The Conventional Imbalance and Debate on Russian Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons

Oleg Shulga

By Oleg Shulga

President, Shulga Consulting

Wednesday 6 February 2013

Further reductions in the number of Russian Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons (NSNW) are inconceivable without first assessing the intended role of these weapons in the declared and undeclared ideas of the Russian Federation military. An understanding of the context that generated those ideas is also an important step toward the necessary wider assessment.

Current Russian military science and practice features basically two types of offensive wars based on the purpose of the attacker – namely either to force the attacked to give in to a series of imposed conditions or to occupy the country and change its regime, state structure, and use its territory and resources.

The first type of war can to some extent rely on remote warfare, though even then that cannot guarantee total success and desired target achievement. A good example is the first US-Iraq War, which brought a US military victory of sorts, but not the desired overall result on the ground. That result became possible only years later- when the US decided to fully commit to action its ground forces in an occupation of Iraq.

The second type of war outcome however is totally inconceivable without ground forces attacking and seizing ground. According to classic military theory and practice it is only ground forces that can achieve this objective and all other armed forces only create the conditions for them to do so.

Russia, and the country that it emerged from, the Soviet Union, has been the object of the second type of war or related strategies for almost 100 years now. This is not surprising, as Russia is a big and very rich, but relatively scarcely populated country. The idea of potentially getting hold of Russian resources persists, moreover, in certain personal and collective state minds.

At the same time, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact, combined with serious economic problems in Russia in the immediate post-Communist period, forced the country’s leadership to shrink the size of its ground forces down to a more affordable size while still trying to cover all necessary defense needs at the same time. Currently the strength of the Russian Ground Forces is assessed at 316, 500 troops, including Airborne (35, 000), Naval Infantry (9,500) and Coastal Defense (2,000).

According to the most recent Russian Military Doctrine, Russia currently does not have any existing military threats but it does have what are described as valid military risks. The most relevant for the purposes of this article are two of the latter, namely NATO’s -“urge to bring its military infrastructure to the borders of Russia” and “the deployment (ramp-up) of military contingents by foreign states (or groups of states) in the territories adjacent to Russia and its allies.”

Based on this statement the entire European border of Russia including the North- and South-West is a line of declared military risk, specifically in relation to NATO. The border with China/Mongolia is another line of military risk. Although it is undeclared, it is identified indirectly.

As the table on the distribution of forces attached to the end of this article makes clear, at the Chinese/Mongolian border Russia has 7 times less troops than China.

In the European theatre NATO Ground Forces are also 7 times larger than Russia’s.

In the European North-West and West, Russian ground forces in the borderline areas are smaller numerically than those of every neighboring country with the exception of Estonia.

Russian ground forces in the Kaliningrad Region are 4 times smaller than Polish.

In the South Russian Federation ground forces are 3 times smaller than Turkey’s Northern ground contingent, while they exceed those of other neighboring countries, in particular Georgia - by 5 times.

In the Far East the DPRK Army is 50 times bigger that the Russian forces located in the area of the joint border.
This brief analysis of ground force distributions indicates several things.

First, the numerical strength of the Russian ground forces and its distribution over the exceptionally vast territory excludes the possibility of any substantial concentration of Russian forces for large scale offensive operations.

Second, the low numerical strength of the Russian Army implies an exclusively defensive approach to warfare and the need for compensating for smaller conventional forces with some other means.

In the 1970s the United States initiated a so called “Offset Strategy” which envisioned compensating for the then superiority of the Warsaw Pact in ground forces through the advanced development of the more sophisticated weapons, centered on air superiority, dominant intelligence and communications systems and precision weapons. The US approach was successfully tested on the Iraqi Army during the First Iraq War and it resulted in the exponential growth of remote sensors and weapons in the US military, in the form of UAVs and other assets.

In the current situation Russia is forced to do something similar to compensate for the very dangerous conventional force disparity it faces in each of its two areas of identified military risk.

Given huge financial constraints and based on reasonable logic, Russia is relying heavily in the first place on what it has to hand- namely its Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons, possessed already in abundance.

Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons are the Russian ‘economic version’ of the earlier US ‘Offset Strategy’.
Non-strategic nuclear weapons suit this purpose because of their two main qualities – namely their high destruction efficiency especially against ground forces and, the possibility they offer of keeping any conflict at the lower than strategic nuclear exchange level- even when using WMD.

Third and even more important-they already exist and do not require any additional research or investment.

Based on the brief analysis above it is safe to say that, while using all diplomatic efforts to reach maximum security vis-à-vis its neighbors, Russia can be expected to decline any steps toward reducing its non-strategic nuclear weapons without a dramatic change in the overall strategic force potential, ratio, correlation and balance with regard to its neighbours.

 

Country

Ground

Air

Combat aircraft

Population Mln. p

Ratio

1

Norway                          

8 900

3 650

63

4.7

 

2

Estonia                           

5 300

250

0

1.3

 

3

Latvia                              

1 137

284

0

2.2

 

4

Lithuania                        

8 200

980

0

3.5

 

5

Poland                          

46 900

17 200

112

38.4

 

 

Direct contact states

70 437

 

 

 

 

6

Slovakia                          

6 230

3 944

22

5.5

 

7

Hungary                          

9 911

5 039

14

9.9

 

8

Romania                       

41 500

9 500

70

22

 

 

Indirect contact

57 641

 

 

 

 

 

First line of contact  W

128 078

 

 

 

 

9

Turkey                           

402 000

60 000

338

78.8

 

 

Turkey North-East

200 000

 

 

 

 

 

First line of contact S

402 000

60 000

 

 

 

 

NATO First line 

530 078

 

 

 

 

10

Germany                       

105 291

44 565

160

81.5

 

11

France                           

130 600

52 669

331

65

 

12

UK                                  

99 950

39 400

365

62.7

 

13

Italy                                

107 500

43 032

247

61

 

14

Spain                             

78 121

21 172

185

47

 

15

The Netherlands                

20 836

8 030

72

16.7

 

16

Portugal                       

25 701

7 218

43

10.8

 

17

Belgium                        

12 544

5 739

88

10.4

 

18

Czech Republic                    

12 833

4 804

47

10.2

 

19

Bulgaria                          

16 304

6 706

62

7

 

20

Denmark                        

9 925

3 358

45

5.5

 

21

Croatia                           

11 390

3 500

10

4.5

 

22

Albania                           

8 150

0

0

3

 

23

Slovenia                          

7 600

 

0

2

 

24

Luxemburg                    

900

 

0

0.5

 

25

Iceland                           

0

0

0

0.33

 

 

NATO w/o US & Canada

1 178 000

341 040

2 274

 

 

 

West

776 000

281 040

 

 

 

 

South

402 000

60 000

 

 

 

27

Canada                           

34 800

19 900

95

34

 

28

US                                 

76 000

848 533

 

344 568

 

1 435

311

 

 

 

Total NATO Europe

1 253 000

341 040

 

 

 

 

 

China                           

1 600 000

300 000

1 693

1 338

 

 

3 Mil Districts North

770 000

 

 

 

 

 

Russia                          

316 500*

167 000

1 793

138.7

 

 

West 1 line

40 000

 

 

 

2- 45 000

 

South 1 line

70 000

 

 

 

2- 30 000

 

Central District vs China

30 000

 

 

 

2-25 000

 

Eastern District vs China

65 000

 

 

 

2- 5 000

Other countries bordering Russia

 

Finland

16 000

2 600

109

5,26

 

 

Belarus

29 600

18 170

128

9,58

 

 

Moldova

3 231

826

6

3,7

 

 

Ukraine

70 753

45 240

211

45,1

 

 

Georgia

14 000

13 410

12

4,6

 

 

Azerbaijan

56 840

7 900

44

9,4

 

 

Kazakhstan

30 000

12 000

162

17,3

 

 

Mongolia

5 600

800

3

3,13

 

 

North Korea

1 020 000

110 000

603

24,45

 

 *Including 270 000 Army, 35 000 – Airborne, 11 500 – Naval Infantry, 2 000-Coastal Defense