How Many Types Of Nuclear Weapons Does Russia Have? – Explainer

World leaders are on edge as they consider the possibility of a nuclear exchange between Russia and Ukraine in light of recent warnings from Russian President Vladimir Putin. This past weekend, an Israeli intelligence agency called ImageSat International (ISI) claimed to have spotted a “irregular presence” of Russian TU-160 and TU-95 strategic bombers stationed at the Olenya Airbase in Finland.

The satellite photographs showed that on August 21 four TU-160s and on September 25 three TU-95s were flying about. These planes can both transport nuclear bombs.

How Many Types Of Nuclear Weapons Does Russia Have? - Explainer
How Many Types Of Nuclear Weapons Does Russia Have? – Explainer

“The TU-160 is a multi-mission strategic bomber built for operations ranging from subsonic speeds and low altitudes to speeds over Mach 1 at high altitudes,” reads an essay released by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). Strategic cruise missiles, short-range guided missiles, nuclear and conventional bombs, and mines are just some of the cargoes that can be stored in the ship’s two armament bays.

However, Russia possesses tactical nuclear weapons, and pro-Moscow voices have indicated that Russia may deploy them. It has been stated by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov that Russia could use a low-yield or tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine.

Can we get an estimate of Russia’s nuclear arsenal?
In 2022, the FAS estimated that Russia possessed 5,977 nuclear weapons. Russia has 1,588, with the rest in reserve or retired. That translates to 1,500 active nuclear weapons and 2,889 “retired” weapons being available to Russia.

Russia’s arsenal has decreased dramatically since the 1980s, when it was estimated at around 40,000 weapons. The arsenal has decreased even further after the year 2000, having gone from roughly 10,000 of these world-destroying missiles to just over half that amount.
On the eve of the conflict in Ukraine, we can get a glimpse of Russia’s nuclear arsenal thanks to the most recent analysis, which was completed by FAS in February.

In what capacity does Russia’s nuclear force operate?
Russia’s arsenal of nuclear-armed land-based ballistic missiles numbers 812. There are a total of 512 of these missiles, and they may all be launched from submerged submarines. The bases for heavy bombers are rumored to house an extra 200 missiles. Russia has 1,912 additional nuclear weapons that are not strategic and 977 strategic warheads in storage.

How Many Types Of Nuclear Weapons Does Russia Have? - Explainer
How Many Types Of Nuclear Weapons Does Russia Have? – Explainer

Can you give me an idea of how potent Russia’s nuclear weapons are?
Smaller bombs typically have a yield of one kiloton, or 1,000 tons of TNT.

Larger weapons will have yields of above 100 kilotons, with strategic weapons capable of yielding up to 1,000 kilotons. After being dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, the bomb had a yield of 15 kilotons. The Tsar Bomba was the largest nuclear weapon ever tested, with an estimated yield of 50 megatons (or 50 million tons of TNT) when detonated in 1961.

How can we know what type of nuclear weapon systems Russia employs?
The SS-18 (or “Satan”) is a huge Russian missile system, weighing in at 191,000 kg. It can carry a large number of missiles thanks to its numerous reentry vehicles, each of which can be individually targeted.

Depending on the model, its two stages of liquid propellant allow it to travel up to 16,000 kilometers. In contrast to their ancestors, modern missiles can be equipped with either a single massive warhead or a number of smaller ones. These missiles will eventually be replaced by the SS-X-30, popularly known as the Sarmat.

The Sarmat, also known as the RS-28, is one of Putin’s six preferred strategic weapons for Russia. One of its features is a multiple reentry vehicle (MIRV) that can transport several different types of bombs.

The SS-27 is another system that has been in use since 1997 and was first used in 2010. The ICBM, which uses a solid fuel rocket motor, has a range of 11,000 kilometers and can carry a warhead weighing up to 1,200 kilograms. Initially, the missile was housed in SS-19 silos, where it remained for a decade until being transferred to larger trucks that can serve as mobile carriers. Russia planned on producing 350 of these missiles, but then switched to developing the SS-24.

Following the adoption of New START, Russia has 15 road-mobile and 50 silo-based Topol-Ms, as stated on the Missile Threat website. A 2013 US study estimated there could be 80 active missiles.

Submarine ballistic missiles
Among Russia’s nuclear-capable submarine missiles are the venerable SS-N-23 Skiff and the cutting-edge R-29RMU2 Sineva. These missiles had a maximum range of 8,300 kilometers and could initially carry a 2,800-kilogram warhead or up to four separate warheads. The missile has a maximum breadth of 1.9 meters, measures 14.9 meters in length, and employs a three-stage liquid propellant engine, as stated by Missile Threats.

How Many Types Of Nuclear Weapons Does Russia Have? - Explainer
How Many Types Of Nuclear Weapons Does Russia Have? – Explainer 

This still image, obtained from handout film released on September 16, 2022, is purported to be of a Russian nuclear-powered submarine sailing during military drills Umka-2022 in the Chukchi Sea. photo: (handout via Reuter) Russian Defense Ministry
This still image, obtained from handout film released on September 16, 2022, is purported to be of a Russian nuclear-powered submarine sailing during military drills Umka-2022 in the Chukchi Sea. (photo courtesy of Russian Defense Ministry/Handout via Reuter)
Article courtesy of The Jerusalem Post
Prototypes of these were created in 1973 and put through their paces in the 1980s. Russia had over a hundred of these missiles at one point and developed a program dubbed “Sineva” to keep them in service for longer. It’s been said that Russia has dozens of them.

Floating nuclear weapons
Russia’s TU-95 Bear intercontinental bomber first flew in the 1950s but has had numerous upgrades since then.

Air-launched cruise missiles with nuclear warheads, the Kh-55 has been in Russian service since 1984, claims the Global Security website. The nuclear warhead on this missile is 200 kilotons in size. The AGM-86 ALCM cruise missile is the American equivalent of the Soviet Kh-55. Strategic bombers like the TU-95 MS and TU-160 are equipped with Kh-55 cruise missiles. X-55 missiles are stored on a catapult-type launching drum installation in the bomb compartment of each TU-95MS bomber, giving each plane the ability to carry up to six missiles. The Bear may carry additional Kh-55s externally in addition to those carried by the internal rotary launcher, albeit only in an overload flying situation.

The Tupolev TU-160, Russia’s newest and most advanced nuclear bomber, has been in service since the late 1980s and can carry the Kh-15 short-range nuclear missile. Strategic bombers TU-95 and TU-160 were reportedly created in the USSR in the early 1950s and early 1980s, respectively, as stated on the Ukrainian website NV. These aircraft are among the largest and most powerful in the world. They are capable of transporting nuclear bombs, among other things.

NV claims that the Tu-160 can carry a maximum takeoff weight of 275 tons and a maximum combat payload of 45 tons. Bomber can reach altitudes of up to 16 kilometers, reach speeds of up to 2,230 kilometers per hour, and cover distances of up to 14,000 kilometers before needing to refuel.

Russia might also employ smaller nuclear warheads for tactical purposes. These weapons would have a shorter range and a lower blast power, perhaps only a few kilotons.

Nuclear missiles launched from the ground
The SSC-8 is a ground-launched cruise missile that Russia possesses (GLCM). The United States “advised its NATO partners in January 2014 of a Russian missile that breached the range and launcher limits of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty,” as stated on the Missile Threat website.

U.S. officials concluded that Russia had broken the INF Treaty by “possessing, producing, or flight-testing a GLCM with range capabilities of 500 to 5,500 km., or by possessing or producing launchers of such missiles” in their official compliance report from July 2014. Although the SSC-8 wasn’t specifically named in the study, it is now widely accepted that this is the missile in question.

At a news event hosted by the Russian defense and foreign ministries on January 23, 2019, components of the SSC-8/9M729 cruise missile system were on exhibit. (photo by: MAXIM SHEMETOV/REUTERS)
At a press conference held by the Russian defense and foreign ministries on January 23, 2019, in Patriot Expocentre outside of Moscow, Russia, components of the SSC-8/9M729 cruise missile system were on exhibit. (Photo by: REUTERS/MAXIM SHEMETOV)
Article courtesy of The Jerusalem Post
It is estimated that Russia has 20 of them. “This figure implies five SSC-8 battalions, each with four launchers, for a total of 80 missiles,” reads the FAS study that refers to a publication by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. At least 160 missiles are believed to have one reload available. Four to five nuclear warheads each battalion, for a total of roughly 20,” is the estimated number of nuclear weapons in a battalion.

This might render Russia’s nuclear arsenal obsolete.
Former British army officer and former commander of the UK and NATO Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) Forces, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, has tackled the problem of Russia’s nuclear capabilities in an article for CNN. Responding to a question concerning Russia’s tactical nukes, he stated, “I think and have on good information that the vehicles they are mounted on are in poor condition.” This was in reference to the missiles themselves, not the warheads. A reasonable assumption, given the condition of the remainder of the Russian Army’s equipment on display in Ukraine.

He said, “I think Putin’s tactical nuclear weapons are useless.” They can start their engines all they want, but American and NATO spies will be on them the second they start moving.

This suggests that the Chechen leader may have been exaggerating the strength of Russia’s tactical nuclear option.

A low-yield nuclear weapon used on the battlefield, aside from killing troops in the immediate vicinity, would still contaminate a broad area and expose large numbers of civilians in densely populated Ukraine and neighboring countries to radiation risks,” an ABC News article stated. Western officials believe Putin is trying to deter the West. As a matter of fact, Russia and its partner Belarus would be at most risk of contamination due to wind patterns.

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