While Russia has “suspended” its observance of the New START Treaty (clearly in violation of the Treaty), it nonetheless claims that it is continuing to observe its limitations. However, in its annual 2023 report on the New START Treaty, the U.S. Department of State was unable to certify Russian compliance with the numerical limitations of the Treaty. Enough time has passed since the last New START Treaty on-site inspection in March 2020 for Russia to have uploaded all or most of its strategic nuclear ballistic missiles.
In September 2023, Russian state-run Sputnik News reported that an “informed source” told it:
“We have conducted in the course of the special military operation thorough tests and evaluations to determine the feasibility of using long-range cruise missiles on Su-34 [jets], which marks the beginning of their use on this particular aircraft. The missile itself is not new, nor is the aircraft, but this is the first time they have been used together. This solution increases the practicality of using both the missile and the aircraft.”
While the article did not identify the type of long-range air-launched cruise missile involved, it would appear to be a description of the Kh-101, the obvious candidate. President Putin, the Russian Defense Ministry and Western press sources have stated that the Kh-101 is nuclear capable.[i] In December 2015, President Putin stated, “Both the Calibre [Kalibr] missiles and the Kh-101 rockets are generally showing very good results. We now see that these are new, modern and highly effective high-precision weapons that can be equipped either with conventional or special nuclear warheads.” The Russian announced range of the Kh-101 is 4,500-km. Unofficial reports of its range are up to 5,500-km.[ii] The agreed definition of a long-range nuclear air-launched cruise missile in arms control agreements going back over 40 years is a nuclear cruise missile with a range of 600-km or more. Significantly, under the New START Treaty definition of a heavy bomber, giving any fighter aircraft nuclear long-range air-launched cruise missiles would turn them into Treaty-accountable heavy bombers.
In June 2023, the Su-34 strike fighter was reportedly equipped with a more powerful engine which will increase its weapons load. This would help it to carry a large heavy cruise missile like the Kh-101. Indeed, the Su-34 has recently made a combat launch of the much heavier Kinzhal hypersonic missile.
Linkage of the Su-34 to a strategic nuclear mission goes back to 2012 when the Commander of the Russian Air Force Colonel General Alexander Zelin stated that it would be given “long-range missiles…Such work is under way and I think that it is the platform that can solve the problem of increasing nuclear deterrence forces within the Air Force strategic aviation.”[iii] He was probably referencing the Kh-101 which is the logical system for the strategic nuclear role because of its range. Deployment of the Kh-101 on aircraft other than heavy bombers creates a Treaty violation if these aircraft are not declared as heavy bombers, which the Su-34s have not. (Only the Tu-95 and the Tu-160 have been declared by the Russians to be heavy bomber under New START.) The issue is potentially more significant than the Russian 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile violation that destroyed the INF Treaty because of the large number of aircraft involved. More Su-34s are being built.
In 2022, Yury Borisov, at the time Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister in charge of defense procurement (now head of the Russian space agency), said in an interview with RT (Russian state media) that “the Kh-101 airborne missile [is] carried by the Sukhoi Su-30 and Su-35 fighter bombers.” (Emphasis in the original). (Later RT deleted the pertinent information concerning the type of missile stating that, “This article has been amended in regards to a quote by Yury Borisov on the missiles carried by the Sukhoi Su-30 and Su-35 fighter-bombers.”) The obvious reason for this change is that a senior Russian official inadvertently revealed the factual basis of a serious violation of the New START Treaty, which would put Russia well above all three of the New START Treaty limits: 1) deployed warheads, 2) deployed delivery vehicles, and 3) deployed and non-deployed delivery vehicles
Dual capability (both nuclear and conventional warheads) is the norm in Russian non-strategic missile systems. Russia’s long-range nuclear cruise missiles, the Kh-32, the Kh-555 and the Kh-101 are all reportedly nuclear capable.[iv] Because of Putin’s vicious war of aggression against Ukraine, there is now proof that the Kh 555 is nuclear capable because, “There were at least three known occasions when Kh-55 and Kh-555s were discovered on the ground [in Ukraine] lacking warheads but instead equipped with a mock-up of a nuclear warhead featuring the same shape and weight.”[v] (This is the way nuclear cruise missiles are fight tested.) The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review report confirmed that the Kh-32 is nuclear capable. Even the May 2023 edition of the left of center Federation of American Scientists report on Russian nuclear capabilities recognized that the Kh-101 is nuclear capable.
Russian state media have reported that the Russian Tu-22M Backfire bomber, which is not a heavy bomber under the New START Treaty, can carry the long-range nuclear capable Kh-32, the Kh-555 and the Kh-101. Under the New START Treaty, only heavy bombers can carry these missiles because of their range and nuclear capability. Backfire bombers exist in much smaller numbers than the long-range Russian fighters but represent a much greater threat to the United States because of their much longer range and payload capability.
In September 2023, the Commander of Russia’s Long-Range Aviation stated that the Backfire had been given a new 1,700-kg payload. He did not identify what the weapon was but 1,700-kg is heavy enough to be a long-range cruise missile. By comparison, the 40 year old U.S. AGM-86B nuclear long-range air-launched cruise missile weighs only 1,429-kg.
Interfax, Russia’s main non-governmental news agency, reports that the Russian Zircon (Tsirkon) hypersonic missile will be carried by the Backfire bomber.[vi] The Zircon is reportedly nuclear capable and Russia has said it has a range of over 1,000-km. Russia has threatened the use of these missiles in a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the U.S. National Command Authority. If Russia were to deploy the nuclear-capable Zircon on any non-heavy bomber, it would result in a violation of the New START Treaty because under New START Treaty definitions it would be classified as a cruise missile, and, hence, could only be deployed on heavy bombers.
The Backfire bomber was limited in numbers by the original START Treaty but not by the New START Treaty. However, to retain its non-treaty accountability status, it must not carry long-range nuclear cruise missiles or be given a range greater than 8,000-km. Carrying either the nuclear capable Kh-32, Kh-555 or the Kh-101 as reported in Russian state media, would put Russia even further above the New START Treaty limits. Significantly the range of the Kh-101 gives the Backfire a serious attack potential against the United States, including two-way missions, a troubling development.
In September 2023, the Tu-160 bomber was displayed before Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu carrying “….a Kh-BD missile with a range of over 6,500 kilometers.” There are reports that the range of the missile is as high as 8,000-km and that “…it may have a nuclear warhead option.” It would be very unusual if the Kh-BD is not nuclear capable since in Russia dual capability is the norm. Dave Johnson, a staff officer in the NATO International Staff Defense Policy and Planning Division, has written that, “…the capabilities now available to Russia consist of redundant, overlapping, long-range, dual-capable missile coverage of nearly all of Europe from within Russian territory, airspace, and home waters.” Johnson also noted regarding Russia’s precision strike weapons systems, that “…all… are dual-capable or have nuclear analogs.”
The Kh-BD air-launched cruise missile is reportedly based upon the stealthy nuclear capable Kh-101. The Kh-101 has demonstrated reliability and accuracy problems in Ukraine. However, for the nuclear mission, the accuracy is much less important even with extremely low-yield nuclear weapons. Indeed, Russian emphasis on precision very low-yield nuclear weapons is probably the reason the Kh-101 was given a nuclear capability. The Kh-101 is Russia’s most accurate air-launched long-range cruise missile.
If the Kh-DB can be carried by the Su-30, Su-34 and Su-35, these strike fighters would have a good strategic nuclear capability against the United States even without refueling, particularly if the range of the missile is 8,000-km and they are launched from Arctic staging bases. Russia is upgrading 30 of its about 100 Backfire bombers to the improved Tu-22M3M configuration, which, because of new engines, may be a Treaty-accountable heavy bomber even without the long-range nuclear cruise missiles.[vii] The reported range of the improved Backfire bomber with the new engines is 5,400-nm (10,000-km) which is above the heavy bomber definition of 8,000-km in the New START Treaty.[viii]
Russia’s New START violations are important because compliance with the New START Treaty impacts the U.S. nuclear deterrent a great deal. According to then-STRATCOM Commander Admiral Charles Richard “…two-thirds of those [U.S. nuclear] weapons are ‘operationally unavailable’ because of treaty constraints, such as provisions of the New START treaty with Russia.” This is particularly significant because of the constant nuclear threats from the Putin regime. Policies based upon the belief that nuclear deterrence poses an existential threat are extremely naïve and dangerous. The nuclear balance is very important particularly in the mind of President Putin and the continuing risk of Russian nuclear escalation in Ukraine. Turning a blind eye to Russian strategic arms control violations as the Biden Administration is now doing undermines U.S. national security. The Administration’s advocacy of more arms control agreements as a central component of its nuclear deterrence policy is foolish. This is arms control for the sake of arms control and unilateral compliance with the restrictions of the agreements to the detriment of U.S. national security.
[i] “In the course of the last 24 hours, aircraft of the Russian Aerospace Forces have performed 82 combat sorties engaging 204 terrorist objects in Syria,” Defense Ministry of the Russian Federation, December 9, 2015, available at http://eng.mil.ru/en/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12071355 @egNew.: “Strategic Tu-95MS bombers destroyed the ISIS militants’ command post and storages in Syria with a missile attack, Defense ministry of the Russian Federation,” Defense Ministry of the Russian Federation, August 5, 2017, available at http://eng.mil.ru/en/newspage /country/more.htm?id=12132186@egNews.
[ii] “Russia: Russian Tu-160 ‘White Swan’ strategic bombers perform 13-hour flight over Arctic,” Asia News Monitor, January 24, 2023, available at https://dialog.proquest.com/professional/professionalnewsstand/docview/2622035 527/fulltext/18A151727147AAF3FB7/23?accountid=155509&accountid=155509&site=professionalnewsstand&t :ac=18A151727147AAF3FB7/2&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone_a538718b6b5a4e.
[iii]“Russian strategic aviation to be reinforced with Su-34 frontline bombers,” Interfax-AVN, March 19, 2012, available at https://wnc-eastviewcom.mutex.gmu.edu/wnc/article?id=40013181.
[iv] “Russia: First Tu-22M3M bomber due 2018, 30 to be upgraded,” BBC Monitoring Former Soviet Union, May 21, 2017, available at https://dialog.proquest.com/professional/docview/1900529954/fulltext/18A05F139CE2F8C1151/ 1?accountid=155509&accountid=155509&t:ac=18A05F139CE2F8C1151/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone_a444ebd7f6ed26.: “Russia’s Bombers Have Been Doing Serious Damage All Over Syria,” The National Interest, March 7, 2020, available at https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/russias-bombers-have-been-doing-serious-damage-all-over-syria-130732.
[v] “Russia’s Strategic Bomber Force,” in Strategic Bombers, Roger Mortimer Senior Editor, (Stanford UK: Key Publishing, 2023), p. 102.
[vi] “Russia developing Mach 6 capable cruise missile,” BBC Monitoring Former Soviet Union, September 14, 2016, available at https://dialog.proquest.com/professional/docview/1819149161/fulltext/18A1E82114F3814D2DB/ 1?accountid=155509&accountid=155509&t:ac=18A1E82114F3814D2DB/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone_a5bd980cff182b.
[vii] “Russia: First Tu-22M3M bomber due 2018, 30 to be upgraded,” op. cit.
[viii] “Russia’s Strategic Bomber Force,” op. cit., p. 105.
This article was originally published by RealClearDefense and made available via RealClearWire.