Russia is making new nuclear delivery systems a national priority, with a new ballistic-missile submarine class and missile in production; continued deliveries of a modern, road-mobile ICBM; and reports of a new silo-based heavyweight weapon.

The nation is arming its bomber fleet with a new cruise missile and plans a new bomber (as does the U.S.), while tactical nuclear weapons are still considered an option for major combined-arms theater-scale wars.

Western experts across the hawk-to-dove spectrum tend to agree that Russia's motivation is a perception of conventional-force weakness relative to the U.S., NATO and China, which in turn stems from the Russian economy's inability to support rapid modernization of air, land and naval forces. However, some go further than this and argue that the Russian emphasis on nuclear weapons is destabilizing and could lead to the breaking of some nuclear weapon treaties.

The largest Russian program is the modernization of its strategic missile forces. President Vladimir Putin pledged in 2012 that those forces would receive more than 400 new missiles within 10 years, a complete overhaul of the arsenal.

Some of these new missiles are already in production. The RT-2UTTKh Topol-M (identified by the U.S. and NATO as the SS-27 Sickle-B) was deployed in silos in the late 1990s and as a road-mobile ICBM in 2006. The 104,000-lb., cold-launched missile is carried on a 16-wheel transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) vehicle.

The Topol-M was designed on the assumption that the 1993 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start) II would come into force, banning land-based missiles with multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRV), so the original versions were all single-warhead missiles. Nevertheless, after Russia declined in 2002 to ratify Start II (in response to the U.S. abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty), development started on a version of the Topol-M with MIRVs.

This, the RS-24 Yars, was declared operational in mid-2011 in its silo-launched version, and it is now replacing the single-warhead Topol-M across the board in both silo-launched and road-mobile versions. At some silo sites, Yars is replacing the aging liquid-fueled UR-100Nutth (SS-19). Yars is variously reported to be capable of carrying four or six MIRVs.

Underscoring the importance of the Topol-M's descendants, Topol/Yars technology forms the basis of the RSM-56 Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile, developed in parallel with the Project 955 Borey-class SSBN. The first Project 955 boat, Yuri Dolgorukiy, was accepted for service at the beginning of this year but will not be armed with missiles until 2014.

The six-warhead Bulava has had a troubled testing history. The 20th flight test of the missile failed in September. Before that, the missile had experienced seven successful tests in a row, following a sequence of complete or partial failures blamed on quality control and other issues.

There is also to be a gap in deliveries of the Borey SSBN. The first three Project 955 submarines, all of which have been launched, are being succeeded by a revised model, the 955A. The first of these, Knyaz Vladimir, was only laid down in July: Putin, attending the ceremony, said five 955As should be ready by 2020, bringing the Borey-class fleet to eight boats—a very ambitious schedule by post-Cold War standards.

Beyond that, notes leading Russian nuclear-arms analyst Pavel Podvig, an affiliate of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, “it appears that Russia has successfully managed to confuse everyone with its new missile-development programs.” Since even the officially unveiled Russian systems have more names than one of Tolstoy's aristocrats, the potential for confusion with developmental systems is huge. The absence of Soviet secrecy does not solve the problem, rather allowing for official and unofficial sources to disseminate diverse and often conflicting stories.

Four officially announced flight tests of a “new ICBM” between September 2011 and June 2013 seem to point to the development of a weapon that will supersede Topol and Yars in production, both developed by the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology (MITT). It has been associated with the designation RS-26 and may be the missile referred to as Yars-M and Avangard, but recently it has most consistently been identified as Rubezh (Frontier).

The Rubezh missile is believed to be mated to a new six-axle TEL, the Belarus-built MZKT-27291, which was unveiled this year. If it is used with this launcher, it must be smaller than the Topol/Yars family and easier to move. As in the case of some other recent ICBM tests, official announcements described it as a “maneuverable” system. According to Russian media, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, speaking after the test in June, called the new ICBM a “missile-defense killer—neither current nor future American missile defense systems will be able to prevent that missile from hitting a target dead on.” It is expected to be operational next year.

Like the Yars with MIRVs—an upgraded version of an existing missile—the apparently all-new Rubezh originated after the end of the Start II and ABM treaties. Despite Washington's protestations to the contrary, Russia has continued to insist that U.S. ballistic missile defense plans are aimed at tipping the nuclear balance between the two nations. Technically, it is possible that the missile could carry a maneuverable, evading warhead: Such a system, the Advanced Maneuvering Reentry Vehicle (AMaRV), was tested in 1979-80 in the U.S. as a counter to ballistic missile defense systems, which are designed to intercept nonmaneuvering targets. The AMaRV can also be launched on a flattened, aero-ballistic trajectory to reduce the defender's warning time.

Mark Schneider, an analyst with the hawkish National Institute of Public Policy, suggests another potential issue with the new weapon: I could represent the start of a breakout from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty signed in 1987, which bans both the U.S. and Russia from deploying any ground-launched missiles, nuclear or conventional, with a 270-3,000-nm range (500-5,500 km). Schneider notes that the Russian military has yet to release any images of the Rubezh missile. “They have not even released a photo of the missile in flight, which is very usual. That would probably tell if it has two or three stages,” he explains. If it is a two-stage missile, he says, it would be an INF violation. Podvig, however, remains convinced that the missile is an ICBM.

The relatively small Rubezh could be the basis of a project disclosed in April—the revival of rail-mobile missiles, extinct since the retirement of the last RT-23UTTH (SS-24 Scalpel) train in 2005. Russian media say MITT is the prime contractor, and either the Rubezh or the bigger Yars could be carried. The advantage of a rail-mobile missile, Russian commentators suggest, is that it is faster than a road-mobile ICBM—it could be relocated as far as 1,000 km in 24 hr.

Following behind the Rubezh, according to multiple reports, is a new heavy liquid-fueled ICBM to replace the R-36M2 (SS-18 Mod 6 Satan), a late-1980s development of a design that originated in the 1960s. Forty R-36M2s remain in service and can carry ten MIRVs each.

According to Russian media reports, the Makeyev design bureau was selected in 2011 to develop the new heavy missile, which is to replace the R-36M2 starting late in the decade. This was an unusual move since Makeyev has previously specialized in submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM)—but the design team seems to have distinguished itself in the development of the modernized R-29RMU2 missile, which has been deployed aboard aging Delta IV-class submarines, helping to fill the gap caused by delays to the Bulava SLBM.

Bomber forces continue to be upgraded with the service entry of the Kh-101 cruise missile on the Russian air force's 63 Tu-95MS and 13 Tu-160 bombers. More importantly, however, development of the PAK DA bomber has started, with the aim of replacing the bomber fleet after 2020. It was announced in April that the conceptual design and specification of the new bomber had been approved, with the Tupolev bureau being selected to lead the program. It is expected to be a blended wing-body, stealthy, subsonic aircraft.

If the picture surrounding strategic weapons is confusing, Russian tactical systems are a morass of Soviet-style ambiguity. Much discussion revolves around a single system: the 9K720 Iskander missile produced by the KBM company.

The Iskander is a tactical ballistic missile in a class that is extinct in the U.S. and Europe, being more than twice the size of the U.S. MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System. It is one of very few all-new nonstrategic weapons to have entered service in Russia in large numbers since the early 1990s, becoming fully operational in 2010. The Russian army plans to acquire a total of 120 Iskander systems, each with two missiles, by 2018.

On a basic level, the Iskander is an INF-compliant replacement for KBM's 9K714 Oka (SS-23 Spider), which was scrapped under that treaty. It is a single-stage missile with a 480-kg (1,060-lb.) warhead and a nominal range of 400 km. An Iskander-E export version has been offered, with range reduced to 280 km to comply with Missile Technology Control Regime limits. The initial version has inertial guidance, but in 2011 an Iskander was tested with a digital scene-matching guidance system.

Most observers agree that the Iskander is physically capable of exceeding INF range limits. A detailed report from Finland's National Defense University estimates that the weapon's range is likely to be 700 km or more, with the standard warhead, based on contemporary solid-propulsion performance standards. Only in a low-trajectory, high-drag profile would the weapon's range be inside INF limits. However, the Iskander remains INF-compliant unless it is test-fired beyond the 500-km limit. A more direct violation would be the full-range testing of the Iskander-K, using the same launch vehicle and control system but armed with a turbojet-powered cruise missile.

The Iskander is not officially described as nuclear-capable, but it is designed to be fitted with a variety of different warhead types. Notes Podvig: “I don't think Iskander is actually a nuclear system, but it appears to be nuclear-capable, and Russia would like to keep ambiguity about that.” Schneider notes that although Iskander is a single-stage weapon, it is shipped and stored in two components.

This meshes with the long-standing belief of some U.S. intelligence officials that in the 1990s and early 2000s, Russia engaged in technically illegal “hydronuclear” tests in which the metallic cores of nuclear weapons are compressed explosively but only to a point where small nuclear effects are released. These tests, those officials have argued, could allow Russia to develop new low-yield warheads suited to the relatively accurate Iskander vehicle. This would result in a system that could be suited to the Russian concept of a “de-escalatory” nuclear strike in a conventional campaign, if a high-value target could be found.

The “de-escalatory” doctrine emerged after the 1999 Kosovo war as an equalizer in the case of threatened conventional defeat. “It's a concept that appears to be quite popular in Russia these days, “Podvig says. “Apparently, the thinking is that if Russia uses nuclear weapons in a conflict, everybody would just stop to avoid further escalation.”

The doctrine attracted more attention in September 2009, when the joint Russian-Belarus Zapad exercise included a simulated nuclear attack on Warsaw, Poland. The concern is that the combination of low-yield weapons and “de-escalatory” strikes could lower nuclear thresholds to a dangerous level.