Russia's Missile Threat to the U.S. Has Evolved

Russia's missile threat to the United States has evolved drastically since the end of the Cold War, the head of the Russia Maritime Studies Institute (RMSI) told Newsweek.

Michael Petersen, RMSI's founding director and a professor at the U.S. Naval War College was drawing comparisons between the types of Russian submarine deployments seen now and decades ago during the Cold War.

Russian Navy's diesel-electric Kilo class submarine
Russian Navy's diesel-electric Kilo-class submarine Rostov-on-Don sails with a naval ensign of the Russian Federation, also known in Russian as The Andreyevsky Flag on it through the Bosphorus Strait on the way to the Black Sea past the city Istanbul. OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

Russia's Navy has undergone a massive overhaul and modernization drive since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 when it was forced to abandon many new ships. According to the non-profit Nuclear Threat Initiative, Russia commands one of the largest submarine fleets in the world with an estimated 58 vessels, including 11 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, which it considers integral to its strategic deterrent.

The threat to the U.S. has now shifted from a ballistic missile threat to a cruise missile threat, Petersen told Newsweek.

He noted that during a period of the Cold War, starting in the 1960s, and through the mid to late 1980s, the Soviet Union was regularly sending nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines to patrol off the east and west coasts of the United States. Those patrol locations then shifted over time as undersea warfare technology improved, and as submarine technology improved.

Russia in the Cold War Versus Now

"Moving forward into today, what is the same? And what is different? I'll start with the differences," he began.

"So the difference today is that Russia today, as far as I'm aware, it does not deploy ballistic missile submarines off the coast of the United States. That's a shift, and that is a reflection of the improving technology."

Petersen said that by the end of the Cold War, most ballistic missile submarines were deploying into bastions in the Barents Sea and elsewhere in the Arctic.

"So that hasn't changed. Because the technology has allowed Russia to maintain strategic ballistic missile force that has enough range and enough accuracy to strike from these bastions."

What has changed, Petersen explained, is that the Russian Navy now has long-endurance nuclear-powered submarines that can shoot highly accurate, conventional and nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.

"So we've gone from a ballistic missile threat to a cruise missile threat. That's not to say that the ballistic missile threat is non-existent, it's still there. It's just in a different location," he said.

Russia has undertaken multiple extensive projects to expand its submarine fleet since the Soviet Union's collapse.

Over the past several years, Moscow has been producing a series of submarines that have the capability to reach the most critical targets in the U.S. or continental Europe.

A Kremlin document signed by Putin in 2017, which lays out the Russian navy's improved capabilities, its evolving strategic and operational role, and its future ambitions, states the nation "must possess powerful balanced fleets in all strategic areas" by 2030, including ships intended to carry out missions in near and far sea zones and ocean areas, as well as naval aviation and coastal forces equipped with effective high-precision strike weapons, and advanced basing and supply system.

RMSI notes that the most urgent priority in "The Fundamentals of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Field of Naval Operations for the Period Until 2030," is both deterrence and punishment of foreign aggression.

The U.S. Navy is also undergoing a modernization drive and began building its largest and most advanced Columbia-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) in June 2022. It has an estimated 64 submarines in its fleet, including ballistic missile submarines, guided missile submarines and attack submarines.

Newsweek has contacted Russia's defense ministry by email for comment.

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