Strategic Weapons: Two New Russian ICBMs


June 20, 2013: Recently Russia successfully tested a new solid-fuel ICBM from its Kapustin Yar (on the lower Volga east of Volgograd/Stalingrad) test site. This was apparently the second successful test, as last October Russia tested an unidentified ICBM that was believed to be a new missile. This new ICBM is meant to replace the current Topol-M. After three more successful tests the new design will go into production, which may happen within two years. The tests were conducted from the same mobile launcher used for the Topol M. Currently, Russia has most of their RS-12 (Topol-M, also known as the SS-27 in the West) missiles in silos and a growing number on mobile transports. Russia prefers putting more of its new missiles on TELs (Transporter Erector Launchers) that carry ballistic missiles about the countryside, to make them more difficult to destroy (before they can be launched at an enemy). The United States, and other nations, can use spy satellites (that pass over the operating area for the TELs every 90 minutes) to track these TELs and their missiles but that still makes it more difficult for an enemy to make a surprise attack and knock out all Russian ICBMs. The 17.4 meter (54 foot) long TEL for the 46 ton Russian RS-12/24 missiles is a 16 wheel vehicle, using a 710 horsepower diesel engine.

The new ICBM is apparently the same size as the Topol M and probably uses a lot of the same technology, with enough improvements to justify calling it a new design. This is typical of Russian weapons development. The original Topol (RS-12M) was the first Russian mobile ICBM and entered service in the late 1980s. It was also Russia's first solid fuel ICBM. Three years ago Russia announced that the latest version of the Topol series, the RS-24 (Yars), had entered service. The RS-24 appears to be a slightly heavier version of the 46 ton Topol-M (or RS-12M1/M2). The RS-24 is being deployed in silos as well as on wheeled vehicles. The RS-24 carried more warheads (up to ten) than the Topol-M. The Russians developed the RS-24 to enable them to use all the additional warheads to penetrate American missile defenses.

Russia also announced recently that it has developed a liquid-fuel ICBM to replace its Cold War era RS-18 (SS-19) and RS-20 (SS-18) ICBMs. The prototype is under construction and tests are to begin next year. Previously Russia had planned to replace the old liquid-fuel missiles with the Topol M. It was not announced why they are sticking with liquid-fuel technology for the Cold War era “heavy” missiles. It might have something to do with the liquid-fuel missiles being able to lift heavier loads, making it possible to use them to also launch satellites. The liquid fueled missiles weighed 100-220 tons and had warhead weights of 5-9 tons. In contrast, all American ICBMs (including those launched from subs) are solid fueled and have a warhead weight similar to the Topol (about a ton). Russian SLBMs (Sea Launched ICBMs) also have the one ton warhead.

Russia has also been developing new warheads that contain “penetration aids,” like decoys and other deceptive devices. Whatever the Russians were doing with this, they wanted to keep most of the details secret. A year ago Russia revealed it had successfully tested a new ICBM warhead design. This was a MIRV (Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicles) "bus" (topmost stage of an ICBM) where each of the multiple warheads carried has its own guidance system. The Russians have been working on new MIRV designs, where the individual warheads can maneuver as they are entering the atmosphere, so they have a better chance evading anti-missile missiles. Not a lot of detail has been released about this. Two years ago Russia admitted that a test of a Topol M (RS-12/24 series) ICBM, carrying new countermeasures, failed. The new countermeasures were meant to defeat anti-missile missiles and were part of the same technology that recently succeeded. Russia has been spending a lot of time and money on "penetration aids" since the end of the Cold War (1991).

Russian leaders have become obsessed with American anti-missile systems and the possibility that these systems would render Russian nuclear ICBMs harmless. Since the Russian armed forces are but a shadow of what they were two decades ago, nuclear missiles are the main defense against a major invasion threat. On top of that, Russian leaders have, for centuries, tended to be paranoid.

Russia continues to test launch older RS-18 and RS-20 ICBMs. Russia still has over a hundred (out of a 1980s peak of 360) RS-18s in service and expects to keep some of them active into the next decade or until replaced by the new design. The test firings for the last six years have been successful, and other quality-control tests have come back positive. The 106 ton RS-18 is a 24.5 meter (76 foot) long missile that uses storable liquid fuel, meaning that the missile is inherently more complex than a solid fuel missile.

The RS-18 entered service in 1975, and it wasn't until the 1980s that Russia began producing reliable solid fuel rocket motors large enough for ICBMs (the 45 ton RS-12M). The last RS-18s were manufactured in 1990, and Russia expects each of them to have a useful life of 30 years via the same kind of product improvements being applied to the Topol M. Annual test launches ensure reliability.

The RS-18 was developed as a "light" ICBM, in effect, a competitor for the U.S. Minuteman series. The RS-18 was the first Russian ICBM to carry MIRV. The RS-18 carries six warheads and has a range of 10,000 kilometers. Topol-M has a range of 11,000 kilometers. Russia is also extending the life of its heavier (217 ton) RS-20 ICBMs to 30 years. This missile carries ten warheads and is also being converted to launch satellites.



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