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Nuclear exchange: what weapons will the Russian Federation be able to refuse with the extension of START


In the next few days, Washington will submit its proposals to extend the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-3). On October 23, Assistant to the President for National Security of the United States Robert O’Brien expressed hope for a successful extension of the agreement, but said that this does not mean a solution to the issue. A week earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed extending START-3 for at least a year without additional conditions. In his opinion, this time will provide an opportunity to conduct meaningful negotiations. These days the diplomats of both countries are discussing a lot of accumulated issues. Among them is the possible inclusion of Russian strategic deterrence systems in the treaty. At what stage are the work on these systems and what Russia, if necessary, could refuse without prejudice to national security, was analyzed by military expert Dmitry Kornev.

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In March 2018, in a message to the Federal Assembly, Vladimir Putin announced several fundamentally new weapons systems. In the foreseeable future, they should give Russia a potential that will fully ensure the country’s security. Now, as part of the negotiation of the terms of the new START treaty, the turn has come to discuss the fate of these new systems: the Dagger and Zircon hypersonic missiles, the RS-28 Sarmat heavy missile, the Avangard intercontinental complex, the Peresvet laser complex, the underwater the Poseidon drone and the Burevestnik nuclear cruise missile.

“Dagger”, “Sarmat” and “Vanguard”

The Dagger, in principle, can be viewed as a delivery vehicle for nuclear warheads. It is believed that its 9-S-7760 missile has much in common with the 9M723 aeroballistic missile of the Iskander-M ground complex, which can be equipped with a nuclear warhead.

But in the system of limiting strategic offensive arms, such a missile system cannot be considered strategic, since it does not have an intercontinental range.

Nuclear exchange

Fighter MiG-31 with a hypersonic missile Dagger

Fighter MiG-31 with a hypersonic missile “Dagger”

Photo: Izvestia / Alexander Kazakov

Traditionally, START included long-range bombers with cruise missiles, and the MiG-31 fighter – the carrier of the “Dagger” – still cannot be considered a heavy bomber-missile carrier. In addition, given the high accuracy of hitting targets, the “Dagger” does not necessarily have to carry a nuclear warhead. So far, there is not even reliable information about its nuclear capabilities. The complex is deployed at at least one air base – in Akhtubinsk. The announced plans were to deploy it at bases in the Arctic and the Far East. Of course, accounting for the Dagger’s assets in the overall standings of Russia’s nuclear forces is possible, but when discussing strategic offensive arms, the complex will most likely be taken out of the treaty’s brackets.

The RS-28 Sarmat heavy liquid-propellant ballistic intercontinental missile is a rather ambitious and long-awaited project. She will come to the Strategic Missile Forces to replace Voevods and will become one of the most important segments of the nuclear missile potential. The rocket has passed throw tests and is preparing for the start of flight tests, which will likely take the entire 2021. According to previously announced plans, the deployment of a new ICBM as part of the Strategic Missile Forces should begin by the end of 2021.

Nuclear exchange

Intercontinental ballistic missile

Intercontinental ballistic missile “Sarmat”

Photo: TASS / Press Service of the RF Ministry of Defense

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In the START treaties, the Sarmat missile will be taken into account in any case and, in fact, will take the place of the Voevoda, which is spelled out in the current agreement.

It is likely that the Sarmatians, like the Voyevods, will carry only 10 warheads in a regular manner, although technically they could include one and a half times more warheads. Therefore, the turns in the conditions of the START agreements will not affect the “Sarmats” in any way.

The Avangard intercontinental missile system with the 15Yu71 hypersonic warhead has already been put into service, and since 2019 it has been deployed in the Orenburg Strategic Missile Forces division. Until 2027, it is planned to put on duty 12 launchers with UR-100NUTTH missiles. Taking into account that this is initially a strategic nuclear weapons system, the Avangard missiles will in any case be taken into account in the START treaty, and, accordingly, the plans for their deployment are unlikely to be influenced in any way by possible changes around the agreement.

“Peresvet” and “Poseidon”

The Peresvet laser complex, which is already being put on duty at several bases of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces, can hardly be classified as a strategic offensive weapon. The complex, of course, can be used in cooperation with offensive nuclear weapons, but by itself it is in no way designed to engage ground or any other targets. Its purpose is to cover the deployment of mobile launchers of strategic nuclear forces from optical reconnaissance means and to disguise the location of the Russian response potential. Even though the laser complex uses a nuclear power plant, this is not the same as using nuclear warheads. Accordingly, when discussing weapons and systems that fall under the START treaties, the Peresvet complex should not be taken into account.

Nuclear exchange

Laser complex

Laser complex “Peresvet”

Photo: RIA Novosti / Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation

The most interesting and controversial weapon system that can be discussed in the context of the new START treaty is the 2M39 Poseidon unmanned underwater vehicle, which, according to the project, is supposed to carry the most powerful megaton-class thermonuclear warhead. At the same time, it actually refers to new types of strategic weapons systems that have not been previously created by anyone and, accordingly, have not been deployed.

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Poseidon, in principle, can be viewed not only as a nuclear deterrent, but also as an offensive weapon. Theoretically, no one bothers to use the Poseidon, secretly placed at the side of a potential enemy, at the right time. For this reason, heightened interest in control over the deployment of a new delivery vehicle for nuclear weapons is likely. Moreover, the deployment of “Poseidons” in the waters of the oceans can be secret. In general, the inclusion of 2M39 in the orbit of START discussions, on the one hand, may jeopardize the actual program of its creation and deployment, but, on the other hand, it gives Russia additional trump cards in negotiations with partners.

It should be noted here that the program for creating “Poseidon” is still far from complete – the systems of the new complex are still being tested. If a decision is made not to deploy Poseidon, investment in infrastructure will not be wasted, but will be used to deploy other means – traditional missile systems. The program for the construction of standard carriers – submarines of the “Khabarovsk” type – will, apparently, be reoriented to other purposes, and the experienced research carrier “Belgorod” will study the World Ocean. This is just one of the options for the development of events.

“Zircon” and “Petrel”

The Zircon hypersonic cruise missiles are also likely to carry nuclear warheads and can certainly be seen as a new weapon system that poses a real threat. But at the same time, the missile system has a relatively short range and, despite the fact that it can solve important tasks, it does not belong to strategic ones.

Nuclear exchange

Nuclear cruise missile

Nuclear cruise missile “Burevestnik”

Photo: RIA Novosti / Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation

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The tests of the rocket complex have entered the final phase and are likely to be successfully completed in 2021. After that, Zircon will be deployed on ships and submarines of the Russian Navy – primarily on Project 22350 ocean-going frigates, Project 11442M upgraded nuclear cruisers, and Yasen-M project 885M submarines. The capabilities of the fleet with new cruise missiles will increase, but such strike weapons by themselves should not be included in the START treaty.

And finally, the Burevestnik nuclear cruise missile. This system has gathered a lot of rumors around it over the past year and a half. If you believe the Russian and Western media, the work on the creation of “Burevestnik” is in full swing. Probably, the system is being tested, and they do not pass without roughness. Like Poseidon, the Petrel is actually considered a new type of nuclear weapon – the presence of a nuclear power plant on a cruise missile allows it to fly for as long as necessary – even weeks and months. Previously, such weapons systems were not created.

At the same time, of course, the Burevestnik will carry a nuclear warhead and will become an exclusively strategic system. That is, it undoubtedly falls under the restrictions and accounting in the START treaty. It is not excluded that there will also be a certain “exchange of trump cards” and Russia will refuse to deploy this system if the parties agree. In the event of termination of work on the Burevestnik, the accumulated scientific and technical groundwork will certainly not be lost and will be used to create the aviation technology of the future, which will not necessarily be military.


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