No Need to Look Far Afield?
No. 2 2015 April/June
Andrey Frolov

Expert of Russian International Affairs Council.

Russia’s Military Capabilities for Protecting National Interests

Several factors that determine the current position of Russia cause it to protect its specific interests (national or subnational) at the global level. These factors include Russia’s geography (the largest country in the world and common borders with the two largest economic and military powers – the United States and China); its nuclear weapons potential, which is comparable to that of the U.S.; the permanent member status in the UN Security Council; and the size of its economy, which ranks among the world’s top ten economies in terms of purchasing power parity.

In view of this, it would be reasonable to analyze the means and capabilities the Russian leadership has at its disposal for protecting its national interests. These means and capabilities can be divided into strategic and operational.


Russia’s strategic nuclear forces have the greatest military potential. This is the only sphere where Russia has parity with the United States, and the only tool that enables Russia to project its power (and, therefore, interests) to any point in the world. This can be done within a very short period of time, about half an hour or so at the most. These means can be used only in a hypothetical World War III; nevertheless, the strategic triad (strategic aviation, intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear missile submarines) allows Russia to preserve its sovereignty and conduct an independent policy.

As of January 1, 2015, the Russian strategic arsenal was estimated at 305 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with 1,166 warheads, eight strategic nuclear cruiser submarines with 128 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) (512 warheads), and 66 strategic bombers which can carry 200 warheads. Unlike the United States which in the mid-2000s announced plans to equip its SLBMs with conventional warheads (clusters) for use against critical targets, Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces (SMF) and Navy apparently do not have this alternative. Therefore, Russian ICBMs and SLBMs remain an element of a retaliatory nuclear strike and cannot be used in any other capacity.

The SMF are armed with 46 R-36M2 (SS-18 mod.5-6) ICBMs, 60 UR-100UTTH (SS-19) missiles, and 72 Topol (SS-25) missiles, developed and made back in Soviet times. Despite their service life extension, the missiles will not remain in service after 2022. Other weapons in service with the SMF were developed in the post-Soviet period. These include 60 silo-based and 18 road-mobile Topol-M (SS-27) missiles, and 45 mobile and four silo-based RS-24 Yars (SS-27 mod.2) missiles. Recent years have seen a surge in the batch production of ICBMs and SLBMs: in 2014, the Armed Forces of Russia received 38 ICBMs, including 16 land-based and 22 submarine-launched missiles. This year, the number of ICBMs to be purchased by the Armed Forces is expected to reach 50.

In the last few years, Russia has initiated several programs to create new and modernize existing missiles. Now it is fast-tracking the development of the RS-28 Sarmat heavy ICBM which is intended to replace the R-36 missile. Some of the components for the missile’s prototype have already been made, and the missile is planned to be assembled in 2015. The new system will go into serial production in 2018 after flight tests. The number of missiles to be made will at least match the number of R-36M2 missiles now in service, that is, several dozen.

Simultaneously, Russia is developing the Rubezh ICBM (also known as Avangard), which will have higher accuracy, an improved missile defense penetration capability, and a relatively small size. It is expected to replace Topol-M and Yars ICBMs. Judging by some facts, its prototypes are now being tested. In addition, Russia is developing the Barguzin rail-mobile missile system which will carry six Yars ICBMs and which is expected to be built by 2018-2019.

The naval component of Russia’s nuclear deterrence forces is not as diverse. Nevertheless, the Navy has three types of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN): project 955 (Borei) (three submarines), 667BDRM (Delta-IV) (six) and 667BDR (Delta III) (two), armed with three kinds of SLBMs (R-30 Bulava (SS-NX-30), R-29RMU2.1 Liner (SS-N-23), and R-29R (SS-N-18), respectively. After project 667BDR is taken out of operation in the coming years, the triad will be based on eight project 955/955A SSBNs and six 667BDRM submarines. SLBMs for both projects have been tested and put into batch production. According to available information, no new developments are being planned.

The aviation component of the triad will remain stable in the next few years – a maximum of 15 Tu-160M (Blackjack)strategic bombers, now undergoing modernization, and no more than 55 Tu-95MSM (Bear-H) bombers, to be upgraded too, will remain in service. Of the three components of the Strategic Nuclear Forces (SNF), only aviation can use non-nuclear weapons and project power in a conventional conflict actually at any distance from Russia.

Upon modernization, the aircraft will be able to use free-fall bombs and new cruise missiles, Kh-555 (AS-15 Kent-C), Kh-101 and Kh-102, which may also be armed with conventional weapons (Soviet-made Kh-55 missiles, now in service en masse with the Russian Air Force, can carry only nuclear warheads). Beginning in the 2020s, these aircraft will be replaced with a new strategic bomber developed under the PAK DA (prospective aviation complex for long-range aviation) program. According to the most recent statements, the first prototype is to be created by 2019.

The above prompts the conclusion that Russia preserves (and will preserve in the foreseeable future) the ability to demonstrate and support its sovereignty, and defend itself in a global conflict that may involve strategic nuclear weapons. This ability is due to the development and batch production of new and modernized delivery systems. Except for strategic aviation, the application of these systems is very limited and they can only be used under scenarios that seem unlikely.

The situation is not as obvious if we analyze another level of capabilities – non-nuclear strategic (operational) projection of power.


Russia’s air striking power is based on about a hundred Tu-22M3 (Backfire) long-range bombers which can operate over Europe and a large part of China and the Middle East. These aircraft cannot use precision-guided weapons, which can result in their heavy losses (as was demonstrated by the downing of one Tu-22M3 by a weak Georgian air defense system during the August 2008 war). There are plans to convert 30 aircraft into Tu-22M3Ms before 2020. The new planes will use new Kh-32 missiles and will have an improved sighting system for using free-fall and, possibly, guided bombs. The Tu-22M3M will be an analogue of the U.S. B-1B Lancer as a long-range and long-endurance close air support aircraft.

The Tu-22M3 can be partly replaced by the Su-34 tactical bomber, many of which have been purchased by Russia’s Air Force in the post-Soviet period. As of early 2015, there were 50 batch-produced Su-34 (Fullback) aircraft in service in Russia, and another 78 bombers are planned to be purchased. This will bring the number of aircraft of this type in service with the Russian Air Force to 130-140 by the year 2020. They will be capable of using precision-guided weapons (smart bombs), while suppressing enemy air defenses, at a distance of up to 2,000 kilometers from the Russian border without refueling. Although the aircraft was initially intended to replace the Su-24M (Fencer) tactical bomber, the reduction of the number of the Tu-22M3s, as well as the more advanced avionics and an increased bomb-carrying capacity of the Su-34, allows viewing the latter as a substitute for the long-range bomber, although, considering the reduction of the Su-24M fleet, it will not be able to fully replace the Tu-22M3 planes.

As we can see, Russia has the ability to project power by way of destroying individual targets at long distances from its borders. Its present and prospective forces allow doing this notwithstanding countermeasures by limited enemy forces. However, the aviation component has two weak points, namely, the lack of airfields abroad that Russian aircraft could use, and the small number of tanker aircraft even for the present aircraft fleet.

In the former case, Russia can use several airfields in the Commonwealth of Independent States. For example, the Kant air base in Kyrgyzstan could be used by a small group of aircraft for operation in Central Asia. At the end of 2014, Russia was allowed to deploy one Su-27SM3 (Flanker) regiment at a Belarusian air base in Baranovichi. Russian aircraft are also stationed in Armenia. Outside the CIS, or more precisely, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Russia has no bases, although in recent years it held negotiations with Vietnam and Djibouti for the use of their airfields, but they did not succeed.

The situation with tanker aircraft is as difficult. At present, the Russian Air Force has only 19 Il-78 (Midas) and Il-78M tankers. In addition, Su-24M bombers are theoretically capable of buddy refueling using external refueling pods. Potential “consumers” include not only strategic and tactical bombers (the Tu-22M3 does not have the required equipment under the SALT II Treaty, and it is not clear whether this equipment will be installed in the Tu-22M3M version) but also MiG-31 (Foxbat), Su-27SM3, Su-33 (Flanker-D), Su-30Sm/M (Flanker-C), Su-35 (Flanker-E+), MiG-29SMT (Fulcrum), and MiG-29K/KUB (Fulcrum-D) fighters, and A-50 (Mainstay) airborne early warning aircraft. Therefore, Russia has a limited ability to keep a large number of aircraft in air for delivering massive strikes at long distances from its borders.

The situation should improve somewhat after the Air Force is supplied 31 new Il-78M-90A tanker aircraft in 2020 or more likely later, and at least two Il-96-400TZ planes in 2016. If the IL-78/78M aircraft, now in service, undergo service life extension and modernization, the number of tankers will exceed 50 by 2020-2025, which will allow planning large-scale operations in remote regions. Yet, even in this case, the absence of airfields outside the former Soviet Union will limit the use of Russian aviation and, consequently, its ability to project power and protect national interests.

The above also applies to military transport aviation (excluding civil operators of such aircraft), although the number of military transport aircraft is still great – 26 An-124 (Condor) super-heavy airlifters (of them, 17 are in storage), which are undergoing overhaul and modernization, and about 130 Il-76MD (Candid) medium-class military transport aircraft (including 42 in storage), 30 of which are to be overhauled and upgraded to the IL-76MDM before 2020. All these aircraft have turbojet engines, which limits their use to paved runways.

In 2012, the Ministry of Defense ordered 39 new Il-76MD-90A aircraft, which are to enter into service with the Air Force before 2020. The weak point of Russian military transport aircraft is their relatively small range and inability to be refueled in air. Given the absence of airfields abroad, this factor limits the possibility of strategic airlifts of troops and cargo outside the CIS. Inside Russia, exercises are regularly held to practice strategic maneuvers, and the transport potential of the Air Force was demonstrated during the war with Georgia and the Crimean events in 2014. Yet, the possibility of airlifting troops and supplying them in remote parts of the world for a long period of time (similarly to the participation of NATO troops in the Afghan campaign) raises questions.

The existing aircraft fleet cannot land troops or equipment on unpaved airfields, which also reduces the possibility of Russia’s global presence and prompt responses to crises. This shortcoming manifested itself during the war with Georgia. It turned out then that the Russian Air Force was unable to deliver heavy weapons directly to the theater of operations. The nearest airfield where the Il-76MD could land was located in Vladikavkaz, 100 kilometers from the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, but separated by the Caucasus Mountains. The An-70 military transport aircraft powered by propfan engines, which has been developed since Soviet times and which is capable of taking off and landing on unpaved runways, was included in the State Armament Program for the Period Until 2020. It was planned that the Russian Air Force would purchase 60 An-70 aircraft. However, given the present state of Ukrainian-Russian relations, this aircraft is no longer viewed as an option. Russia has no plants for its large-scale production and there are no purely Russian analogs of the aircraft even at the design stage.

At the same time, Russian IL-76 aircraft can drop troops and equipment by parachute. At present, the Airborne Troops comprise two airborne divisions, two air assault divisions, four separate air assault brigades, and one special purpose brigade. Since 2014, the strength of the Airborne Troops has been growing and is planned to be doubled by 2020 from 36,000 to 72,000 troops, mainly by increasing the strength of brigades and divisions.

However, the increased strength of the Airborne Troops will exceed the capabilities of military transport aviation to airdrop or land troops and to supply them, which will remain unchanged. Given the absence of air bases abroad, Russia will depend on other countries’ permission to use their airspace, which will not be easy to get. Russia may face a situation similar to that in 1999 when, in response to the surprise advance of Russian paratroopers to Pristina, NATO effectively blocked their reinforcement by pressing neighboring countries into refusing Russia’s requests to use their airspace.

Oddly, similar constraints also apply to the Special Operations Forces (SSN), which were established as “Super Spetsnaz” to accomplish a wide range of tasks. Their strength was planned to be increased to nine brigades. In point of fact, as far as one can judge, the SSN are insignificant in strength and can successfully perform only local operations. Problems with logistics and reduced transport capabilities significantly weaken their potential on a global scale.

So, despite the presence of well-armed and numerous airborne troops and the SSN, their ability to effectively perform their roles is limited by the CIS boundaries. Measures to build and modernize military transport aircraft increase the percentage of serviceable planes, which improves the speed, response and strength of airlifted troops, but there are doubts about the potential for effective protection of Russian interests on a global scale through emergency airlifts of large contingents of troops.

Now let us take a look at Russia’s capability to project power on the seas. The modern Russian Navy is a conglomerate of Soviet-designed ships, built back in the 1980s and 1990s, and new ones which have begun to enter service en masse in the past five years. However, many of newly built ships have some faults and require field development. Today the Navy is unable to deliver precision-guided strikes with conventional weapons, except for a few ships and submarines armed with the Kalibr missile system (of these, one escort ship and three fast attack craft operate within the Caspian Flotilla). Kalibr can be considered an analog of the U.S. BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missile which is actively used by the U.S. and British navies against surface targets. The presence of the only aircraft carrier in the Russian Navy, Admiral Kuznetsov (Project 11435), is rather symbolic. It carried about ten Su-33 fighters with a low strike capability, which will increase after 24 new MiG-29K/KUB multirole fighters come aboard. However, this reinforcement will have little long-term effect because the aircraft carrier is to undergo a major refit and modernization, which was initially scheduled for 2012.

At the same time, there are ships in the Russian Navy which can transport troops and cargo over long distances. Despite major cuts from Soviet times, the Navy now has four large landing ships (Project 1171) and 15 Project 775 ships, although they are largely outdated and are in service with four different fleets. The capabilities of this universal instrument were demonstrated when Russia supplied its armaments to Syria when commercial tonnage and aircraft could not be used, and in the spring of 2014 when Russia was building up its military force in Crimea. On the other hand, the large landing ship concept, which provides for landing troops on the shore using ramps, limits the capabilities of these ships (similarly to military transport aircraft and paved runways) and is obviously out of date compared with amphibious assault ships operating not only in leading naval powers but also in such countries as South Korea and Algeria.

At the same time, most of the large landing ships are physically deteriorated, and there are no prospects for their replacement in the foreseeable future (in 2016, the Navy will receive one Project 11711 large landing ship, at best, and another ship of the same type has been ordered). From this point of view, the purchase of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships (helicopter carriers) from France and the subsequent purchase of two more ships of this class would considerably broaden Russia’s capability to project power and carry out “overseas operations.” These ships would carry combat and transport helicopters, as well as landing craft for use from well decks, which would multiply the potential of the Russian combat team on board. In other words, the acquisition of these ships will objectively strengthen the Russian Navy and has no alternative.

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To sum up, Russia’s present military capabilities enable it to preserve its sovereignty and prevent unpunished use of nuclear weapons against it, thereby effectively playing the role of strategic deterrence. However, this tool is highly specialized and cannot be used in a non-nuclear conflict.

Under this scenario, Russia’s potential for defending its interests (the destruction of individual targets at a considerable distance, independent operations far from Russian borders, landing operations and the seizure of territories,  protection of citizens and their property, humanitarian operations, etc.) is much more limited. Present-day programs for modernizing and purchasing weapons slightly improve the situation but do not solve the problem completely. In the absence of a large number of allies, bases and airfields in various parts of the world, Russia’s capability for global presence is limited by the range of its military transport aircraft and the number of serviceable Soviet-built large landing ships.

This prompts the following conclusion: either Russia does not have real national interests going beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union, which is within reach of its present military equipment, or the country is unable to effectively and independently defend them on its own. This situation is in fact reflected in Russia’s strategic guidance documents which announce the political leadership’s plans. It is highly unlikely that the Russian Armed Forces will be able to project power in the next ten years since arms purchases necessary for that are not provided for either in the present State Armament Program-2020 or in the State Armament Program for 2016-2025, which is being drafted now.

In addition, the expected defense budget cuts will delay for a long time such rarely implemented projects as the development and construction of aircraft carriers, destroyers, new bombers (PAK DA), and some other systems. The emphasis will be put on efforts to maintain and, possibly, build up strategic nuclear forces and tactical armaments for the Army and frontline aviation. As a result, Russia’s ability to project power and defend its national interests will be limited to the post-Soviet region for many years to come.