Strategic Weapons: Russian Upgrades Continuing


January 29, 2023: Despite the enormous cost of the war in Ukraine, Russia manages to allocate money to continue upgrades of its SMF (Strategic Missile Forces.) A decade ago, Russia converted one of its silo-based missile divisions from the Cold War era RS-18 (SS-19) to the new RS-24 “Yars”. A Russian ICBM division has three regiments each with three battalions and each battalion has three ICBMs. Russia believes Yars is a worthy successor to the venerable, reliable and aging RS-18s. Reinforcing that attitude was another successful test of an RS-24 on December 24th. Russia began deploying RS-24s in 2010. The latest move, to replace RS-18s with RS-24s, indicates a high degree of confidence in the RS-24 and enough cash to retire the RS-18s and build RS-24s to replace them.

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 expected each RS-18 to last 30 years if well maintained, regularly refurbished and needed badly enough. 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 (multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles). The RS-18 carries six warheads and has a range of 10,000 kilometers. Topol-M/Tars 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. Eventually Yars replaced all of these.

In 2009 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 was 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.

At one point Russia planned to develop a liquid-fuel ICBM to replace its RS-18 and RS-20 (SS-18) ICBMs. The prototype was built but not tested. Russia had also announced plans to replace the old liquid-fuel missiles with the Topol M and this plan was implemented with the RS-24. It was never explained why they were 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 in the past 60 years (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 continued to test launch older RS-18 and RS-20 ICBMs. A decade ago, Russia still had over a hundred (out of a 1980s peak of 360) RS-18s in service and kept some of them active until recently. The test firings for most of the last two decades have been successful, and other quality-control tests have come back positive. Despite the post-Cold War collapse of the Russian military, cash and quality personnel kept going to the missile forces, which are the final defense of the largest nation on the planet.

Another example of the continued work on ICBMs was the first test launch of the production version of its new RS-29 Sarmat ICBM. The test was successful. This came two years after the RS-28 ICBM was ready for service, along with its Avangard hypersonic warhead. RS-28 missiles were supposed to begin replacing older RS-18 missiles by the end of 2020 but that was delayed as a few more technical problems had to be fixed with the production model. The successful launch from a silo of a production missile allows those already built to begin replacing older ICBMs.

Design errors and quality control problems have become customary with Russian ICBM and SLV (satellite launch vehicle) rockets and the Russians have adapted by making allowances for that as well as work-arounds. An example of this can be seen in the 2020 decision to delay acceptance of the solid-fuel SS-26, which was also supposed to carry the Avangard hypersonic warhead. The solid-fuel RS-26 had run into a lot more problems than the liquid-fuel RS-28. In 2019 Russia announced the suspension of the RS-26, one of the two ICBM projects that were designed to use the Avangard, a revival of a Cold War era hypersonic glide vehicle system. RS-26 was a solid fuel missile based on the Topol M, which was the first successful solid fuel ICBM missile Russia was able to deploy. It is comparable to the 1960s era U.S. Minuteman. Solid fuel is tricky to manufacture, and after many abortive attempts, the Russians stuck with liquid fuel until the 1980s. They finally perfected their solid fuel technology in the 1980s with the successful test launch of the 45-ton Topol in 1985. The 52-ton Topol-M followed ten years later. Both missiles have a range of 10,500 kilometers. This is the second time Russia ran into problems adapting the Topol M for other uses. The first effort was to turn Topol M into Bulava, an SLBM (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile) for the new Borei class SSBN ((ballistic missile nuclear subs). The Bulava problems were largely caused by a shortage of competent engineers and manufacturing specialists. Getting Bulava to work took a lot longer and cost a lot more than expected. Sensing the same pattern with the RS-26, Russia “suspended” work on this until 2027, or whatever future time when the personnel and manufacturing quality control problems can be solved.

The other new missile designed to carry Avangard, the 220-ton RS-28, had fewer problems but was still behind schedule and officially not expected to be ready until 2021. RS-28 was finally ready to use in 2022. Because of several successful test launches, Russia declared the Avangard/RS-28 missiles ready for deployment in 2019. That means these missiles are being taken off the production line, equipped with their Avangard third stage and headed for an existing R-36M (SS-18) base at Orenburg (1,500 kilometers southeast of Moscow) where those R-36M silos have been prepared to accept the RS-28 missiles. Satellite photos confirmed that many RS-28s were now in the R-36M silos. Given Russian production and budget problems, only a token number of RS-28s were in those silos by the end of 2019, with the number slowly increasing. The Orenburg ICBM base has been in service since the 1960s and has 62 silos. Since the 1990s most have been taken out of service. Some of those silos were used for launching ICBMs modified to carry commercial satellites. A dozen or more silos are available for the RS-28s and loading a silo with a new missile is a very visible (from the air) and time-consuming process.

RS-28 development began as a replacement for Cold War era ICBMs that are rapidly becoming too old and unreliable to use. By 2016 the RS-28 had also evolved into the primary carrier for the new hypersonic glide vehicle project Russia announced in 2013 but was believed to have suspended because of budget cuts brought on by low oil prices and sanctions. That crisis is still active and made worse by additional sanctions in 2022 because of the Ukraine invasion. The defense budget has undergone cuts for several years in a row. Yet the Avangard project remained quite active and has apparently received budget priority to get it into service as soon as possible.

The RS-28 was originally scheduled for testing before the end of 2016. That did not happen and there followed the usual succession of delays because of technical or manufacturing problems. RS-28 has been in development since 2009 and was originally scheduled to enter service in 2018. Russia has had a growing number of quality control problems throughout the Russian space problem and military tech development in general. The cause was the return of a market economy to Russia in the 1990s. At that point, most of the more talented people in defense industries found better-paying jobs in the commercial sector or overseas. No solution to this has been found, especially not with Russia suffering from an economic recession and pervasive corruption. Despite the fact that the government has devoted a lot more money and management talent (also in short supply) to nukes, ballistic missiles and nuclear subs, the problems and delays persist.

Russia believes the RS-28 is essential for state security because it can carry nine or more independently targeted warheads and will be the most important weapon in its ICBM arsenal. Moreover, the missile RS-28 is replacing (R-36M), is aging to the point where refurbishment is no longer able to keep these decades old missiles operational. The Russians saw this problem coming and in 2003 decided to refurbish its force of 1970s era R-36M (SS-18 or "Satan" in the West) ICBMs so they could remain in service another 10-15 years (2013-18). Both the old (210-ton, 32.2 meter long and 3.05 meters in diameter) R-36 and new (210-ton, 36.3 meter long and 3 meters in diameter) RS-28 are similar in size. The new missile is longer and that will require some adjustments to the existing R-36 silos. Some of that work appears to have already been done.

The R-36M was designed in 1969, first tested in 1972 and entered service in 1975. It's the largest ICBM the Russians ever built, with a liftoff weight of 210 tons and a warhead weighing eight tons. While it's a liquid fuel rocket, storable liquid fuel is used. This avoids lengthy fueling procedures common with earlier Russian ICBMs. Modifications and upgrades for the missile produced six separate models, the last one entering service in 1990. Russia wanted to refurbish a hundred of the most recently built (in the 1980s, for the most part) R-36Ms. Shortages of cash and resources reduced the number refurbished and as of 2016 only about fifty were operational. By 2018 only about 30 will be usable and by 2020 none were. The RS-28 is very similar to the R-36M, weighing 220 tons and a warhead hauling up to ten tons of smaller warheads (up to 15) or 24 Avangard vehicles.

The secretive Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle project was something that began during the Cold War but never got into service. Suspicions that Russia had changed its mind may have been a side-effect of China revealing in early 2016 that they had perfected the technology for a maneuverable ballistic missile warhead. This came a little after it was revealed that since 2014 China had conducted six tests of a maneuverable gliding warhead for ballistic missiles. Five of the six tests were successful and this hypersonic glide vehicle was officially known as the DF-ZF.

In effect, this Chinese hypersonic glide vehicle is a warhead that can glide rather than simply plunging back to earth, and is maneuverable enough to hit small moving targets in space or down on the surface. The DF-ZF was initially developed as China sought to perfect a version of the DF-21 ballistic missile that could hit moving warships at sea. DF-21 is a 15 ton, two-stage, solid fuel missile. The DF-21D (the carrier killer version) missile using the DF-ZF warhead is also more difficult for anti-missile missiles to hit. This is what the Russian hypersonic glide vehicle is designed for.

Russia and the United States had developed this technology much earlier but neither has deployed it in the form the Chinese appear to favor. The original work in this area was by the Germans during World War II. The U.S. and Russia both investigated the concept more during the Cold War but never felt it worth building. In the 1990s the United States proposed reviving work on hypersonic glide vehicles for its Prompt Global Strike system. This would put hypersonic glide vehicle warheads, using high-explosive and not nuclear explosives, on ICBMs. This meant a very expensive weapon that could hit a target anywhere on earth in less than an hour of the order being given. In any event, the United States successfully tested its version of the hypersonic glide vehicle in 2011 but with the defense budget shrinking the project was halted. This was encouraged when a 2014 hypersonic glide vehicle test failed. Now, this effort has been revived, sort of.

The United States moved ahead with reviving its Cold War era hypersonic glide vehicle ballistic missile warheads. In late 2017 the U.S. revealed several active research projects like TBG (Tactical Boost Glide) and HAWC (Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon) which are similar in size and shape to the cruise missiles carried by bombers, and launched from high altitudes into orbit or remain in the atmosphere, but moving at hyper speeds (over 5,000 kilometers an hour). This is similar to the X-51A Waverider project that was halted in 2013 but not forgotten. The problem with the X-51A was that it could not be made reliable enough. A 2010 flight test had the 8 meter (36 foot) long, cruise missile-like X-51 aircraft boosted to 3,300 kilometers an hour, using a solid fuel rocket, at which point the scramjet engine took over, and successfully operated for over two minutes, achieving speeds of nearly 6,000 kilometers an hour. This was the longest a scramjet had ever operated (the previous best was ten seconds). By 2013 the 4th test got the liquid fuel engine going for five minutes.

What makes scramjets work is the compression of incoming air without the use of a fan system (as in conventional jet engines). But while scramjets have been in development for half a century, the lack of adequate materials (that can handle the high heat and pressure), and adequate design tools, frustrated attempts to build workable and reliable scramjets. Scramjets have few moving parts but must cope with very extreme conditions and the design challenges have proved very frustrating. The recent X-51 tests, like all previous ones, ended with the aircraft crashing. The next step was to get longer hypersonic engine use, de-acceleration, and landing via parachute (and eventually an auxiliary engine.) Going beyond the 2013 test proved too expensive and time consuming to continue when there were cheaper alternatives available and these depended more on getting into orbit and letting gravity provide and maintain the high speed. It was definitely easier to achieve those high speeds with orbital technologies like TBG and HAWC. Or the new Chinese systems like DF-ZF.

Russia stresses the need for Avangard to deal with American missile defense systems. This doesn’t make sense to Westerners because the American anti-ICBM systems are limited and meant to deal with small numbers of ICBMs from North Korea or Iran. Russia interprets it differently because Russian leaders since 2010 have blamed their internal problems on the growing threat of NATO. The reality is that the NATO threat is a myth but Russia’s growing economic problems are not. This is made clear via opinion polls and international economic surveys. Corruption rankings put Russia among the most corrupt nations, and those are the ones that have the worst economic and military performance. The most recent corruption surveys show Russia as more corrupt than China and getting worse. Avangard is an expensive defense against an imaginary threat. Meanwhile, the growing corruption and shortage of competent people (who are leaving Russia or avoiding defense industries) make it more and more difficult to complete high-tech weapons projects of any kind.


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