Strategic Weapons: The Topol Triad


December 26, 2007: Russia has made component and design improvements to its most modern ICBM, the Topol M, that increase 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 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, is entering mass production in 2008.

There are two versions of the land based Topol M, although for purposes of keeping within the terms of the 1991 START I disarmament treaty, the two versions are referred to by the Russians by two different designations. The original (RS-12M ) has one warhead, while the recently announced RS24 has multiple warheads.

Nevertheless, 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 until 2010. 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. 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 Topol M entered service in 1998, and is based on the lighter, mobile, Topol (SS-25) ICBM. Topol was the first successful Russian solid fuel ICBM. It is comparable to the 1960s era U.S. Minuteman ICBMs. Solid fuel is tricky to manufacture, and after many failed attempts to develop it, the Russians stuck with liquid fuel until the 1980s. They finally perfected their solid fuel technology, 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. The Topol-M is more reliable, especially compared to the mobile Topol, which often developed reliability problems when it was moved by truck or train, and then fired. The Topol-M also had reliability problems, but these appear to have been fixed, so the replacement of the older RS18 and RS20 missiles will occur sooner. Topol-Ms cost $52 million each.


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