A Glimpse into Russian and US Policies on Yars and Sentinel ICBMs

The RS-24 Yars in May 2015. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Experts point that the US ballistic missile nuclear submarines and stealth bombers have enough first or retaliatory strike potential.

On Jun. 26, 2024, Russia showed its Yars ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) crews conducting drills. A day earlier, reports said the U.S. Air Force fired the head of the currently under-development Sentinel ICBM program, Col. Charles Clegg, for “not following organizational procedures.” Both developments represent an interesting divergence in nuclear strategy and doctrine between both countries.

Russia has been practicing nuclear drills, with a recent video showing Yars crews transporting and deploying the road-mobile missile in the Irkutsk region. The United States, meanwhile, conducted two back-to-back launches of its LGM-30G Minuteman III early in June.

There is some controversy over the phase out of the Cold War-era Minuteman ICBM. Its replacement, the under-development LGM-35A Sentinel is expected to cost around $130 billion and is currently being reviewed by the Pentagon to determine if it is necessary for national security.

Critics say that the American submarine and strategic bomber-deployed nuclear force is capable of both deterrence and first strike, and is survivable enough to deliver a retaliatory second strike. The 211% increase of Sentinel’s initial estimated cost doesn’t help the ICBM’s case.

This situation, coming amid consistently elevated tensions since Russia’s war in Ukraine, reflects fundamental differences in both countries’ military thought in general and atomic policy in particular. According to the reports, Russia possesses the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, with about 5,889 nuclear warheads. The United States follows closely behind with about 5,244 nuclear warheads.

Russian Yars ICBM drills

On Jun. 26, the RuMoD (Russian Ministry of Defense) showed a RS-24 Yars crew driving up to a distance of 100 km for the drill, which involved “deploying the system’s components with changes in field positions, setting up those positions, camouflage and organizing combat security.” The last element consisted of “countering sabotage and reconnaissance groups.”

With the RuMoD also mentioning “deconcentration in the forest area to increase the stealthiness of the Yars”, the Russian tactics here appears to make use of assets’ dispersion, much like the ACE (Agile Combat Employment), being implemented by the US and NATO air forces. Given Russia’s penchant for diversionary maneuvers (called ‘Maskirovska’), such TELs (Tele-Erector Launcher) can also be used to confuse and deceive adversary reconnaissance systems, during nuclear tensions.

Previously, on Mar. 1, Russia test-fired the Yars, also known as Topol-MR, from the launch site at Plesetsk, with the re-entry vehicles reaching the “assigned area at the Kura training range on the Kamchatka Peninsula.” The Yars is believed to carry four MIRVs (Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicles), although Russia claims it can carry ten warheads.

US Test-Fired Minuteman III

Meanwhile, the US, on Jun. 4 and 6, conducted back-to-back tests of the Minuteman III from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. During the second test, the missile traveled approximately 6,759 km toward the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on the Marshall Islands.

A statement from the AFGSC (Air Force Global Strike Command) said such tests have been conducted “over 300 times before” and the test was not the result of current world events, but one of the periodic tests performed to verify the ICBM’s capabilities. “This test launch is part of routine and periodic activities intended to demonstrate that the United States’ nuclear deterrent is safe, secure, reliable and effective to deter 21st century threats and reassure our allies,” mentioned the press release.

‘Submarines, strategic bombers are sufficient’

The Sentinel, developed by Northrop Grumman, has come under criticism from US policy experts. In January, the company successfully test-fired the ICBM’s second-stage rocket motor in a vacuum chamber, simulating the high-altitude and space flight conditions of an actual launch..

Experts say that the US’s stealthy and sophisticated ballistic missile nuclear submarines (SSBN) and stealth bombers, like the B-2 Spirit and the future B-21, have enough first or retaliatory strike potential. This makes the US arsenal survivable to any ‘first strike’ aimed at destroying its nuclear weapons.

An article in Foreign Affairs explains that the US nuclear force already “contains a huge amount of survivable destructive potential.” The publication mentions, for an instance, the capabilities of the SSBN: “Each United States’ 14 Ohio-class submarines carries 20 ballistic missiles, each carrying up to eight warheads, yielding 90 to 455 kilotons. A typical submarine carrying an average of 90 warheads can inflict the damage required.”

The U.S. Navy has been assessed to usually have at least eight ballistic missile submarines at sea, not to mention the U.S. Air Force’s bombers available for nuclear missions. Around 70% of the US’s nuclear weapons are available for use by these submarines and stealth bombers, while the rest are for the Minuteman III. Another smaller portion of the weapons is deployed in Europe for the use by US assets and Allies involved in the NATO nuclear sharing.

An unarmed Minuteman III ICBM during the operational test from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Jun. 6, 2024. (Image credit: US Space Force)
An unarmed Minuteman III ICBM during the operational test from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Jun. 6, 2024. (Image credit: US Space Force)

An adversary targeting the US’s silo-based ICBMs would need to launch dozens of missiles to target all of them. Even if that attack was successful, it wuold still leave bombers deployed in various BTF (Bomber Task Force) missions and the Trident missile-armed SSBNs unharmed.

“Given these capabilities, under an infrastructure-targeting doctrine, the United States would simultaneously meet the requirements for deterring Russia and China,” said the article. “(An) expansion of its nuclear force would (therefore not) be necessary.”

Matt Korda, a senior research fellow from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), was also quoted in Newsweek after a failed Minuteman III test last year. “The failure wouldn’t necessarily have a bearing on the program as a whole or the viability of the ICBM force.” Korda also added that most nuclear warheads are mounted on Trident II D5 SLBM, which are “so very reliable, so US deterrence is safe.”

During a discussion hosted by the CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies), USAF Lt. Gen. Rick Moore, the deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, said that the Minuteman III is no longer a viable option. “We will have to find the money. Sentinel is going to be funded. One way not to solve this is to think that we can just extend Minuteman III. There is not a viable service life extension program that we can foresee for Minuteman III.”

Complicated, costly project

As per latest reports, the Sentinel program has got costlier by another 37%, now roughly calculated at 130$ billion. In Jan. 2024, the program saw a “critical” cost breach, Breaking Defense reported: “The rising costs for Sentinel are sure to squeeze a budget that already must fund multiple modernization efforts.”

The cost of Sentinel is estimated to peak in 2027, possibly competing for funding with other major efforts like the Air Force’s sixth-gen NGAD (Next Generation Air Dominance) the service wants to field by 2030.” A Jun. 2023 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report noted “staffing shortfalls, supply chain issues, and software challenges” that would possibly push the weapon’s operationalization from 2029 to 2030.

A concept rendering of the Sentinel ICBM. (Image credit: Northrop Grumman)
A concept rendering of the Sentinel ICBM. (Image credit: Northrop Grumman)

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall also said in Nov. 2023 that the Sentinel program’s struggles have made him “more nervous” than the B-21 Raider program. The Sentinel is “probably the biggest thing…with a daunting scale and complexity…that the Air Force has taken on,” Kendall said.

“The program includes not just the production of the missile itself, but also real estate development, civil engineering, and the creation of both communications and command-and-control infrastructure, such as the complexes missileers would use to launch the weapons,” mentioned Defense News. This is because the missile is expected to replace 400 Minuteman ICBMs across nuclear launch silos in the US, requiring new infrastructures.


Despite the differences in nuclear postures and thinking, both Russia and the US have strong nuclear safeguards, protocols and oversight to prevent accidental launches.

In the US, launches can only be authorized by the President with launch codes verified by the launching crew (ICBM, SSBN or bomber aircraft crew), and the decision making and information coordinated between the NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), STRATCOM (Strategic Command) and NMCC (National Military Command Center).

In Russia, the 12th GUMO (or the 12th Main Directorate) under the Ministry of Defense and the Strategic Missile Forces are responsible for Russia’s nuclear arsenal. The directorate is separate, and is not subordinate to the General Staff. Likewise, the Strategic Missile Forces are a separate branch of the military. Thus, the ultimate decision to use nuclear weapons would come from the Kremlin.

For instance, Russia’s nuclear-capable tactical battlefield 9K720 Iskander-M based in Belarus would be overseen by the 12th GUMO. The Kremlin has emphasized that these nuclear-capable missiles are under Russian military control. The warheads are also kept separate from the delivery systems in storages.

About Parth Satam
Parth Satam's career spans a decade and a half between two dailies and two defense publications. He believes war, as a human activity, has causes and results that go far beyond which missile and jet flies the fastest. He therefore loves analyzing military affairs at their intersection with foreign policy, economics, technology, society and history. The body of his work spans the entire breadth from defense aerospace, tactics, military doctrine and theory, personnel issues, West Asian, Eurasian affairs, the energy sector and Space.