Strategic Weapons: Out With The Old, But Slowly

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December 11, 2009: Russia plans to replace most of its older (Cold War era) ICBMs in the next five years. But all of these older missiles will not be retired until 2020. Currently, Russia has 538 ICBMs in service, 71 percent of them the most modern Topols (SS-25 and SS-27). Only 56 are the most modern, Topol-M design. About a dozen of these are the road-mobile versions, that avoid destruction in a first strike, by constantly moving around on the roads 200-300 kilometers northeast of Moscow. The 54 foot long transporter for these 46 ton missiles is a 16 wheel vehicle, using a 710 horsepower diesel engine. Most of the other Topol-M missiles in service are fired from underground silos. Russia continues to make component and design improvements to its most modern ICBM, the Topol M. This has increased its service life from ten to 21 years.

Russia is in the midst of trying to replace Cold War era RS-18 (SS-19) and RS-20 (SS-18) ICBMs with the newer Topol M (also known as RS-24 or SS-27), more rapidly than earlier planned. This is the result of more money being allocated to buying ICBMs, and more reliable new ICBMs becoming available. A naval version of the Topol M (the Bulava), for use on SSBN submarines, was supposed to enter mass production in 2008, but technical problems caused that to be delayed for over a year.

Russia is not producing enough Topol Ms each year to replace the older liquid fuel missiles before their reach the end of their planned service life. So these older missiles are being refurbished, to extend their time in service. Russia continues to test launch RS-18 and RS-20 ICBMs. Russia still has 140 (out of a 1980s peak of 360) RS-18s in service, and expects to keep some of them active into the next decade. The test firings for the last two years have been successful, and other quality-control tests have come back positive. The 106 ton, 76 foot long missile uses storable liquid fuel, meaning that the missile is inherently more complex than a solid fuel missile.

The U.S. introduced solid fuel rockets for ICBMs in the early 1960s, but it took Russia two more decades to master this technology. 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 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 insure 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 (Multiple, Independent Reentry Vehicles). That means each warhead had its own guidance system. The SS-19 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 some are being converted to launch satellites.

The silo based ICBMs, (all but a dozen of 538 in service) constitute 45 percent of Russians long range ballistic missiles (the rest are carried on submarines), but carry 85 percent of the nuclear warheads delivered by long range land and sea based ballistic missiles. Russia might be able to retire its older ICBMs more quickly if the new arms control treaty with the United States lowers the number of missiles and warheads allowed for each nation.

 

 


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