The end of the nuclear triad? Air and ground components of strategic nuclear forces

The end of the nuclear triad? Air and ground components of strategic nuclear forces
The end of the nuclear triad? Air and ground components of strategic nuclear forces

Nuclear weapons are the mainstay of the world

Since its inception, nuclear weapons (NW), which subsequently evolved to thermonuclear (hereinafter referred to as the collective term "nuclear weapons"), have become an essential element of the armed forces of the leading countries of the world. At the present time, there is no alternative to nuclear weapons; mankind has not yet invented anything more destructive.

Nuclear weapons, if only one power had enough of it, would provide it with total military superiority over any other countries. Such a situation could well have developed in the middle of the 20th century, when the United States of America was the sole owner of nuclear weapons, which did not hesitate to use them at the end of World War II against Japanese cities. Only the intellectual and industrial power of the USSR, which made it possible to create its own nuclear weapons in the shortest possible time, did not allow the United States to unleash a third world war.

The end of the nuclear triad? Air and ground components of strategic nuclear forces

In our time, only nuclear weapons are the main factor holding back the start of the third world war. No matter how much the pacifists hate nuclear weapons, it is impossible to deny this fact: if there were no nuclear deterrence, the third world would most likely have happened long ago, and it is not known how many global wars would follow. The United States, claiming to be the "world gendarme", does not risk attacking nuclear-armed North Korea - they don’t even stick their nose in there, while other countries that do not possess nuclear weapons have been ruthlessly bombed and defeated.


There is a key condition that allows nuclear weapons to carry out the function of deterrence: it is nuclear parity between the leading world powers, Russia (USSR) and the United States, which ensures the guaranteed mutual destruction of adversaries in the event of a nuclear war. By guaranteed mutual destruction, of course, it means not the complete destruction of the enemy state and the death of the entire population, and certainly not the death of all life on planet Earth, as some people dream, but the infliction of such damage that will significantly exceed the benefits that the aggressor will receive from the start of the war.


The most important requirement for the nuclear arsenal is to ensure the possibility of delivering a retaliatory or retaliatory counter strike in the event that the enemy was the first to deliver a nuclear strike, hoping to simultaneously destroy the enemy's nuclear weapons due to surprise and win the war. This task is accomplished in several ways. The first method is the creation of an effective missile attack warning system (EWS), making a decision to retaliate, and a reliable control system that allows the launch command to be conveyed to the carriers of nuclear weapons. The second is to increase the survivability of carriers of nuclear weapons through camouflage and / or the ability to withstand an enemy strike.

To understand the relevance of various elements of the nuclear triad, let us consider its existing and prospective components for their resistance to a disarming enemy strike.

Strategic nuclear triad

The principle of "not putting all your eggs in one basket" is more than applicable to nuclear weapons.In the leading world powers, in Russia (USSR) and in the United States, the strategic nuclear forces (SNF) over time began to include three main components - a ground component, which includes silo or mobile missile systems, an air component, which includes strategic bombers with nuclear bombs and / or cruise missiles and a naval component, with nuclear missiles deployed on nuclear submarine missile carriers. More or less a full-fledged nuclear triad exists in the PRC, the rest of the members of the nuclear club are content with two or even one component of the nuclear triad.


Each component of the nuclear triad has its own advantages and disadvantages. And each country sets priorities in their development in its own way. In the USSR, the ground-based component of the strategic nuclear forces has traditionally been the strongest - the Strategic Missile Forces (Strategic Missile Forces), the United States rely more on the naval component of the strategic nuclear forces. In Great Britain, only the naval component of the strategic nuclear forces remained, in France the main component is the naval component of the strategic nuclear forces, and there is also a limited developed aviation component. Each component of the strategic nuclear forces has its own advantages and disadvantages. It is necessary to immediately make a reservation that it is precisely the stability of the components of strategic nuclear forces that is being considered in the conditions of an adversary delivering a sudden disarming strike.

Air component of strategic nuclear forces

Historically, the air (aviation) component of the strategic nuclear forces emerged first. It was from bombers that atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was with the help of bombers with nuclear bombs that the United States planned to inflict a massive nuclear strike on the USSR within the framework of the plans "Chariotir" (1948), "Fleetwood" (1948), "SAC-EVP 1-4a" (1948), "Dropshot" (1949) and others.

From the point of view of survivability, the air component of the strategic nuclear forces is the most vulnerable to a sudden disarming enemy strike. Bombers (missile bombers) at airfields are extremely vulnerable to both nuclear and conventional weapons. The time of their preparation for flight is quite long, and it is difficult to keep them in constant readiness for flight. The only way to ensure the survival of the air component of the strategic nuclear forces, in the event of a disarming strike by the enemy, is to carry out shift duty of aircraft in the air with nuclear weapons on board, which was occasionally carried out during the Cold War. However, this is too costly from an economic point of view: fuel is wasted, the resource of aircraft is consumed, the alternation of takeoffs and landings can lead to the failure of nuclear charges. In addition, there is always the risk of an accidental accident over its territory and the fall of nuclear charges with subsequent radiation contamination of the area. So airborne alert by bombers can be considered the exception rather than the rule.


The emergence of supersonic (Tu-22M3, Tu-160 B-1) or stealth (B-2) bombers does not change the situation, or even aggravates it, since the requirements for the conditions of their basing, the complexity of preparation for departure and the cost of a flight hour are higher.

Also, the air component of the strategic nuclear forces is extremely vulnerable to air defense systems, fighters and interceptors of the enemy at the stage of striking. The appearance of the "long arm" - cruise missiles (CR) of a long range, did not fundamentally change the situation. The survivability of the carriers has increased, but the low (subsonic) speed of the missile launchers makes them a fairly easy target compared to ballistic missiles. The situation could be changed by the adoption of aeroballistic missiles, but their parameters are likely to be inferior to the parameters of land and sea ballistic missiles due to the weight and size restrictions imposed by the capabilities of aircraft carriers. However, with a disarming blow, none of this matters.

One of the most promising weapons systems designed for nuclear deterrence is the Burevestnik cruise missile with a nuclear power plant.On the one hand, the declared unlimited range makes it possible to practically exclude the defeat of the carrier (the launch can be carried out over its own territory or on the border), to reduce the likelihood of the missile itself by bypassing the air defense / missile defense zones. On the other hand, the Burevestnik, regardless of whether it is subsonic (99%) or supersonic, will be extremely vulnerable to any enemy air defense systems. You can be sure that in the event of a conflict, when the enemy himself will initiate it, all forces will be involved, AWACS planes, balloons, airships and unmanned aerial vehicles capable of searching for air targets will be lifted into the sky. Naturally, this level of combat readiness will not be maintained for a day or two - in a nuclear war the stakes are extremely high. Therefore, with a high probability, the enemy will be able to detect most of the "Petrel" CD, after which their destruction will not be difficult.


Proceeding from this, the Burevestnik KR is rather a means of a first strike, since it allows, in peacetime, at the moment of the enemy's least readiness, to deliver a relatively covert strike along unpredictable routes of the KR advance.

There is no reliable information on the carriers of the KR "Burevestnik". In principle, the unlimited flight range makes the placement of the Burevestnik missile carrier on aircraft carriers senseless - the range will not increase, and the risk of a carrier accident appears. Most likely, given the US withdrawal from the treaty on the limitation of the deployment of intermediate and shorter-range missiles (INF Treaty), the Burevestnik missile launcher will most likely be deployed on ground-based carriers.

Ground component of strategic nuclear forces

The ground component of the strategic nuclear forces, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), appeared second, after the aviation one. For the USSR, its appearance for the first time meant not a hypothetical, but a real possibility of delivering a nuclear strike against the United States. The first ballistic missiles required lengthy preparation for launch, were deployed in open areas, and in fact were no less vulnerable than bombers at airfields.

Subsequently, ground-based strategic nuclear forces developed in several directions. The main thing was the placement of ICBMs in highly protected mines, from which they can be launched in the shortest possible time. Another direction in the development of the ground-based component of the strategic nuclear forces was the creation of mobile missile systems on an automobile and railroad chassis.


Each type of ground-based nuclear weapon carrier has its own advantages and disadvantages. Hidden in highly protected mines, ICBMs are protected from the actions of reconnaissance and sabotage groups, are invulnerable to high-precision conventional weapons, and not every nuclear charge can disable them. Their main disadvantage is that their coordinates are precisely known, and modern high-precision nuclear warheads can destroy them with a high probability.

The main advantage of mobile complexes is their secrecy and location uncertainty. When located at the base of the PGRK and BZHRK, they are also vulnerable, as are the aircraft at the airfields. But after entering the patrol route, it is much more difficult to detect and destroy them. For PGRK, the main factor of survival is the unpredictability of patrol routes, and the BZHRK is quite capable of getting lost in a huge number of similar trains, at least with the existing level of enemy reconnaissance means.

Since each type of ground-based component of the strategic nuclear forces has its own advantages and disadvantages, following the aforementioned principle (“do not put all your eggs in one basket”), both stationary - mine and mobile complexes have been adopted. The newest promising ground-based element of nuclear deterrence should be the RS-28 "Sarmat" ICBM, which should replace the heavy ICBM of the RS-36M2 "Voyevoda" ("Satan") series.The prospective heavy Sarmat ICBM should provide for the delivery of about ten warheads and a significant set of anti-missile defense (ABM) penetration means. Also, to overcome missile defense, a promising ICBM can strike along a gentle suborbital flight path, including through the South Pole.


Another means of overcoming missile defense should be the Avangard hypersonic guided warhead (UBB), which is flying along a complex flight path. At the initial stage, UBB "Avangard" is planned to be installed on the already outdated and currently not produced ICBMs UR-100N UTTH, but in the future they will be replaced by "Sarmat". On one ICBM "Sarmat" it is planned to place three UBB "Avangard".


The most modern mobile complex is the PGRK RS-24 "Yars" with three warheads. It was planned that the PGRK RS-24 "Yars" would be replaced or supplemented by the PGRK RS-26 "Rubezh", but this project was closed in favor of the deployment of the UBB "Avangard" on the ICBM UR-100N UTTH. Also, on the basis of the Yars ICBM, the development of the Barguzin BZHRK was carried out, but at the moment this work has been curtailed.


To what extent is the ground component of the strategic nuclear forces vulnerable to a surprise disarming enemy strike? If we talk about mine complexes, the adoption of new ICBMs does not fundamentally change the situation. On the one hand, there is high security, on the other hand, known coordinates and vulnerability to high-precision nuclear charges. An additional element that increases the likelihood of the survival of ICBMs in the mine can be the missile defense system of a missile silo, of the type being developed according to the Mozyr design and development project. But any missile defense system requires a guidance system based on radar or optical weapons. It can be assumed that when attacking protected missile silos, the enemy will carry out high-altitude detonation of one or more warheads in such a way that electromagnetic and light radiation will disable the missile defense guidance system immediately before other warheads enter the mine.

The PGRK is in a more threatened situation. The United States and NATO countries are actively developing their satellite constellations. Currently, commercial companies are actively developing large-scale production of satellites intended for deployment in low reference orbit (LEO) and providing global Internet communications, as well as creating cheap reusable launch vehicles for their launch. Plans include deploying thousands or even tens of thousands of satellites to LEO. At the end of 2019, 120 satellites were launched, in 2020 it is planned to carry out 24 launches of Starlink satellites, if there are 60 satellites in each launch, then their total number in orbit, taking into account the previously launched ones, will be 1560 pieces, which is more than the number of satellites of all countries of the world at the end of 2018 (less than 1,100 satellites).


Even if these commercial satellites are not used for military purposes (which is doubtful), the experience and technology obtained as a result of their development will allow the US military to develop and deploy a huge network of reconnaissance satellites, functioning as a single distributed antenna with a huge aperture. Potentially, this will allow the enemy to track the PGRK in real time and ensure the guidance of high-precision conventional and nuclear weapons, reconnaissance and sabotage groups at them. In this case, neither jamming (the enemy may have optical reconnaissance means) will help to deploy decoys. The stability of the PGRK against the damaging factors of a nuclear explosion is incomparable with that of a silo-based ICBM. In the event that PGRKs lose the stealth factor, their combat stability in the event of a sudden disarming enemy strike will tend to zero, therefore, the creation of such complexes will lose its meaning.

BZHRK will have a little more chances to hide from the "all-seeing eye" - there is a chance to get lost in a huge number of freight and passenger trains.But this will depend on the resolution and continuity of control of the territory of the Russian Federation by the enemy's space reconnaissance means. If the possibility of continuous monitoring in 24/365 mode is provided, with a resolution that allows tracking individual railway trains in parking lots, then the survival of the BZHRK will be a big question.


The air (aviation) component can only be regarded as a first strike weapon, its role in nuclear deterrence is minimal. As a deterrent, the aviation component can only be considered against countries that do not possess nuclear weapons or possess an insignificant number of nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles. Based on this, strategic bombers can be more effectively used to deliver conventional weapons to destroy ground and sea targets. It should be understood that the orientation of strategic aviation towards the use of conventional weapons of destruction does not negate the possibility of their use as carriers of nuclear weapons, it only sets priorities differently.

In the future, the ground component of the strategic nuclear forces may lose mobile systems, since their main advantage (stealth) may be under threat due to a significant increase in the effectiveness of the enemy's space reconnaissance assets.

It is unlikely that it will be possible to significantly increase the security of silo-based ICBMs, the only way to increase the probability of ICBM survival in the event of a sudden disarming enemy strike is to increase their number and, at the same time, territorial dispersal over the largest territory, in fact, an extensive path of development.

The most important condition for ensuring the delivery of a guaranteed retaliatory strike against the enemy in the event of a sudden disarming strike is the effective functioning of the early warning system and the entire chain that ensures decision-making and the issuance of a command to launch a nuclear strike. We will talk about this and the naval component of the strategic nuclear forces in the next article.

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