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Russia is in the midst of a major modernization of its armed forces.

This has been driven by Vladimir Putin’s ambition to restore Russia’s hard power and supported by the revenues that flowed into the Kremlin’s coffers between 20, when the price of oil was high.

But not all aspects of the modernization program are equally worrisome.

Russia is modernizing the three legs of its strategic triad.

It is procuring eight Borei-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), and is halfway through a ten-year program to build four hundred intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

It is also updating its Tu-160 Blackjack bombers, and officials have reportedly considered reopening the Blackjack production line.

Placed in context, however, the strategic modernization program appears less worrisome.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian economy went into free fall for most of the ensuing decade.

The defense budget received little in comparison to Soviet times, and most programs, including strategic nuclear forces, were starved for funds. The strategic modernization program is replacing a lot of old systems, systems that the Russian military would have preferred to retire earlier had it been able to pay to do so.

For example, a large number of Russia’s strategic warheads sit atop SS-18, SS-19 and SS-25 ICBMs, all of which are scheduled to be retired by 2020.

If the military had had the resources, it would have retired and replaced the SS-18s and SS-19s years ago.

Four hundred ICBMs and SLBMs constitute a major program, but the number seems appropriate for a Russian strategic force that, under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), looks like it will deploy 400–450 strategic missiles. Navy normally maintains about half of its fourteen Ohio-class SSBNS at sea.

The Borei-class submarines will replace Delta-class submarines, all of which were built prior to 1991. The fact that Moscow is considering reopening the production line for its aging Blackjack bomber is interesting.

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