The Russian federal budget is characterized by a high degree of opacity in relation to spending on defence and security. Of the nuclear weapon states (i.e. China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States), Russia is less transparent than the USA and the UK, and more similar to France, for which there are also reporting and transparency issues when it comes to disclosing the costs of its nuclear arsenal. This applies in particular to the procurement of armaments and spending on the individual services of the armed forces. The funding of nuclear weapons is no exception. The available evidence is fragmentary and a considerable degree of estimation is required to obtain an overall total for spending on Russia’s nuclear triad. For Russian specialists this is a highly sensitive topic and there do not seem to be any attempts to undertake this exercise within the country. Given the lack of transparency, ‘Sovietological’ methods often necessary in the past to estimate economic data relating to the Soviet Union are employed.
This topical backgrounder starts with an overview of Russia’s large-scale nuclear modernization programme, which started after the adoption of its state armament programme for 2011–20. It then outlines Russia’s nuclear institutions and how the expenditure is managed within Russia’s federal budget. Finally, it provides an estimate of Russia spending on nuclear weapons between the years 2010 and 2016 based on the fragmentary evidence available. Due to the scarcity of data, 2010 and 2016 have been selected since these are the years with the most data available.
Russia’s nuclear modernization programme
Russia’s 2011–20 state armament programme was intended as an intensive ‘once-and-for-all’ catch-up process, making good almost two decades when the country was unable to afford to acquire new weapons for its armed forces. At a time when its conventional forces were exceptionally weak, Russia gave nuclear weapons top priority and viewed them as vital to its defence.
Under the 2011–20 programme Russia’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) have undergone considerable modernization, with older Soviet-era systems being replaced by the RS-12 M1 and M2 Topol-M (designated SS-27 Mod 1 by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO) and then the RS-24 Yars (SS-27 Mod 2) missile, procured since 2011. A total of 102 of the latter system were in service by early 2018. Russia’s naval component of its nuclear triad is carried by a fleet of nuclear strategic submarines, now being modernized with the procurement of the Project 955/955A Borei class vessels armed with the RSM-56 Bulava (SS-N-32) missile. At the same time, the older Project 667 BDRM Delfin (Delta IV) submarines have been upgraded by the acquisition of RSM-54 Sineva/Lainer (SS-N-23) submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The airborne components of the triad are carried by Russia’s fleet of long-range strategic bombers: the TU-160 (Blackjack) and the ageing, but now mainly modernized, TU-95MS (Bear).
A new state armament programme to 2027 was adopted in 2018. Under the 2018–27 programme additional RS-24 ICBMs will be acquired, and the new multi-warhead RS-28 Sarmat (SS-X-30) will enter service to replace the RS-20V Voyevoda (SS-18) ICBM, probably from 2020 at the earliest. In addition, some RS-18 (SS-19) ICBMs will be adapted to carry the new Avangard glide vehicle revealed by President Vladimir Putin at the beginning of March 2018. Work will probably continue on two other new systems revealed at the same time, the Poseidon underwater nuclear-powered drone and the Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile, although it is unclear if the latter will ever be deployed.
Modernization of the delivery systems of the other two components of the nuclear triad will also continue under the 2018–27 programme. Deployment of the upgraded TU-160M2 strategic bomber now under development may begin by 2025 and modernization of the TU-95MS aircraft—begun in 2015—will be completed. Work will probably continue on the development of a future advanced strategic bomber, expected to be a very long-range, subsonic aircraft. By the mid-2020s eight Borei class strategic nuclear submarines will have been built, including five of the upgraded Project 955A vessels, and work may begin on its successor, the Project 955B.
The institutions concerned with nuclear weapons in Russia
Before looking at the available data, it is helpful to briefly examine Russia’s institutional structures for nuclear munitions and their delivery systems. In considering the economics of nuclear weapons in Russia, the three main institutions are (a) the state corporation Rosatom, (b) the Ministry of Defence’s (MOD) 12th main directorate, known as the 12th GUMO (Glavnoe upravlenie Ministerstvo oborony), and (c) the Strategic Rocket Forces (Raketnye voiska strategicheskogo naznacheniya, RVSN).
Rosatom is responsible for all development and production of nuclear munitions. The directorate for the nuclear weapons complex oversees the activities of 17 research and development (R&D) organizations and enterprises. In 2016 these R&D organizations and enterprises comprised 95 230 employees out of Rosatom’s total labour force of 250 000. Most of these organizations and enterprises are located within 10 closed cities, known as ‘closed administrative territorial formations’, with an aggregate population of almost 750 000. Those working at the nuclear weapons complex are highly paid by Russian standards and many personnel have higher education.
The 12th GUMO is responsible for the storage, transport and security of nuclear munitions. The current size of the 12th GUMO is not known but in late 1998 it had some 30 000 personnel, of whom 45 per cent were officers.
The RVSN is responsible for Russia’s land-based ICBMs, both silo-located and mobile. The current scale of the RVSN in terms of personnel is not precisely known, but in 2009 it consisted of more than 70 000 personnel, with plans to reduce the number to 60 000 by 2016.
A plausible figure for the total number of personnel directly involved with the nuclear triad (air force, navy and RVSN) is 90 000. This is in addition to the 30 000 personnel of the 12th GUMO. The available evidence suggests that the total number of service people in 2017 was approximately 850 000. This means that nuclear triad troops account for just over 10 per cent of the total.
Nuclear modernization within Russia’s federal budget
Only two components of Russia’s spending on nuclear weapons are openly identified in the chapters and subchapters of the federal budget. All other relevant expenditure is classified. The open items of spending are as follows. First, funding of the ‘nuclear weapons complex’ is included as a subchapter of the chapter on ‘national defence’, for which only a single aggregate figure is revealed. Second, figures are included in the budget chapter ‘inter-budgetary transfers’ for subsidies provided for the maintenance of the closed cities of Rosatom that work on the development and production of nuclear munitions.
The precise scope of the subchapter ‘nuclear weapons complex’ is not entirely clear but the available evidence suggests that it covers the production (acquisition) of nuclear munitions and investment in production facilities. R&D associated with nuclear munitions falls under the budget subchapter ‘applied research in the field of national defence’. From data available for 2012, the proportions appear to be 34 per cent on acquisition, 40 per cent on R&D and 26 per cent on investment. Other budget expenditure on nuclear weapons is subject to a very high degree of classification and located in three other subchapters which are (a) ‘national defence’, (b) ‘armed forces of the Russian Federation’, which probably includes the funding of the 12th GUMO and, (c) ‘applied research in the field of national defence’ and ‘other questions of national defence’, which may include the construction of arsenals and other infrastructure. The Russian federal budget does not disaggregate spending by service arm.
Occasionally additional evidence becomes available. In 2011 the then first deputy defence minister for armaments, Vladimir Popovkin, revealed that in the 2011–20 state armament programme approximately 10 per cent of the 19 000 billion roubles ($325.7 billion ) allocated to the MOD forces for the procurement of new weapons, the repair and modernization of existing military hardware and R&D would be allocated to the modernization of the nuclear triad. This provides a basis for estimating the annual procurement and R&D costs of the nuclear triad.
Estimating the costs of the Russian nuclear modernization programme
As noted above, two items of spending on nuclear munitions are readily identifiable: the budget subchapter ‘nuclear weapons complex’ and subsidies for Rosatom’s closed cities. Two other items, investment and R&D, must be estimated from known proportions of 2012. This permits estimation of total spending directly associated with Rosatom’s development and production of nuclear munitions: 60.7 billion roubles ($1.8 billion) in 2010 and 140 billion roubles ($2.5 billion) in 2016.
The next element of spending can only be established as an estimate. This is budget expenditure on the nuclear triad for the acquisition of new weapons, their modernization and repair, and R&D for their creation. The volume of funding can be estimated as a 10 per cent share of total spending on the annual state defence order in 2010, rising to 15 per cent by 2015 and 2016, probably explained by the costly Bulava and Yars programmes. This gives an estimated 48 billion roubles ($1.4 billion) in 2010 rising to 253 billion roubles ($4.5 billion) in 2016.
Two more components of spending remain to be estimated. First, there is spending on the 12th GUMO, its personnel plus operations and maintenance. Second, there is the equivalent spending on the three service arms (air force, navy and RVSN) holding strategic nuclear weapons. Given the absence of any other direct evidence, here the only option is to base estimates on the number of personnel. In the case of the 12th GUMO, the personnel are generally highly skilled and probably relatively well paid. The current number of personnel has not been revealed but, as previously discussed, it is known that in 1998 there were 30 000 and this figure will be used here. For the forces associated with the nuclear triad, estimated funding is based on the 90 000 personnel as noted above. Assuming the total number of military personnel in the MOD armed forces is 850 000, then the 12th GUMO accounts for 3.5 per cent of the MOD armed forces personnel and 10.5 per cent of the nuclear triad forces personnel. The total spending on personnel, operations and maintenance can then be estimated as 21.2 billion roubles ($0.6 billion) for the 12th GUMO and 64 billion roubles ($1.9 billion) for the nuclear triad in 2010 compared with 32 billion roubles ($0.6 billion) and 96 billion roubles ($1.7 billion), respectively, in 2016. There is a missing element in this estimation of expenditure on nuclear weapons, namely the funding of capital investment for facilities and infrastructure directly associated with them. Unfortunately, the data available does not allow for a meaningful estimate. However, analysis indicates that the total sum is not very large.
The above breakdown permits the calculation of total estimated spending on nuclear weapons as it relates to the Russian budget chapter ‘national defence’. In 2010 total estimated spending on nuclear weapons was 194 billion roubles ($5.6 billion), equivalent to 15.3 per cent of total spending on ‘national defence’, compared with 521 billion roubles ($9.3 billion) or 17.2 per cent of ‘national defence’ spending in 2016 (excluding from ‘national defence’ a large one-off settlement of past defence industry debt). Not surprisingly, with the increased volume of procurement of new delivery systems for nuclear munitions since 2010, the share of total defence spending devoted to the nuclear triad has grown steadily in recent years.
The analysis so far has used as its reference point the Russian budget chapter ‘national defence’, which includes spending on the military activities of the MOD forces but not on the ministry’s spending on education, health, housing, pensions or other non-military outlays. The share of nuclear weapons in this additional spending can be estimated on the basis of the number of personnel. Adding the relevant figures to the totals derived above gives a final aggregate budget spending on nuclear weapons of 239 billion roubles ($6.9 billion) in 2010, accounting for 13.4 per cent of total military spending in that year, and 606 billion roubles in 2016 ($10.8 billion), accounting for 13.0 per cent of total military spending. 
The future of Russia’s nuclear strategy
Russia’s 2011–20 state armament programme was formulated at a time when the country was unable to afford to acquire many new weapons and its conventional forces were weak. Now, the situation has changed to a considerable degree. The armed forces have been extensively modernized and soon a transition to a more ‘normal’ rate of renewal of the stock of equipment will be possible. The improvement of its strategic nuclear forces remains Russia’s top priority in the 2018–27 programme, and the modernization started in the previous programme will continue.
For a full list of references and a detailed explanation of the methodology for this topical backgrounder, see the longer version hosted on the website of The Oxford Changing Character of War Centre.
 All US dollar figures are quoted in 2017 current prices.
 The 2016 figure includes the one-off government debt repayment of almost 800 billion roubles to Russian arms producers, raising Russia’s actual military spending for 2016 to 4644.8 billion roubles. The 606 billion roubles spent on nuclear weapons is therefore 13.0 per cent of total military spending. However, if one does not include this one off-payment to Russian arms producers, the share of Russian military expenditure spent on nuclear weapons in 2016 becomes 15.8 per cent. Click here for a detailed explanation of the methodology behind SIPRI’s military expenditure data for Russia for 2016–17.
About the author
Professor Julian Cooper is an Associate Senior Fellow with the SIPRI Arms Transfers and Military Expenditure Programme and Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham.
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)
SIPRI is an independent international institute dedicated to research into conflict, armaments, arms control and disarmament. Established in 1966, SIPRI provides data, analysis and recommendations, based on open sources, to policymakers, researchers, media and the interested public.