Clear the Nuclear Landscape of Impediments to Weapons Control

December 1, 2021
Vladimir Dvorkin

The extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and the summit between the US and Russian presidents have prompted numerous predictions and recommendations as to what Russia and the United States might do in the next five years to preserve shared principles of strategic stability beyond 2026. Experts are proposing both qualitative and quantitative aspects for further nuclear arms control, taking into account autonomous and hypersonic weapons, missile-defense development, strategic non-nuclear weapons, the introduction of certain limitations from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the prospects for the United States to return to the nuclear deal with Iran and to the Open Skies Treaty, and opportunities to engage China.

Under these circumstances it would be appropriate to undertake a separate analysis of weapon systems in strategic and non-strategic nuclear forces from the viewpoint of their role in destabilizing and addressing nuclear deterrence. This article examines nuclear cruise missiles, autonomous systems with nuclear payloads, and hazardous space activity.

1. Cruise Missiles

More than 75 years of continuous improvement have developed cruise missiles (from V-1 to modern types) into the most effective high-precision weapon system capable of engaging a wide variety of land- and sea-based targets under virtually any conditions of armed conflict and at any range. This has been proven by the experience of the US and then the Russian military over the last 30 years.

This is fully applicable to cruise missiles with conventional warheads. It is quite different when they are equipped with nuclear warheads. The latter were included primarily in the strategic nuclear triads of the USSR and the United States on heavy bombers, and were covered by the INF Treaty between Russia and the United States, although they could be either nuclear or non-nuclear. They were rapidly integrated into air-, land-, and sea-based systems—the three “legs” of the triad—in a number of nuclear-weapon states.

Doubts about the advisability of using nuclear cruise missiles in strategic triads are not new. As far back as 1993-1995, one of the commanders of the US Strategic Command (STRATCOM) responded firmly to a direct question on the role of cruise missiles in the nuclear triad, stating that he did not see any expediency in their use, and that the United States lacked heavy bombers with conventional payloads.[1]

A number of prominent politicians, academics, and experts have repeatedly proposed that nuclear cruise missiles should be abandoned by concluding an international agreement. The list includes William Perry, the former US secretary of defense, who is now a Stanford University professor and member of the supervisory board of the International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe.

The most detailed analysis of the place and role of nuclear cruise missiles in weapon capabilities is contained in an article by Andy Weber and Christine Parthemore.[2] The authors propose limiting and eliminating air-, sea-, and land-based nuclear cruise missiles. This, they argue, would reduce “the risks of nuclear miscalculation and unintended escalation due to nuclear weapons that few countries possess and that no country truly needs.”

The authors examine the task of limiting and banning nuclear cruise missiles in the context of global nuclear arms-control issues, nuclear proliferation under the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, current and abrogated US-Russian treaties, the collapse and attempted resuscitation of the nuclear deal with Iran, the nuclear capabilities of China and North Korea, and many other related issues. The main arguments in favor of abandoning nuclear cruise missiles, according to the authors, lie in the highly destabilizing effects of this type of weapon and the high risk of using nuclear weapons as a result of miscalculation and misinterpretation in the event that a cruise missile is armed with a conventional payload. The article examines various alternative, phased designs for programs to eliminate nuclear cruise missiles, as well as options for verification of warhead types using both national technical means of verification and agreed inspection activities.

All of the cases and proposals outlined in Weber and Parthemore’s article are highly commendable and deserve further development. At the same time, the publication lacks an operational and strategic analysis of the contribution of nuclear cruise missiles to nuclear deterrence.

Cruise missiles and nuclear deterrence

In the models of a US-Russian nuclear exchange, the decisive role has always belonged to land- and sea-based strategic ballistic missiles capable of immediate launch and delivering devastating nuclear strikes against enemy territory in a short time frame that nuclear cruise missiles are unable to achieve. This can be at least partly confirmed by the parameters of New START. Under Article III of that treaty, the number of nuclear cruise missiles on each heavy (strategic) bomber is not counted toward the aggregate limit on nuclear warheads on deployed carriers; only the number of heavy bombers is counted: “One nuclear warhead shall be counted for each deployed heavy bomber.” [3]

It has long been known that the rationale for the nuclear triad was the need for a safeguard in case any of the three legs proved to be inadequate in terms of military effectiveness. However, over the decades of the Cold War and since its end, there have been no signs that any part of the triad could become ineffective, nor are there any such signs on the long-term horizon, given the latest developments in technology.

Any attempt to assess the role of nuclear cruise missiles in the now well-known forms of massive nuclear strikes (first strike, launch-on-warning, or retaliatory strikes) immediately reveals problems as to their use. There are questions about the ability to attain the required level of coordination with ballistic-missile strikes and about their effectiveness: Launching cruise missiles prematurely—that is, before the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs)—would remove the stealth factor of a first strike. In a launch-on-warning or a retaliatory strike, if the missiles could be launched from airborne heavy bombers, they would reach the attacked territory after massive nuclear explosions, making their effectiveness highly questionable. You can complicate this simplified scheme as much as you like, but it will not affect the conclusions.

Assuming a need to retain heavy bombers in the nuclear triad, the only nuclear weapons they would carry would be nuclear bombs. Another part of the heavy-bomber fleet would carry non-nuclear cruise missiles. Moreover, non-nuclear cruise missiles would be consumed at a considerable rate in combat operations, as the experience of regional armed conflicts has demonstrated.

Cruise missiles in nuclear-weapon states

Currently, the outlook for the designs, number, and types of deployment of cruise missiles with different types of warheads in the world is becoming increasingly uncertain. The United States has announced that it is planning to develop submarine-launched cruise missiles with nuclear warheads.[4] According to the available information, there are plans to deploy cruise missiles in the Asia-Pacific region to deter China.[5] New types of such missiles with subsonic and hypersonic speeds are being intensively developed and put into service.

Most of the nuclear-armed states already have cruise missiles with both nuclear warheads and conventional warheads that can be replaced with nuclear ones. Following are just a few, but by no means all, of the known types of cruise missiles:[6]

In Russia and the United States, cruise missiles with nuclear warheads currently deployed on strategic bombers are part of the strategic nuclear triad (ICBMs, SLBMs, strategic bombers). Their numbers are known in accordance with New START. Prior to the abrogation of the INF Treaty, their numbers on ground-based carriers were also known.

The US Tomahawk, AGM-129, AGM-86, and BGM-109A missiles are designed to carry both nuclear and non-nuclear warheads. Russia’s Kh-55SM and X-102 cruise missiles are designed to carry nuclear warheads. The Kalibr missiles for the Iskander system and the latest Kinzhal hypersonic missiles are all capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

According to official data, the United Kingdom holds no cruise missiles with nuclear warheads. However, the characteristics of the Storm Shadow/SCALP EG cruise missile developed jointly with France appear to make it potentially capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, France has 50 air-launched cruise missiles with nuclear warheads on both sea- (carrier-) and land-based aircraft.[7]

China’s DF-10A and CJ-10 cruise missiles are comparable to Tomahawk missiles and have nuclear and non-nuclear warheads; hence, they could be considered to be part of a nuclear-deterrence capability, but there is no reliable information about their role in the nuclear triad.

In India, the Nirbhay cruise missile is designed for different types of warheads, including nuclear ones. Along with land-, sea-, and air-launched nuclear missiles, it is considered to be part of nuclear deterrence vis-à-vis China and Pakistan.

Pakistan’s Hatf-VII and Hatf-VII Babur cruise missiles are based on the technology of Tomahawk missiles with nuclear warheads and are primarily intended as a nuclear deterrent against India.

In Israel, Gabriel and Harpoon cruise missiles are the air- and sea-based components of Israel’s nuclear triad for ensuring the country’s military security in the hostile environment of the Middle East.

The continued growth in the number of cruise missiles in these countries creates extreme uncertainty about how many of them are nuclear armed.

The possibility of abandoning nuclear cruise missiles

Given the unclear role that nuclear cruise missiles play in nuclear deterrence and the absence of rational scenarios for their use, it would seem advisable to conclude a multilateral agreement or treaty in which the nuclear-weapon states renounce the option of equipping cruise missiles with nuclear warheads.

Such a multilateral treaty should include instruments of international verification, inspection, and notification—goals that are not achievable in the foreseeable future. Therefore, the first stage of the renunciation of nuclear cruise missiles could be implemented in the form of an agreement with a set of confidence-building and transparency measures.

In this respect, however paradoxical it may seem, one could expect a positive response, primarily from the United States and Russia. As noted above, in the nuclear-deterrence systems of these nations, the contribution of nuclear cruise missiles is, for all practical purposes, insignificant compared with that of ICBMs and SLBMs.

For Russia, whose most recent military doctrine includes non-nuclear deterrence principles, this would be an important and strong argument in favor of eliminating the policy option of first use of nuclear weapons.[8]

The United Kingdom and France could also be expected to agree to renounce nuclear cruise missiles.

China appears to have about 150 nuclear cruise missiles, but expert assessments of the number vary. Neither are there any reliable data on numbers in India, Pakistan, or Israel. It is therefore impossible to assess the position of these states with regard to a ban on nuclear cruise missiles. One can only count on the positive example of the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, and France.

An additional argument in favor of abandoning nuclear cruise missiles might be their relatively low reliability, as demonstrated by actual launches of non-nuclear cruise missiles. This poses an additional threat to security in various situations when these systems are equipped with nuclear warheads.

Importantly, if nuclear-armed cruise missiles were to be eliminated, this could make a substantial contribution to negotiations on treaties and agreements not only in the field of strategic offensive arms, but also in that of non-strategic weapons.

2. Autonomous Nuclear-Weapon Systems

Russia is known to have created designs for a number of new weapons; Russian President Vladimir Putin talks about some of them from time to time. Among these new weapons, the following systems could qualify as strategic nuclear arms: the Sarmat ICBM, the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) with multiple warheads, the Poseidon super-torpedo (a nuclear drone), and the Burevestnik cruise missile with a nuclear power unit of unlimited range.

The first two models fit well within New START. The Sarmat ICBMs are intended to replace, in silo launchers, the Voyevoda ICBMs that are in service with the Strategic Missile Forces.

The Avangard system, which uses the UR-100N UTTKh ICBM as a booster for its HGV, is also installed in the silo launchers of the Voyevoda ICBMs. A direct examination of the system performed by US inspectors during a launch-site inspection in accordance with treaty procedures appears to confirm that the United States and Russia have agreed to include Avangard in the scope of New START.[9]

Thus, the Sarmat and Avangard missile systems did not formally hamper the extension of New START or the negotiations on a follow-on treaty.

The Poseidon and Burevestnik systems are another matter. Based on the experience of previous strategic arms-control treaties, the inclusion of these systems in a hypothetical follow-on treaty could be considered, provided that similar systems or other new designs exist in the United States that are subject to arms control and do not upset the overall balance of deterrence capabilities. To date, it seems extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find a solution to this problem.

While it is important, primarily from a status and cost-saving perspective, for the Russian leadership to conclude a follow-on treaty with the Americans, it would be reasonable to assess the contribution of the Poseidon and Burevestnik systems to nuclear-deterrence capabilities. Even without these new systems, the existing and upgraded triad of Russian strategic nuclear forces (SNF) will provide a guaranteed nuclear deterrent that cannot be affected by US anti-missile and high-precision non-nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future.

As is known from open sources, there are plans to deploy 32 Poseidon super-torpedoes on four Belgorod-class nuclear submarines, one of which has already been launched in Severodvinsk in the presence of President Putin.[10] There are various estimates of its capabilities in terms of range, speed, and depth, along with US anti-torpedo measures, detection systems, and other factors. The Poseidon, with both nuclear and conventional warheads, is considered by experts to have various missions to strike US aircraft carriers, two naval bases where submarines with ballistic missiles are deployed, coastal infrastructure, and other key targets.

These problems are discussed in detail in a 2019 article by Alexander Timokhin, a well-known Russian journalist and military analyst.[11] After analyzing various hypothetical scenarios for the Poseidon’s use, as well as its uncertain survivability in conditions of active countermeasures, the article concludes that this weapon would not be effective.

The tasks assigned to this type of weapon give rise to fundamental questions about the conventional- or nuclear-warfare scenarios in which the Poseidon can be used. If we are talking about a large-scale conventional war, which side would start that war, Russia or the United States? Obviously neither, because if it were the United States, then Russia, according to its military doctrine, would retaliate with a nuclear strike, and for Russia to start such a war would be suicidal madness.

Mutual nuclear deterrence is based on a demonstration of a guaranteed retaliatory-strike capability, regardless of the existence of treaty obligations. The next question would then be about the place of a super-powerful nuclear armed Poseidon in nuclear-exchange scenarios. A retaliatory strike is traditionally planned to take place within a limited time frame after the launch of the aggressor’s first strike. As noted above, the existing and upgraded Russian SNF triad provides, for the foreseeable future, a guaranteed nuclear deterrent to the United States even without the Poseidon.

Then what is the purpose of its development, other than to demonstrate a new technological base and the use of small nuclear-power units and new materials? One explanation could be that, at some time in the future, the Americans would make a huge leap forward in developing and deploying a unified space-, air-, sea-, and ground-based ballistic missile-defense system, reviving the Strategic Defense Initiative, but on a new technological basis. This hypothetical system would be able to reliably intercept Russian ICBMs (mobile as well as stationary), SLBMs, and heavy bombers. At that point Poseidon would be the last nuclear deterrent (unless the Americans invented a defense against it). However, the fact that the Americans would conceive of and even plan such a program is discussed in Russia mainly as an incentive for additional funding for the military-industrial complex. Even if such a program were to be imagined in the United States, it would take decades to implement, and Poseidon would become hopelessly outdated.

If it presents an insurmountable obstacle to the highly desirable negotiations on a New START follow-on treaty and spurs a nuclear arms race, it would make sense to freeze the further development of the Poseidon, as well as production of Belgorod-class submarines, and retain the existing advances in design and production for some totally unpredictable eventuality.

Likewise, in no realistic scenario would the Burevestnik cruise missile make any contribution to Russia’s nuclear deterrence beyond what the existing triad already provides. It also should be borne in mind that the probability of the successful flight of cruise missiles that have a much shorter flight time than the Burevestnik is noticeably lower compared to the weapons in the SNF. Instead, the experience of building small-scale nuclear-propulsion systems in non-military applications might be more valuable.

3. Securing Outer Space

More than 70 states are involved in space activities; eight countries are capable of launching their own objects into space. Groups of outer-space objects belonging to Russia, the United States, China, and other nuclear states perform essential tasks of verification, intelligence gathering, and command, control, and communications for both nuclear and conventional weapons. Man-made threats disrupting their operations are constantly being discussed in government and expert circles. The Americans have already proposed setting up a dedicated hotline to deal with incidents in space.

Russia and China in 2008 proposed a draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects, but for various reasons, it has not been adopted. Its authors seem to have demonstrated a limited understanding of the spectrum of threats to activities in outer space. The draft refers only to “weapons in space” but does not mention land-, air-, or sea-based weapons capable of striking at objects in outer space. Moreover, disrupting the command-and-control centers of spacecraft in the course of conflicts involving conventional weapons or large-scale cyberattacks is sufficient to disrupt the functioning of any group of outer-space objects, irrespective of the group’s purpose. In addition, any treaty must include an extensive system for monitoring signatories’ compliance with its requirements, which makes the prospect of developing and agreeing on such a system extremely difficult.

Consequently, it would seem expedient as a first stage to develop and agree on a draft code of conduct on security of activities in outer space applicable to both states and nongovernmental entities and including prohibitions on

  • the development, testing and launching into space of any kind of weapon for the destruction of spacecraft or land-, sea-, and air-based objects;
  • the development and testing of land-, sea-, and air-based weapons for the destruction of outer-space objects; and
  • any impact on land- and sea-based stations for gathering and transmitting (relaying) information from outer space and controlling groups of outer-space objects.

The use of missile-defense assets that are already capable of intercepting objects in low orbits can be authorized by agreement between the parties to eliminate threats in outer space and on the ground.

Experience in creating and negotiating such codes and agreements does exist. For example, the 2002 Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, to which 131 countries have subscribed, includes a wide range of voluntary commitments on transparency and confidence-building measures and explicitly states that it is a first step toward a legally binding treaty.

4. Conclusions

This paper has examined three destabilizing factors that not only hamper negotiation processes but also increase the likelihood of nuclear conflicts of varying magnitude. The first is the proliferation of nuclear-armed cruise missiles. The second is the development and deployment of drones with nuclear propulsion and nuclear warheads. The third is activities in outer space in the absence of any security guarantees or measures.

Clearing the nuclear landscape of nuclear cruise missiles—which are not covered by existing treaties and generally are not tracked with accuracy—and the possible near-term deployment of nuclear drones will not diminish the security of any state. This conclusion is supported by the lack of both rational scenarios for the use of these systems and their contribution to nuclear-deterrence capabilities, as well as by their vulnerability to an adversary’s countermeasures and the difficulty of ensuring nuclear safety.

The drafting and negotiation of a code of conduct on security of activities in outer space for states and nongovernmental entities, including a ban on unauthorized interference with all elements of the outer-space infrastructure, irrespective of the activities’ area of operations, will help reduce the potential for conflict. That, in turn, will help preserve strategic stability and arms control.


The author sincerely thanks Grigory Shkalikov and Matthew Goldenberg for their work in translating this paper.

About the Author

Major General Vladimir Dvorkin (retired) was born in Saint Petersburg in 1936. In 1958, he graduated from the Higher Naval Engineering School in Sevastopol and began working at the State Central Navy Testing Range in Severodvinsk as a test engineer. Subsequently, he moved to the Fourth Central Research Institute at the Ministry of Defense in 1962. There he worked his way from a junior researcher to become the head of the institute in 1993, serving in that capacity until 2001.

He served as one of the primary authors of program documents on Russia’s strategic nuclear forces and strategic missile forces. Over the years, he has been involved as an expert in preparing the SALT II, INF, START I, and START II treaties, during which time he helped shape the Soviet and Russian positions on strategic arms reductions at arms-control talks.

General Dvorkin is an active member of the Russian Academy of Rocket and Artillery Sciences, the Academy of Military Science, the Russian Academy of Engineering, the International Academy of Engineering, and the Academy of Cosmonautics. He holds a doctorate in the technical sciences.

He is currently serving as chief researcher at the Center for International Security at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and he remains an active participant at various international conferences on arms control and nonproliferation.


[1] The information about STRATCOM’s position was conveyed to the author in a private conversation.

[2] Andy Weber and Christine Parthemore, “Cruise Control: The Logical Next Step in Nuclear Arms Control?,” Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, Vol. 2, No. 2 (2019), pp. 453-467, <>.

[3] Treaty between the Russian Federation and the United States of America on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, April 8, 2010.

[4] “SSHA razvernut rakety sredney i menshey dalnosti v otvet na shagi KNR” [The United States deploys intermediate and short-range missiles in response to China’s steps], TASS, October 13, 2020, <>.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Vladimir Dvorkin, “Kak sokhranit effektivnost yadernovo sderzhinaniya” [How to Maintain the Effectiveness of Nuclear Deterrence], Nezavisimaya gazeta, October 1, 2020, <>.

[7] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI Yearbook 2018: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security, 2018, <>.

[8] Vladimir Dvorkin, “Voennaya doktrina Rossii nuzhdaetsya v obnovlenii” [Russia’s Military Doctrine Needs an Update], Nezavisimaya gazeta, April 4, 2019, <>.

[9] “Kompleks ‘Avangard’ ne vykhodit za ramki dogovora SNV-3, zayavili v Genshtabe” [The Avangard Complex Is Not Beyond the Scope of New START, Announces the General Staff], RIA Novosti, July 24, 2019, <>.

[10] “Experimental carrier ‘Poseidon’ first went to sea for testing,” Top War, June 26, 2021, <>.

[11] Alexander Timokhin, “Atomnyi dron ‘Poseidon’: bespoleznoe sverkhoruzhie” [The Poseidon Nuclear Drone: A Useless Superweapon], Voennoe obozrenie [Military Review], January 16, 2019, <>.

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