Russian and Chinese Nuclear Modernization Trends

Remarks at the Hudson Institute

May 29, 2019PRINT | E-MAIL

Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley, Jr.

Director Defense Intelligence Agency

Russian and Chinese Nuclear Modernization Trends

Remarks at the Hudson Institute

29 May 2019




First, let me thank the Hudson Institute for hosting this event and the opportunity to speak about Russian and Chinese nuclear modernization trends.  With the return of great power competition, nuclear capabilities are again at the forefront of critical work for the Intelligence Community. For the Defense Intelligence Agency this is why we exist, our core mission is to understand foreign military capabilities and provide decision advantage to our senior leadership.

So let me first begin with Russia.

After working together for decades to achieve real nuclear reductions, Russia is upgrading the capacity of its nuclear forces. We assess its overall nuclear stockpile is likely to grow significantly over the next decade. 

This assessed growth is primarily driven by a significant projected increase in the number of Russia’s non-strategic nuclear weapons. Russia is adding new military capabilities to its existing stockpile of nonstrategic nuclear weapons, including those employable by ships, aircraft, and ground forces. These nuclear warheads include theater- and tactical-range systems that Russia relies on to deter and defeat NATO or China in a conflict.     

Russia’s stockpile of non-strategic nuclear weapons—already large and diverse and is being modernized with an eye towards greater accuracy, longer ranges, and lower yields to suit their potential warfighting role. 

We assess Russia to have dozens of these systems already deployed or in development. They include, but are not limited to: short- and close-range ballistic missiles, ground-launched cruise missiles, including the 9M729 missile, which the U.S. Government determined violates the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces or INF Treaty, as well as antiship and antisubmarine missiles, torpedoes, and depth charges. 

For comparison, the United States currently has a single non-strategic nuclear weapons system: the B-61 gravity bomb.

We assess Russia possesses up to 2,000 such non-strategic nuclear warheads not covered by the New Start Treaty and because of a lack of Russian transparency we have  uncertainty in our understanding of the scope and disposition of their stockpile.

Accurately accounting for these non-strategic nuclear weapons delivery systems is not only complicated by a lack of transparency but their dual-capable nature. Most Russian systems lack externally distinguishing features that would allow observers to differentiate between conventional and nuclear variants. 

Where limits or reductions have existed, such as with the INF Treaty or the 1992 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, the United States assesses that Russia has not fulfilled them. This is exemplified by the development of the 9M729 ground launched cruise missile.  

By 2015, Russia had completed a comprehensive flight test program consisting of multiple tests of the 9M729 missile from both fixed and mobile launchers that appeared to be purposefully designed to disguise the true nature of their testing activity, as well as the true capacity of the missile.

While compliance determinations such as the INF Treaty are ultimately made by the U.S. interagency policy community, I want to be clear about the role of the Intelligence Community.  It is the job of the Intelligence Community (IC) to analyze those activities that have implications for a country’s international obligations.  The IC does not use the word compliance but rather characterizes actions as “inconsistent” with the intent of such treaties and uses those assessments to help inform the interagency process. 

From an interagency standpoint, the U.S. has determined Russia’s actions have strained other key pillars of arms control architecture, including the Chemical Weapons Convention, Open Skies Treaty, the Vienna Document, and the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe.

In addition to the anticipated growth in non-strategic nuclear weapons, Russia claims to be developing new warhead designs for strategic systems,  such as new high-yield and earth-penetrating warheads  to attack hardened military targets like U.S., Allied, and Chinese command and control facilities.

Russia’s development of new warhead designs and overall stockpile management efforts have been enhanced by its approach to nuclear testing. The United States believes that Russia probably is not adhering to its nuclear testing moratorium in a manner consistent with the “zero-yield” standard.  

Our understanding of nuclear weapon development leads us to believe Russia’s testing activities would help it to improve its nuclear weapons capabilities. The United States, by contrast, has forgone such benefits by upholding a “zero-yield” standard. 

Russia’s ongoing, comprehensive build-up in both its strategic and nonstrategic nuclear forces is made possible by sustained and prioritized investments in its nuclear weapons development and production infrastructure. By 2013, Rosatom had modernized dozens of its experimental facilities, and Rosatom’s budget has increased roughly 30 percent in real terms from 2010 to 2018 to support these and other operations.  

In contrast to the United States, during the past decade, Russia has improved and expanded its production complex, which has the capacity to process thousands of warheads annually.

An increase in its overall nuclear warhead stockpile is not the only source of concern stemming from Russia’s broad-based nuclear modernization program. 

Within the confines of the New START Treaty, Russia claims its overhaul of its strategic rocket forces is roughly 70% complete. Every leg of Russia’s triad is being modernized and Russia is fielding new strategic systems, including road-mobile and silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), a submarine-launched ballistic missile, an upgraded strategic nuclear bomber, and a strategic air-launched cruise missile.   

Many of these new systems have a greater warhead delivery capacity than the systems they are replacing.  For example, Russia’s aging SS-25 road-mobile ICBM carries a single nuclear warhead, while its replacement—the SS-27—can carry multiple warheads, providing Russia significant capability to “upload” additional warheads onto its strategic delivery systems. The SS-18—Russia’s aging heavy ICBM—carries up to 10 nuclear warheads, while the Russian president claims the Sarmat—its replacement—will carry even more warheads or Russia’s new nuclear-armed “Avanguard” hypersonic glide vehicle.

While we assess Russia is currently adhering to the New START Treaty limits on deployed warheads, this upload capacity will give Russia the ability to increase the number of deployed warheads in a time of crisis.

Russia is also pursuing novel nuclear delivery systems that create a strategic challenge for the U.S. and which are difficult to manage under current arms control agreements.   

In March 2018, President Putin unveiled these systems, which include: an intercontinental-range, nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed underwater drone; a nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed intercontinental-range cruise missile; and an air-launched ballistic missile.  Russia also continues to modernize its existing automated nuclear command and control launch system, known as “Perimeter.”

President Putin’s high-profile announcement in March 2018 makes clear that Russia is continuing to prioritize investment in its nuclear forces, even at a time of domestic budgetary constraints. 

These new nuclear capabilities have come at the expense of other Russian defense priorities, such as the development of a new aircraft carrier, because Russia sees its nuclear weapons as the ultimate guarantor of the country’s survival, perceives a warfighting role for their use, and directs its scarce resources to its nuclear modernization effort.  

These quantitative and qualitative improvements to Russia’s nuclear arsenal have security implications for the United States and our allies.  Russia’s large and diverse stockpile facilitates a doctrine that envisions the potential coercive use of nuclear weapons. 

Russia assesses that the threat of nuclear escalation or actual first use of nuclear weapons would serve to “de-escalate” a conflict on terms favorable to Russia.  Russian defense officials have spoken publicly about “de-escalating” a conflict through limited nuclear use and it is a fact that the Russian military has prepared plans and is well trained to transition rapidly to nuclear use in order to compel an end to a conventional conflict. Russia’s perception that nuclear use could terminate a conflict on terms favorable to Russia increases the prospect for miscalculation. 

Let me now turn to China as Russia is not the United States’ only strategic competitor expanding its nuclear capability.   

Over the next decade, China is likely to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile in the course of implementing the most rapid expansion and diversification of its nuclear arsenal in China’s history. Last year, China launched more ballistic missiles for testing and training than the rest of the world combined.   We expect this modernization to continue and this trajectory is consistent with  Chinese President Xi’s vision for China’s military, which he laid out at the 19th Party Congress and stated that China’s military will be “fully transformed into a first tier force” by 2050. 

China has developed a new road-mobile ICBM, a new multi-warhead version of its silo-based ICBM, and a new submarine-launched ballistic missile. With its announcement of a new nuclear-capable strategic bomber, China will soon field their own nuclear triad, demonstrating China’s commitment to expanding the role and centrality of nuclear forces in Beijing’s military aspirations. And like Russia, China is also working to field nuclear, theater-range precision-strike systems. While China’s overall arsenal is assessed to be much smaller than Russia’s does not make this trend any less concerning.

Based on the United States’ experience in developing nuclear weapons, we understand the efforts required for China’s substantive and rapid expansion in their nuclear weapons program and capabilities. 

US Government information indicates that China is possibly preparing to operate its test site year-round, a development that speaks directly to China’s growing goals for its nuclear forces.  Further, China continues to use explosive containment chambers at its nuclear test site and Chinese leaders previously joined Russia in watering down language in a P5 statement that would have affirmed a uniform understanding of “zero-yield” testing. The combination of these facts and China’s lack of transparency on their nuclear testing activities raise questions as to whether China could achieve such progress without activities inconsistent with the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. 

It is also important to note that—in addition to modernizing their nuclear forces—China and Russia are also pursuing emerging technologies that have the potential to revolutionize undersea warfare and challenge U.S. superiority in the maritime domain. 

As our annual threat assessments, national security, and defense strategies have highlighted, the resurgence of great power competition is a geopolitical reality. It is the mindset Russia and China have embraced, the mindset that is guiding their approach to nuclear modernization and investment. Nuclear weapons remain central to Russia and China’s military plans and intentions and therefore remain a critical area of analysis for the Defense Intelligence Agency to provide our senior leadership with decision advantage.   

DIA LTG Robert Ashley Hudson Institute