done in the name of maintaining nuclear parity with the United States.

Needless to say, I find this to be a very prudent and realistic assessment of misplaced Russian military procurement priorities. I’m encouraged that Russian commentators are increasingly focusing on this imbalance, rather than supporting the MOD’s drive to maintain nuclear parity out of some sort of continuing sense of desire to maintain great power status. I wonder how Russian planners will change their force posture once the potentially quite significant cuts in US defense spending come into effect over the next couple of years.