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Russia Overtakes U.S. in Nuclear Warhead Deployment

Soldier salutes crowds during the Moscow Victory Day Parades in May 2014.

With 1,643 nuclear warheads deployed, Moscow has reversed 14 years of U.S. superiority, and now has one more warhead in the field than the Pentagon, according to a U.S. State Department report.

Though both former Cold War adversaries have massively cut their nuclear arsenals since 1991, the data shows that over the past six months — a period that has seen Russia-West relations dive bomb over the crisis in Ukraine — both nations have boosted their nuclear forces.

The report, which is released annually to monitor arms control efforts, has two key metrics — the number of individual nuclear warheads deployed, and the number of launchers and vehicles to deliver those warheads, such as intercontinental ballistic missile [ICBM] systems, submarines and bomber planes.

Since March, when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, Moscow has upped the ante in both regards, increasing the number of launchers from 906 to 911 and its arsenal of warheads deployed from 1,512 to 1,643.

This has allowed Russia to achieve parity with the U.S., which has showed less zeal in deploying new weaponry, growing its deployment of its nuclear warheads from 1,585 to 1,642 since March. Washington has reduced the number of its launchers from 952 to 912.

Although both nations increased their deployments this year, over the past three years they have moved in different directions: In 2011, Russia had 1537 warheads deployed — 106 less than now. The U.S. three years ago had 1,800 warheads deployed, meaning it has decommissioned 158.

The uptick in Russian deployment mirrors advances in weapons delivery systems, according to Russian nuclear weapons expert Pavel Podvig. Moscow is pressing forward with its troubled Bulava (Mace) submarine-launched missiles, and new Yars land based intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Last month, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said Russia's nuclear forces — the backbone of its military might — would receive a complete overhaul by 2020 as part of the nation's massive $700 billion rearmament campaign.

Controlling Arms?

Under the New START arms control treaty, which was signed into force in 2011 by Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, the size of each nation's nuclear arsenal is reported every six months. The latest was released this week.

Although the treaty sets a cap of 1,550 nuclear warheads, it counts weapons on bomber aircraft as being a single warhead — meaning that each side may have a few hundred warheads over the limit.

That cap is a fraction of what Russia and the U.S. once aimed at one another.

US and USSR nuclear stockpiles

This graph shows the total stockpiles of nuclear warheads from 1945-2006 using data collected by The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. It does not distinguish between deployed warheads and stockpiled warheads. (Source: Wikicommons)

According to data from The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a global nuclear watchdog, the total size of the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal peaked at 32,000 warheads in 1966. The Soviet Union surpassed the U.S. in 1978 and hit a high of 45,000 warheads by 1986. It should however be noted that these figures ignore technical capabilities and differences and don't say much about the actual strength of each side.

In 1968, the U.S. and the Soviet Union hashed out their first arms control measures at the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), freezing the number of missiles in their arsenals.

At that time, the U.S. had 1,710 missiles, and the Soviet Union had 2,347.

Although SALT attempted to curb the arms race, it did not address limitations on warheads. Both sides quickly realized that they could outfit their limited missile arsenals with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), allowing a single missile to deploy many nuclear warheads after launching.

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met in Reykjavik to talk arms reduction. On the table was a 50 percent reduction in nuclear arsenals, and at one point Gorbachev even told Reagan he would eliminate all of the weapons if the U.S. were to ditch its missile defense plans.

Reagan refused, and the arsenals survived, but the conference produced the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which was the first to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons. Today, the INF treaty is under fire, with U.S. officials accusing Putin's Russia of violating the treaty, and senior Russian officials openly mulling pulling out of the agreement.

In 1991, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was signed, limiting nuclear arsenals to 1,600 delivery vehicles and 6,000 warheads.

Over the next two decades, attempts to work out a START II and III treaty never panned out, but in 2002 Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin agreed to reduce warhead arsenals to 2000 warheads under the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT, which is also known as the Treaty of Moscow). New START brought the cap down by a further 450.

However, these treaties have only applied to deployed weapons, and as such mask the still massive arsenals both sides have shacked up in storage. According The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Russia still has 8,000 nuclear weapons, and the U.S. — 7,000.

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