New weapons: new generation nuclear weapons, incl. delivery methods (nuclear triad)

Nuclear weapons have served as the highest possible deterrence available since the end of WWII and will be such far in the future. New generation nukes entail more penetrability, high precision, maneuverability and MIRV-capability.

The United States

The US is another of those two countries with massive nuclear arsenal and full nuclear triad.

In last ten years, Pentagon has had quite slow pace developing its nuclear arsenal but announced in early 2020 the deployment of sea-based ballistic missiles (Trident) outfitted with low-power nuclear warheads (W76-2). The purpose of the move is to counter the “Russian threat”.  John Rood, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, said that the measure was taken to reduce the risk of nuclear war although many critics (Bulletin of Atomic Scientists) believe this will increase rather than disease the risk of nuclear war.

According to the experts, the US upgrade program consists of several stages:

  •     sea-based missiles (Trident missiles)
  •     ground-based missiles (Minuteman missiles)
  •     tactical nuclear bombs (dropped from strategic bombers)

The newly deployed W76-2 warhead is reported to have an explosive yield of five kilotons or about 1 per cent of the existing W76-1 weapon. The supposed lower-yield weapon is nevertheless an instrument of immense mass destruction, equivalent to approximately a third of the power of the bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945.

The present context is also confusing (the US quitted JCPOA, INF and indicates no intention to New START). Anyway, the Trident project is going on but the renewal of Washington’s main nuclear arsenal will require a significant portion of the yearly military budget, around $50 billion, according to Pentagon’s estimates. The overall total cost of a decade’s work may amount up to over 1000 billion dollars.

The experts speculate that the US is reacting to Russia’s development of hypersonic non-nuclear weapons which are said to be able to evade any anti-missile defense system. Moscow maintains that its arsenal is predicated on a doctrine of self-defense and not a first-strike objective. In any case, it seems that the US having realized that it has lost out to Russia in development of hypersonic non-nuclear weapons has taken the revanche of expanding its nuclear options.

As to the delivery methods, the US Air Force considers retiring a large portion of its legacy combat jets to save funds for reinvestment in more modern aircraft. The B-1B Lancer heavyweight variable swept wing bomber has been a leading candidate for early retirement due to its increasingly limited capabilities, very low availability rates and high operational costs. Reduced Lancer capacity will be compensated, at least partly, by increasing use of B-52H strategic bombers.


Russia is another of the two countries with massive nuclear arsenal and full nuclear triad.

It has continued the development process of its nuclear arsenal, from which the main part still is coming from the Cold War era, like in the US arsenal as well.

The recent published novelty is Sarmat R-28, next generation, silo based intercontinental ballistic missile, whose deployment is now officially scheduled in 2021. R-28 Sarmat is a liquid fueled heavy ICBM designed to have high throw weight, deploying multiple warheads and numerous penetration aids. It may be as heavy as a 200 tons replacement for SS-18, although some suggesting that its actually much closer to the weight of the SS-19, that is towards 100 tons. Other new ground based mobile ICBMs will be RS-12M Topol (SS-25) and RS-24 Yars (SS-29).

Russia is in the middle of a decade-long modernization of its strategic nuclear force posture that involves phasing out Soviet-era strategic forces and replacing them on a less-than-one-for-one basis with newer systems. Modernization work covers the whole range of arsenal: ICBM (silo-based missiles), SSBN/SLBM (submarine-based missiles), strategic bombers as well as other non-strategic nuclear weapons/missiles.

The effects might be (by 2024):

•There will be fewer total missiles but with slightly more total warheads (still within New START limit, although treaty expires in 2021)

•The ICBM force will be slightly less mobile but carry more MIRVs

•The future missile force will be more MIRVed than today’s force (Russia is compensating for having fewer missiles than the United States by maximizing warhead loading on each missile)

•The SSBN force will have more warheads than today

The present strategic bombers are in the heavy modernization process (TU-160, TU-95, TU-22M) and a new concept is on the drawing board, a stealth bomber PAK DA, which is estimated coming in flight test phase late 2020s.

The background of Russia’s modernization program both with nuclear and other weapons goes back to the year 2002, when Russia was weak and the US unilaterally abrogated the ABM Treaty and began two large-scale programs, pursuing the aim of neutralizing Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

The first was the global ABM system (Aegis and THAAD systems) surrounding Russia and China. Land-placed ABM bases were deployed in California, Alaska, Romania, Poland and later in Japan, South Korea, and Qatar. The US is also deploying a naval ABM component which at the moment includes 30 destroyers and 5 cruisers deployed in direct proximity to Russia.

The US also started pursuing the Prompt Global Strike (PGS) program, which seeks the ability to launch precision non-nuclear strike against any target on the planet within 1 hour. PGS entailed the development of several hypersonic delivery vehicle types, including cruise missiles and gliding warheads. Since these measures undermined the foundations of deterrence, namely Mutually Assured Destruction, Russia was forced to respond. It launched several weapons programs in order to nullify US and NATO superiority in that area.

On March 1, 2018, Vladimir Putin made his most important speech probably since the time of the 2007 Munich Conference. During his speech, he introduced 6 high-tech weapons systems which were developed in order to preserve strategic parity that was being undermined by the US and NATO. One of those Putin’s “Wunderwaffen” is Avangard, a hypersonic glider attached to new Sarmat R-28 ICBM.


China is a “developing country” in this nuclear respect, however “very progressing”.

As stated before, China purchased a lot of military hardware and know-how from Russia in 1990s and 2000s but along its increasing self-reliance China is developing its own military industrial complex according the national plan “Made in China 2025”. This main principle is valid with the nuclear technology too. China invests considerable resources to maintain a limited, survivable nuclear force that can guarantee a damaging retaliatory strike. As part of this, China has long maintained a “no first use” (NFU) policy, stating it would use nuclear forces only in response to a nuclear strike against China.

China tries to optimize its nuclear force structure, improve strategic early warning, command and control, missile penetration, rapid reaction and survivability and protection as well as deter other countries from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China.

China is developing a new generation of mobile missiles, with warheads consisting of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) and penetration aids, intended to ensure the viability of its strategic deterrent, precision strike and missile defense capabilities. The PLA is enhancing peacetime readiness levels for these nuclear forces to ensure responsiveness and maintains nuclear-capable delivery systems in its Rocket Force and Navy.

As of 2017, the Air Force had been reassigned a nuclear mission, probably with a new strategic bomber, which would provide China with its first credible nuclear triad of delivery systems dispersed across land, sea and air. China is working to develop a ground-based early warning capability jointly with Russia as well a space-based early warning capability that could support this posture in the future.

China’s military has shown off new weapons during the parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China in Beijing, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019.

The DF-17 hypersonic glider vehicle can be used as a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle, a MIRV, to deliver its warheads, which makes it far more difficult to detect and intercept. The carrier will be an upgraded DF-41, an intercontinental ballistic missile with a range of 15,000 kilometers (China’s longest-range weapon).

China’s new multi-warhead intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) DF-41 is now combat ready. Currently, China has two major ICBMs: DF-5 is a silo-based liquid-propellant missile and DF-31 is a mobile launcher-based missile that is propelled by solid fuel. The DF-5 has a larger load and lethality but responds more slowly because of its liquid-fuel system and the DF-31 runs faster but has a lower lethality than the DF-5. The new ICBM Dongfeng-41(DF-41) combines the advantages of the above two missiles, and is able to perform strikes with more precision and efficiency.

China also displayed an upgrade of its mainstay missile, the DF 31, which has a range of more than 11,200 kilometers that puts most of the continental United States within reach. The second-generation Dongfeng-31AG, which like the DF-41 uses solid fuel for ease of deployment and speed of launch, comes with “high mobility and precision,” according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

Displayed for the first time, the JL-2, submarine-launched ballistic missile believed to be standard weaponry for China’s Jin class nuclear-powered subs, which can deploy 12 missiles with one warhead each. Their range of 7,200 kilometers makes it more for regional use than to the intercontinental range. The next generation solid fuel SLBM, JL-3, is in the test phase and is expected to enter service next year, has a range of up to 14,000km and is equipped with 10 independent guided nuclear warheads.

China’s latest CJ-100 supersonic cruise missile also made its public debut. Little is known about the weapon that is speculated to be a replacement for the PLA’s current CJ-10 cruise missile which has an estimated range of about 1,500 kilometers. The CJ-100 is characterized by a long range, high precision and quick responsiveness and is the latest addition to the CJ missile series.

China’s CM-401 missile is a new type of supersonic ballistic anti-ship missile, using near space trajectory and capable of all-course high supersonic maneuverable flight, terminal diving and high-velocity top-attacking, various platform launching firing. It is mainly used to rapidly and exactly attack medium-large sized vessels and ships, formations and port targets. According to company’s officials, it has the characteristics of multi-ballistic coordinated capability, powerful damage capability, strong penetration ability and system combat. The new CM-401 missile has an estimated top speed of Mach 6 and a maximum range of 290 km.

Chinese sources have reported that a new anti-ship hypersonic missile is being tested by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). According to the current information, the prototype hypersonic missile, being developed to increase the firepower of the newest Chinese Type 055 guided missile destroyers, has done successfully land tests. The new hypersonic missile, known as YJ-XX, will be capable of destroying US warships missile defenses. The YJ-XX is a hypersonic missile, with the range of 1000 km, allegedly capable of penetrating US air defense systems based on Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) Block IIA and SM-6 Block IA hit-to-kill interceptor missiles.

The Dong Feng-26 (DF-26): In January 2019, the PLARF had carried out an exercise of its new DF-26 (Dong Feng intermediate-range ballistic missile, IRBM) in Northwest China. These completely mobile missiles are capable of targeting medium and large ships at sea and, because of their modular design, they can accommodate several configurations of conventional warheads as well as nuclear warheads.  The D-26 “ship killer” should serve to deter American ships from interfering in China’s territorial waters in the South China Sea where China continues to develop various islands for military purposes.  The DF-26 has a range of 4500 km which will allow China to target bases in Guam, this is why the nickname of this missile is “Guam Killer”.