Plus, maintenance is expensive.
The entire military budget of the Russian Federation, about $70 bn, is around the same amount that just the U.S. Army spends on maintenance and operations alone.
Given the size and complexity of the Russian pre-invasion ground force, there clearly was not enough money to go around to maintain the thousands of vehicles in Russia’s arsenal. And that’s before corruption and diversion of funds — throw in the wholesale theft of rubles intended for maintenance and we should have known from the beginning that Russia would stumble in any large-scale conflict.
But fixing a broken vehicle is only half the battle. Something called “preventative maintenance” (PM) is equally as important to ensure that combat systems are in peak fighting condition.
For instance, military trucks in storage need to be turned over and moved once a month to avoid direct sunlight from rotting the tires. This movement also helps exercise the central tire air inflation system (CTIS) to see if lines have leaks or vermin nests blocking the system.
Open-source images from Ukraine show countless Russian vehicles that look like they haven’t been “exercised” in years.
The tire sidewalls give it away. In this image, the right rear tire fell apart because the rips in it were too big for the CTIS to keep aired up.
The concept of PM applies to soldiers’ bodies also: In the Army, we ran two miles every day — five miles if our squad leader was feeling froggy — and performed 25-mile road marches once a month with 60lbs on our backs to ensure that our bodies could handle the stressors of infantry combat.
By the way, the infantry is hard on the body. I’m grateful for my time there, but my platoon sergeant at age 32 looked like he was about 75 after twelve years in the infantry.
So, given the poor state of Russia’s conventional forces, why should we believe that Russia’s nuclear weapons, which are exponentially more complex than a tank, be any different?
There are two things that Russia needs to worry about: The maintenance of the bomb itself, and the maintenance of the delivery method.
But first, let’s break down how a nuclear explosion is generated to better understand Russia’s problem.
Modern nuclear weapons work by combining chemical explosives, nuclear fission, and nuclear fusion. The explosives compress nuclear material, causing fission; the fission releases massive amounts of energy in the form of X-rays, which create the high temperature and pressure needed to ignite fusion.
Only certain isotopes of certain elements can undergo fission. Plutonium-239 (Pu239) and Uranium-235 (U235) are the most common isotopes used in nuclear weapons.
In fusion weapons (also called “thermonuclear” or “hydrogen” weapons), the energy from an initial fission explosion is used to “fuse” hydrogen isotopes, deuterium, and tritium, together. This causes a “boosting” effect.
But the components that make up nuclear weapons have expiration dates.
The fuel itself should be fine for a while: U235 has a half-life of 700 million years, (give or take a few days) and Pu239 has a half-life of 24,000 years.
But the rest of the bomb is subject to oxidation, metal fatigue, decomposition, and decay.
Tritium, an essential isotope in hydrogen bombs, has a half-life of only 12.3 years, so it must be refreshed periodically.
And while deuterium is easy to come by — it can be extracted from water — tritium is significantly harder to produce. So hard, in fact, that tritium goes for about $34,000 per gram.
Even if Russia had a huge stockpile of tritium, it would slowly decay over twelve or so years. And making more is prohibitively expensive for them.
So, what happens if you don’t refresh the tritium every few years? As it decays, it converts to helium-3 which absorbs neutrons emitted by nuclear fission thereby reversing the “boosting” effect. Without this isotope, your nuke would fizzle.
Also, the conventional chemical explosives necessary to start the chain reaction undergo chemical deterioration and need to be replaced at set intervals.
And then there are the bomb’s batteries that are required to operate the warhead and other radiation-hardened electronics.
Any of these components represents a maintenance step that must be performed regularly and meticulously.
Now, multiply this by Russia’s 4,477 nuclear warheads, of which 1,588 are deployed across Russia’s vast land, with an additional 977 strategic warheads, along with 1,912 nonstrategic warheads, held in reserve. They have even more in storage.
Do you believe, knowing what we know now, that the Russian military is diligently keeping ALL of these bombs in peak operating condition?
Where do corrupt Russian military officers draw the line? Did they say, “It’s okay to commit treason against the motherland for tanks, but we dare not skim from our nuclear deterrent.”
I doubt it.
The United States has budgeted $142 billion over the 2021–2030 period to maintain and modernize its nuclear arsenal.
This includes building improved facilities associated with plutonium, plutonium pit manufacture, and chemical explosives. And it also covers tritium modernization and domestic uranium enrichment, with plans to improve facilities to produce and process tritium. This is a monetary arms race that Russia simply can’t keep up with.
Russia’s other issue is delivery of the nuclear warheads. It’s one thing to build a nuclear bomb. It’s another thing entirely to deliver the weapon to its intended target.
Like the U.S., Russia uses strategic bombers to deliver some of its nukes to targets. But its ICBMs or nuclear-tipped missiles are a different story entirely.
The amount of maintenance involved in keeping an American Minuteman III healthy is staggering.
U.S. Air Force Missile Maintenance Teams (MMT) are responsible for testing and servicing all the ignition cabling and explosive ordinance for the missile.
Airmen from the 90th Maintenance Group are responsible for maintaining and repairing ICBMs on alert status Dec. 18, 2019, within the F.E. Warren missile complex, as they are one of three missile bases part of Air Force Global Strike Command. The Minuteman III, on alert at all three bases, replaced the Peacekeeper at F.E. Warren in the 1970s. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Abbigayle Williams) Public domain.
The MMT also inspects and maintains the missile suspension system, which is extremely hazardous given the size of the suspension system and the tension resting on it, which is supporting 78,000 pounds of a Minuteman III missile.
And the U.S. has 400 of these ICBMs spread out across the states.
Russia also has about 400 ICBMs. The sheer amount of maintenance and preventative maintenance involved in keeping these missiles flight-ready at a moment’s notice means that a good number of Russian nukes likely wouldn’t leave the ground.
The fact that Ukraine just shot down a half-dozen air-launched Kinzhal’s, (which are technically hypersonic although can’t maneuver like true hypersonics), with U.S.-made Patriot missiles, completely destabilizes Russia’s nuclear triad.
So, even if their nukes are well-maintained, and their delivery vehicles are in tip-top shape, their ballistics can be shot down with a decades-old American air defense system.
Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling is more maskirovka and politics than it is actual capability.
However, there is one area where Russian nukes are likely just fine: tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons.
Tactical nukes require much less maintenance and can last longer in storage than Russia’s strategic arsenal. Fortunately, these are not “civilization-ending” devices.
Besides tactical nukes, it’s also worth mentioning that Putin may have diverted funds from his conventional forces to keep his strategic nuclear deterrent active. However, that is extremely unlikely.
Realistically, the same widespread corruption that crippled the Russian army and air force is likely also crippling Putin’s nukes.
And that is a reassuring thought.