Strategic Weapons: The Russian Comeback


October 31, 2010: In the last three days, Russia has successfully tested four ballistic missiles, an impressive feat. Two of the missiles were submarine launched, liquid fueled Sinevas, and the third was a solid fuel, land based Topol. All three of these were older designs, which have been in service for some time. The two older submarine launched missiles were the RSM-50 (a 35 ton, two stage design that entered service in the late 1970s), and the RSM-54 (a three stage, liquid fuel design that entered service in 1986). The RSM-54 has a shorter range (8,000 versus 9,000 kilometers), but a larger payload (2.8 tons versus 1.8) and can carry more warheads (up to ten). The Topol was the first mobile ICBM, and entered service in the late 1980s. It is being retired, and only about 200 of the 360 originally manufactured are still in service.

The fourth test, the day after the triple test, was of the troublesome Bulava (RSM-56) sea launched missile. The Bulava is a submarine launched version of the land based Topol-M. This latest successful launch seems to assure the survival of this program (half the tests have been failures).

Generally, though, the Topol family of missiles have been reliable. Earlier this year, Russia announced that the latest version of its Topol series of solid-fuel ICBMs; the RS-24, 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 will be deployed in silos as well as on wheeled vehicles. Only a few of the RS-24s are in service, with a least one of them on a wheeled vehicle. 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.

Meanwhile, the overall Topol force grows. In late 2008 Russia activated another two battalions (three missiles each) of Topol-M ICBMs. These were 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 two new battalions belong to the 54th Strategic Missile Division.

Of the other 59 Topol-M missiles in service, 52 are fired from underground silos. There are now fourteen road mobile Topol M missiles in service. The 17.4 meter (54 foot) long transporter for these 46 ton missiles is a 16 wheel vehicle, using a 710 horsepower diesel engine. 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 replacing Cold War era RS-18 (SS-19) and RS-20 (SS-18) ICBMs with the newer Topol M (also known as the SS-27 in the West), more rapidly than earlier planned. This is the result of more money being allocated to buying ICBMs, and more reliable new ICBMs becoming available. Even so, Russia is not producing enough Topol Ms each year to replace the older liquid fuel missiles before they reach the end of their planned service life. So these older missiles are being refurbished, to extend their time in service.

But Topol tech is not always the answer. 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 another three years. Too many of Bulava test launches failed. The problem was traced to a widespread loss of skilled researchers and technical people, to better paying non-defense jobs. The government threw more money, and better management, at the Bulava, and that appears to have helped a lot.

Meanwhile, 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. The test firings for the last four years have been successful, and other quality-control tests have come back positive. The 106 ton, 24.5 meter/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. Meanwhile, 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 (Multiple, Independent Reentry Vehicles). That means each warhead had its own guidance system. 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.

The Bulava debacle forces the government to deal with the personnel problems in the defense industries. As the civilian economy boomed since the Soviet Union dissolved, the mighty Soviet defense industries shriveled. The defense firms not only shrank in size, they also lost a disproportionate number of their most skilled design and construction personnel. While during the Soviet period, the best paying jobs were in defense, since 1991, that has shifted. The best jobs are in commercial firms, or overseas. Bulava forced the government, and the defense industries, to acknowledge that they could not create first class weapons with second class staff.





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