Does the United States still need to deploy thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert? Governor George W. Bush reflected the consensus view of experts across the political spectrum when he announced his plan last week to cut the nuclear arsenal and remove weapons from high alert status.

He is on safe grounds. Whether by treaty or unilateral action, President Bill Clinton could agree this week to dramatically nuclear cuts for one simple reason: Russia's forces are heading south, big time. Economic and physical limitations will reduce Russia's strategic nuclear weapons from thousands to hundreds over the next ten years.

The Numbers Game
The START II treaty limits each side to 3000-3500 deployed strategic warheads. In 1997, Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin agreed that the next treaty's limits should be 2000-2500 warheads. Russia has now offered to reduce to 1000-1500 instead. Why? Because absent a sudden and costly military buildup, that is the likely future of Russia's strategic nuclear forces.

In 1985, the Soviet Union deployed 10,0000 strategic nuclear weapons. Today, Russia has fewer than 6,000. By 2010, it will likely have just over 1,000. Russia's future nuclear arsenal depends primarily on two factors: the production rate of its new missile, the SS-27 Topol-M, and the attrition rate for its submarine and bomber fleets.

Land-based missiles
Russian Intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, have finite operational lifetimes that rarely exceed 20 years. Without proper maintenance a missile's lifetime may be as little as 10 years. Although sub-systems like batteries and gas reservoirs are relatively easy to repair, major components like rocket engines are simply too difficult and costly to replace. Compounding Russia's maintenance problems, key Ukrainian manufacturing plants have closed. Since the last Soviet-era ICBM was deployed in 1991, few if any of these older models will be operational by 2010.

Ten years from now, the SS-27 will likely be the only deployed ICBM in the Russian arsenal. Russian leaders originally planned on producing 30-40 of these missiles annually. But only 20 have been deployed over the past two years. At the current production rate, Russia will have only 130 single-warhead SS-27s by 2010. If Russia were able to double production to 20 missiles per year, it would have 230 missiles by 2010. Even if Russia were able to sustain somehow the maximum production rate of 50 missiles per year, it would still have only 530 missiles by 2010. Assuming Russia slowly increases production to 20 per year, it will field approximately 200 ICBMs by 2010.

Sea-based missiles
Russia's ballistic missile nuclear submarine (SSBN) fleet is also aging. Defense budget constraints have decreased the frequency of routine maintenance on nuclear submarines, thereby reducing the submarines' 20-year lifetimes. Because of these trends, only the relatively new Delta IV fleet will likely be operational by 2010.

Each of the seven Delta IV SSBNs carries 16 SS-N-23 sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), for a total of 112 missiles. Each SS-N-23 has four multiple independent reentry vehicles (MIRVs), for a total of 448 sea-based warheads.

If able to renew construction on its new Borey class SSBN, which lays unfinished at the Severodvinsk Sevmash shipyard, Russia may be able to deploy it also by 2010. The Borey class will probably carry twelve SLBMs, each with four warheads. By 2010, Russia's sea-based strategic nuclear force will likely be 124 missiles on 8 subs with 496 warheads.

Russia's has two types of strategic bombers, the Tu-95 Bear H and the Tu-160 Blackjack, both of which have 30-year operational lifetimes. Although production of the Bear H bomber ceased in 1991, production of the newer Blackjack bomber has partially resumed. Several partially completed Blackjack bombers are at Russian production facilities, and the first new bomber since 1991 rolled off the production line in early May 2000. Nevertheless, the lack of routine maintenance for Russia's bomber fleet has significantly reduced its lifetime. By 2010, Russia is likely to have roughly 480 air-launched cruise missiles, or ALCMs, carried on only 30 Bear H bombers and 10 Blackjack bombers.

In sum, attrition and limited operational lifetimes will increasingly take their toll on Russia's strategic nuclear forces. By 2010, Russia could have between 290-464 missiles and bombers carrying 1100-2180 warheads. The most likely range is in the table below. The key variables are the production rate of the SS-27 (producing from 130 to 300 by 2010) and the number of warheads on each SS-27 (1-4).

Russia's Nuclear Force, 2010


For example, the START II treaty bans multiple-warhead ICBMs. If the treaty does not come into force, or if this provision is changed to gain Russian approval for deployment of missile defense systems, Russia could fit its SS-27 ICBMs with 3-4 warheads each. This would increase the number of nuclear warheads on ICBMS from 200 to 600 or 800, bringing it total strategic nuclear forces from about 1180 to 1780. Some worst-case scenarios predict higher levels, but all indicators still point towards lower numbers.(1)

The Soviet threat was the main incentive for the size, sophistication and alert status of the U.S. nuclear force. With its steady decline, the United States could quickly reduce the size and alert status of its weaponry without any degradation in national security. Formal treaties could then lock in the substantial net gains in nuclear safety and security.

1. See Dean Wilkening, "The Evolution of Russia's Strategic Nuclear Forces" CISAC: Stanford University, 1998.