October 29, 2012
When the Soviet Union exploded its first nuclear weapon at the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site in what is now Kazakhstan on August 29, 1949, it is important to remember that in all respects it was running far behind the U.S. in the field of atomic weaponry.
According to Russian sources, as of March 1, 1951 the Soviet nuclear weapons arsenal consisted of only 15 RDS-1 nuclear bombs, relatively crude copies of the “Fat Man” atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945, with a nuclear yield of 22-kilotons. Almost a year later on January 1, 1952, the Soviets possessed 35 atomic bombs, 29 of the old RDS-1 atomic bombs and 6 of the newer RDS-2 bombs with a yield of almost 40 kilotons.
Declassified documents show that at the time, for every atomic bomb the Soviets possessed, the U.S. possessed almost 30. A DOD/DOE fact sheet
released by the Clinton administration in the 1990s stated that the U.S. possessed 438 nuclear weapons in 1951. The same document showed that as of early 1952, the U.S. possessed 841 nuclear weapons.
All of the Soviet nuclear bombs were stored inside heavily-guarded earth-covered bunkers within the confines of the USSR’s sole nuclear weapons assembly plant 250 miles east of Moscow at Design Bureau 11 (KB-11) at Sarov, whose covername was Arzamas-16. We now know that it would have taken the Soviets at least a week to transport these weapons by rail to an air base, where they had to be laboriously assembled, checked out, then when ready the 20,000-lb. bombs had to lowered into a deep pit before they could be hoisted into the belly of one of the USSR’s only nuclear-capable delivery vehicle, the TU-4 BULL medium bomber, which was itself a copy of the American B-29 bomber.
In late 1950, the Soviet Council of Ministers ordered the activation of four Central Storage Bases (tsentral’niy baz khraneniya - TsBKh), or Object “S” (Object “Special”), to store the USSR’s small but growing arsenal of nuclear weapons. All four of these bases were to be located in the western USSR. These bases were (a) Object 711/Military Unit (V/Ch) 51989 at Delyatin in the western Ukraine (Ivano-Frankovsk-16); (b) Object 712/V/Ch 62047 located at Krasnokamenka in the Crimea (Simferopol’-10 or Feodosiya-13); (c) Object 713/V/Ch 71373 at Valday in north-central Russia (Novgorod-18); and Object 714/V/Ch 52025 at Mozhaysk west of Moscow (Mozhaysk-10).
These sites, although built in several different configurations, all shared certain basic characteristics, namely isolation from major populated areas, extremely stringent security measures, and near complete self-sufficiency in housing and service support. Most of these nuclear storage complexes consisted of between two and six large nuclear-hardened earth-covered bunkers surrounded by a double fenceline (one of which was usually electrified), each bunker capable of storing up to 50 nuclear weapons. The Kransokamenka storage complex in the Crimea, however, was different in that it consisted of two large storage bunkers buried deep inside a hill, which was constructed over a five year period by convicts brought in for the job from the GULAG.
It would take more than five years to complete the construction of these first four national nuclear storage sites. The Delyatin and Krasnokamenka national stockpile sites were completed in 1955. Later that year, the first trainloads of brand new RDS-3 and RDS-4 atomic bombs began to arrived at these sites from the KB-11 final assembly plant at Sarov.
It now seems certain that the first inkling that the U.S. intelligence community got about these Soviet nuclear weapons storage facilities came from U-2 imagery collected during overflights of the USSR between July 1956 and February 1960. The July 1956 U-2 overflights of the western USSR brought back photographs of the two Soviet national nuclear weapons storage sites that were still under construction. The first was located 9.5 nautical miles west-southwest of the city of Mozhaysk (5526N 3546E), which the Soviets referred to in internal communications by the covername of Mozhaysk-10. The second, whose covername was Novgorod-18, was located deep in a forest about 8 nautical miles west of the city of Valday (5758N 3303E). The U-2 imagery showed that the construction work on the Valday and Mozhaysk sites was still going on, which prevented the CIA intelligence analysts from determining until many years later what these bases were for.
According to the former Russian Minister of Atomic Energy, Viktor Mikhailov, as of 1985-1986 the Soviet nuclear weapons stockpile reached its peak of about 45,000 weapons. In the mid-1970s and early 1980s, the four Soviet nuclear weapons assembly plants were cranking out about 7,000 nuclear warheads a year, most of them warheads for multiple independent reentry vehicles for three new ICBMs, a new MIRV’d submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM), and the SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM). This means that the Soviets were producing more than 19 nuclear weapons every day of the week (including weekends) - a production pace which the American nuclear weapons production complex never came close to achieving during the Cold War.
The story broke publicly in 1984, when several newspapers published stories alleging that the Soviet nuclear weapons stockpile was significantly larger than that possessed by the U.S. At the time, the CIA and the DIA estimated that the Soviet nuclear stockpile was somewhere between 18,000 and 41,000 nuclear warheads, with intelligence analysts “guesstimating” that the Soviets had about 34,000 warheads in their nuclear stockpile. The U.S. nuclear stockpile at the time stood at approximately 26,000 warheads. In fact, the Soviets actually had 10,000 more 10,000 nuclear warheads in their stockpile than this estimate.
All the new nuclear warheads had to be stored somewhere. In the mid-1980s, the 12th GUMO was operating 28 national nuclear weapons storage sites spread throughout the USSR. Thousands of the nuclear weapons stored in the 12th GUMO national stockpile sites were older, multi-megaton “city killer” weapons that had outlived their usefulness. According to a former Soviet defense official, in the late 1970s the Soviet nuclear production complex was producing so many new warheads that a massive backlog of old nuclear warheads piled up in 12th GUMO storage depots awaiting dismantlement and reclamation of their nuclear materials.
Then the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and in the years that followed the size of the Russian nuclear stockpile declined precipitously to about 32,000 nuclear warheads by May 1993, according to Russian sources. In 1992, the CIA and DIA estimated that Russia still possessed about 30,000 nuclear weapons (9,000 strategic and 21,000 tactical nuclear weapons), which roughly matches contemporaneous Russian government statements.
It is not known with any degree of certainty how many nuclear warheads remain in the Russian stockpile, with various sources providing estimates of anywhere between 4,000 and 10,000 strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. More than likely, estimates that the Soviets now possess less than 5,000 nuclear weapons in their arsenal are correct. But it must be said that since President Vladimir Putin took power there have been no official statements from the Kremlin on the size of the Russian nuclear stockpile, nor has the U.S. government provided any details for more than a decade.
As the size of the Russian nuclear weapons stockpile has shrunk precipitously over the past twenty years, so too have the number of the large national nuclear weapons storage sites inside Russia. In the early to mid-1990s, five national nuclear weapons depots in the Ukraine (Berdichev, Delyatin, Krasnokamenka, Mikhaylovka, and Radomyshl’), the Rechitsa nuclear site in Belarus, the Semipalatinsk depot in Kazakhstan, the Nal’chik site in the Caucasus, and the Malaya Sazanka nuclear weapons depot in the Far East were closed. By 2005, the number of nuclear storage sites operated by the 12th GUMO had fallen their Cold War peak of 29 in the mid-1980s to 14. Today, there are 12 national nuclear weapons storage sites operated by the 12th GUMO, all of which are now known simply as “Higher Arsenals.”
Here is a list of past and present Soviet/Russian national nuclear weapons storage sites, compiled from a number of unclassified Russian sources and declassified National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) photographic interpretation reports and indices now on file in the CREST database of declassified CIA documents here in Washington, D.C.
Anadyr/Gudim, a/k/a Anadyr-1 or Magadan-11, a/k/a V/Ch (Military Unit) 62902 or 75414. Called “Object Gudim, the base was located a few miles to the northeast of Anadyr/Leninka airfield and a few miles west of the Ugolnyy SS-4 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) base. Reportedly activated in 1958, the Anadyr-1 base consisted of two large nuclear weapons storage bunkers carved into the side of a mountain. The base initially held aerial bombs that would have been used by LRAF bombers deployed to Anadyr/Leninka airfield in wartime, then after 1962 nuclear warheads for the SS-4 MRBMs deployed at the Ugolnyy base to the east. The base was closed in 1986. Commercial satellite imagery of this base can be seen here. Photographs of the interior of the base’s nuclear storage vaults can be found here.
Belev (5332N 3631E), a/k/a Tula-50, a/k/a V/Ch 14428/65163. Now known as Slavniy, this closed military city was located 26 nautical miles south of the town of Belev in the Tula Oblast west of Moscow. Activated in 1960. Designated a Sensitive Operations Complex by the CIA in the early 1960s after it was discovered in Keyhole reconnaissance satellite imagery. As of October 1965, satellite imagery showed that the complex was still in the early stages of construction. Bunker 1 was in very early stage of construction, bunker 2 still under construction, and Bunkers 3 and 4 being newly identified. As of February 1966, Bunkers 1, 2 and 3 were completed but not yet earth-covered, while Bunkers 4 and 5 were still under construction. In August 1966, excavation began on the site for Bunker 6. As of May 1967, Bunker 6 was 30% complete, while Bunkers 4 and 5 were completed but not yet earth covered. The base was closed in 1999. No high-resolution satellite imagery of this facility is currently available on Google Earth.
Berdichev (4956N 2816E), a/k/a V/Ch 83330. Located 12 nautical miles west of Berdichev and 30 nautical miles southwest of the city of Zhitomir in what is now the Ukraine. Designated a regional nuclear weapons storage site by the CIA, it was first identified in reconnaissance satellite imagery from CORONA Mission 9037 in June 1962. The two cruciform bunkers at the site were similar to the Type III nuclear weapons storage bunkers at Dolon air base, as was the general layout of the site. November 1962 KH satellite imagery showed that the site was essentially completed. Site closed after Ukrainian independence in the early 1990s. Commercial satellite imagery of this base can be seen here.
Berezovka/Krasnoarmeyskoye (5111N 4601E), a/k/a Saratov-63, a/k/a Object 1050, a/k/a V/Ch 25623. Located on the east bank of the Volga 16 nautical miles south of the city of Engels and 18 nautical miles south of the city of Saratov. The base was activated in 1955. It was first observed in imagery from the U-2 overflight of December 6, 1959 (Mission 8005), at which time it was in the early stages of construction. CIA designated it a Sensitive Operations Complex in 1960. The base is still operational as of 2012. Commercial satellite imagery of this base can be seen here.
Borisoglebsk (5125N 4157E), a/k/a Voronezh-45, a/k/a Object 387, a/k/a V/Ch 13254. Located 5 nautical miles northwest of Borisoglebsk near the city of Tambov. The base was activated in 1961. It was observed for the first time in 1962 Keyhole satellite imagery. Designated a Sensitive Operations Complex in 1962. Still under construction in July 1965. Bunker 1 was earth-covered; Bunker 2 completed in August 1965 but not yet earth-covered. Construction continued on Bunker 3 and Bunker 4 being in the very early stages of construction. As of February 1966, Bunker 2 earth-covered, Bunker 3 completed but not earth-covered, and Bunker 4 still in early stages of construction. As of May 1967, Bunker 4 was still not earth covered, but everything else was completed. The base is still operational as of 2012. Commercial satellite imagery of this base can be seen here.
Bulyzhino (5615N 2819E), a/k/a Sebezh-5, a/k/a V/Ch 42644/52328. Located 5.5 nautical miles southwest of the city of Sebez near the junction of the Russian, Latvian, and Belarus borders. Activated on August 19, 1959, Russian sources indicate that the base became operational in 1966. Support area was under construction when first observed in Keyhole reconnaissance satellite imagery on August 30, 1961, but the operations area was not yet under construction. Designated as a Sensitive Operations Complex in the 1960s. As of August 1965, the complex was in the latter stages of construction, with the earth cover for Bunker 6 nearly completed. This depot was closed in 1997. Commercial satellite imagery of this base can be seen here.
Chebsara (5906N 3837E), a/k/a Vologda-20, a/k/a Object 360/Object 957, a/k/a V/Ch 25594. Located near the village of Sheksna southwest of the city of Chebsara and west of the city of Vologda. Activated in 1955. Designated Sensitive Operations Complex in early 1960s by the CIA after detected in KH satellite imagery. Imagery showed that the base was still under construction in August 1965, with Bunker 5 completed and being earth covered. As of April 1967, the complex appeared to have been completed. The base is still in operation as of 2012. Commercial satellite imagery of this base can be seen here.
Delyatin/Deliatyn (4831N 2434E), a/k/a Ivano-Frankovsk-16, a/k/a Object 711, a/k/a V/Ch 51989. Located south of the city of Ivano Frankovsk near the village of Yaremche in what is now the Ukraine. Delyatin was one of the first Soviet national nuclear weapons storage facilities, with Russian sources indicating it was activated in late 1950 and construction was completed in 1955. Deactivated in 1993 after Ukrainian independence. Satellite imagery of the site can be seen here.
Dodonovo/Zheleznogorsk (5602N 9248E), a/k/a Krasnoyarsk-26, a/k/a Object 980, a/k/a V/Ch 51966. Located outside the city of Krasnoyarsk. Activated in 1954 by the Ministry of Medium Machine Building, this site was one of four large national nuclear weapons stockpile sites controlled by the ministry to store war reserve weapons. The site was transferred to the Soviet Ministry of Defense in the late 1950s, and served as one of the Soviet Union’s most important war reserve nuclear weapons stockpile sites until it was closed on November 14, 1994. Commercial satellite imagery of this base can be seen here.
Golovchino (5033N 3544E), a/k/a Belgorod-22, a/k/a Object 1150, a/k/a V/Ch 25624. Located 3 nautical miles northwest of Golovchino; west of the city of Belgorod and southwest of the city of Voronezh. Activated in 1960. Discovered by a U-2 overflight in February 1960, at which time it consisted of six road-served bunkers and a drive-through building similar to the configuration of the Berezovka Sensitive Operations Complex. Designated Sensitive Operations Complex by CIA. By October 1965 it consisted of seven buried bunkers, one possible bunker, and a drive-through building. The base is still operational as of 2012. Commercial satellite imagery of this base can be seen here.
Karabash (5524N 6013E), a/k/a Chelyabinsk-115, a/k/a V/Ch 31759. Located just west of the Chelyabinsk-65 nuclear weapons plant. Karabash was the second of the four large national nuclear weapons stockpile sites built by the Ministry of Medium Machine Building in the early to mid-1950s. It was subsequently transferred to the control of the Ministry of Defense in the late 1950s. As of June 1967, the CIA reported that the Karabash nuclear weapons storage site was one of the largest stockpile sites in the USSR, consisting of nine large bunkers and/or buried storage vaults, with a total garrison population of about 2,700 personnel based on the number of barracks or housing units at the site. The Karabash site was closed in 1998. Commercial satellite imagery of this base can be seen here.
Korfovskiy (4811N 13524E), a/k/a Khabarovsk-47, a/k/a Object 1200, a/k/a V/Ch 25625. Located south of Khabarovsk. The base is still operational as of 2012. Commercial satellite imagery of this base can be seen here.
Komsomol’sk (5016N 13728E), a/k/a Komsomolsk-31, a/k/a Object 1201, a/k/a 52015. Located near the town of Selikhino. Activated about 1984. The base is still operational as of 2012. Commercial satellite imagery of this base can be seen here.
Krasnokamenka (4455N 3504E), a/k/a Feodosiya-13/Simferopol-10, a/k/a Object 712, a/k/a V/Ch 62047/42615/32137. Located near Crimean towns of Krasnokamenka and Kizyl Tash. The Sudak base was one of the first national nuclear weapons storage sites in the USSR. Activated in late 1950. Consisted of two large underground storage bunkers buried hollowed out of a mountain by prison labor in the early 1950s. Closed in the early 1990s after Ukrainian independence. Commercial satellite imagery of this base can be seen here.
Malaya Sazanka (5114N 12801E), a/k/a Svobodny-21, a/k/a V/Ch 41065/42623. Located on a 4.6 square mile parcel of land six nautical miles southwest of Svobodnyy, this base was constructed in the mid-1950s to store nuclear weapons for Soviet air and ground forces based in the Soviet Far East. The Malaya Sazanka base was discovered by the March 1, 1958 U-2 overflight of the Soviet Far East, at which time the complex was essentially completed and consisted of two large buried bunkers similar to the Mozhaysk nuclear weapons storage complex (see below). The base closed in 1996. Commercial satellite imagery of this base can be seen here.
Mikhaylovka/Aleksandrova (4849N 3217E), a/k/a Kirovograd-25, a/k/a Object 341, a/k/a V/Ch 14427. Located 3.5 nautical miles west-northwest of the town of Mikhaylovka and 18 nautical miles north of the city of Kirovograd. Activated in 1960 by the Strategic Rocket Forces as a regional nuclear weapons storage site, then transferred to the control of the Soviet Ministry of Defense in 1966. Designated a Sensitive Operations Complex in early 1960s. As of August 1965, the base was in the middle stages of construction, with Bunker 2 earth covered, Bunker 3 being earth-covered, and Bunker 4 still under construction. As of May 1967, Bunker 4 was earth covered. All other facilities completed. Base closed after Ukrainian independence. Commercial satellite imagery of this base can be seen here.
Mozhaysk (5524N 3546E), a/k/a Mozhaysk-10, a/k/a Object 714, a/k/a V/Ch 52025. Located 9.5 nautical miles west-southwest of the city of Mozhaysk. Mozhaysk was one of the first Soviet national nuclear weapons storage bases,.activated in late 1950. This facility was discovered for the first time on July 5, 1956, when the second CIA U-2 overflight of the USSR (Mission 2014) photographed the installation. At first the CIA photo interpreters did not know what to make of the installation because they had never seen a Soviet national-level nuclear weapons storage complex before, although the CIA photo interpreters correctly noted that the Mozhaysk installation closely resembled the Valday facility photographed by another U-2 the day before. This base is still operational as of 2012. No high-resolution satellite imagery of this base is currently available.
Nal’chik/Zvezdniy (4328N 4329E)), a/k/a Nal’chik-20, a/k/a V/Ch 25595/33826. Located northwest of Ordzhonikidzke. Not known when the base was activated or when it was first detected by U.S. intelligence. Base was closed in the 1990s. Commercial satellite imagery of this base can be seen here.
Nizhnyaya Tura/Lesnoy (5837N 5939E), a/k/a Sverdlovsk-45, a/k/a Object 917, a/k/a V/Ch 32136. Located 8 km west of Lesnoy (Sverdlovsk-16/45) outside the city of Nizhyaya Tura in the Urals, which remains the largest of Russia’s four nuclear weapons assembly plants. Activated on February 23, 1952, Nizhnyaya Tura was one of four large national nuclear weapons stockpile sites created by the Ministry of Medium Machine Building to war reserve nuclear weaponry. The site was transferred to the control of the Soviet Ministry of Defense in 1957. This base is still operational as of 2012. Commercial satellite imagery of this base can be seen here.
Nyandoma (6139N 4015E), a/k/a Kargopol-2, a/k/a V/Ch 42799. Located 2 nautical miles southeast of Nyandoma and south of the city of Plesetsk. First observed on August 18, 1960 by CORONA Mission 9009 satellite imagery, with the operations area being completed and all bunker facilities being earth covered at the time. Designated Sensitive Operations Complex. Base declared operational in 1966. Closed in 1995. Commercial satellite imagery of this base can be seen here.
Olenegorsk (6814N 3351E), a/k/a Olenegorsk-2, a/k/a Object 956, a/k/a V/Ch 62834. Located near the town of Ramozero south of Murmansk. Activated in the mid-1950s to store nuclear weapons on behalf of the Soviet Northern Fleet. This site is still active as of 2012. No high-resolution satellite imagery of this base is currently available on Google Earth.
Radomyshl’/Malin (5034N 2927E), a/k/a Makarov-1, a/k/a Object 322, a/k/a V/Ch 12474. Located 13.5 nautical miles south-southeast of the town of Malin, 25 miles east of Zhitomir, and 33 nautical miles west-northwest of Kiev in the Ukraine. Determined to be a Sensitive Operations Complex by Keyhole reconnaissance satellite Mission 1101 in October 1967. This site was closed in the early 1990s after Ukrainian independence. No high-resolution satellite imagery of this base is currently available on Google Earth.
Rechitsa (5226N 3005E), a/k/a Gomel-30, a/k/a V/Ch 42654. Located 12 miles northwest of the town of Rechitsa and 31 nautical miles west of Gomel in what is now Belarus. Designated Sensitive Operations Complex in early 1960s. As of July 1965 the complex was in the latter stages of construction, with a new drive-through building being identified and Bunker 5 still under construction. All other bunkers were completed and earth-covered. Station deactivated in the mid-1990s after Belarus was given its independence. Commercial satellite imagery of this base can be seen here.
Semipalatinsk (5038N 7836E), a/k/a Kurchatov. Activated in1974, this site is now located on the territory of Kazakhstan. Little is known about this base other than the fact that it existed in the early to mid-1980s. The base was closed in the early 1990s after Kazakhstan gained its independence and all Russian nuclear weapons were removed from the country. A search of available commercial satellite imagery has failed to find this site.
Valday (56.45.51N 35.42.31E), a/k/a Novgorod-18/Tver-9, a/k/a Object 713, a/k/a V/Ch 71373. Located 8 nautical miles west of the town of Valday, and southeast of the city of Novgorod/Tver. The Valday base was one of the first Soviet national nuclear weapons storage facilities when it was activated in late 1950. The site was discovered by the first CIA U-2 reconnaissance overflight of the USSR on July 4, 1956 (Mission 2013). Site was closed in the 1990s. Commercial satellite imagery of this base can be seen here.
Yuryuzan (5548N 5838E), a/k/a Zlatoust-30/Trekhgorniy-1, a/k/a Object 936/943, a/k/a V/Ch 41013. Located north of the Trekhgorniy/Zlatoust-36 nuclear weapons final assembly plant. The Yuryuzan base activated in 1952 by the Ministry of Medium Machine Building to serve as one of four national nuclear stockpile sites controlled by the ministry. The site was transferred to the control of the Soviet Ministry of Defense in the late 1950s. This base is still operational as of 2012. Commercial satellite imagery of this base can be seen here.
Zalari (5326N 10236E), a/k/a Irkutsk-45, a/k/a Object 644, a/k/a V/Ch 39995. Located 10 kilometers southeast of the town of Zalari, which is northwest of the city of Irkutsk The base was activated in 1966 and construction was completed in the late 1960s. The base includes five large earth-covered bunkers and a large maintenance complex inside a double-fenced secure compound, as well as the usual support and service facilities in an adjacent complex outside the fence line. The base is still operational as of 2012 holding nuclear weapons for the Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF). Commercial satellite imagery of this base can be seen here.
Zhukovka (5333N 3357E), a/k/a Bryansk-18, a/k/a Object 365, a/k/a V/Ch 42685. Located 6 nautical miles southeast of Zhukovka and 22 nautical miles northwest of the city of Bryansk. First observed in KH satellite imagery in April 1962 in the early stages of construction. Designated Sensitive Operations Complex in early 1960s. As of August 1965, Bunker 5 was nearing completion but was not earth covered, and construction was continuing on Bunker 6. As of May 1967 the complex was completed, with the helipad just completed. The base is still operational as of 2012. Commercial satellite imagery of this base can be seen here.