Strategic Weapons: The Princes Of Paranoia Persist


May 30, 2012: Russia revealed it had recently 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 known to be 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. Last October Russia admitted that a test of 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-missiles 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.

The recent test involved an ICBM fired from a mobile launcher. This is another system that paranoids love. Currently, Russia has 50 RS-12 (Topol-M, also known as the SS-27 in the West) missiles in silos and 18 on mobile transports. There are also nine RS-12 (Yars) missiles using mobile transports. 

Russia is investing half a billion dollars, over the next three years, to expand ballistic missile production capability. With this investment, Russia will be able to double ballistic missile production by 2013. The government plans to spend over $2.5 billion buying RS-12/24 type missiles, as well as the shorter range mobile Iskander through the end of the decade. Unable to create an army or navy capable of defending their vast borders, Russia is building up the one weapon, nuclear armed ballistic missiles, that will be most likely to keep potential invaders out. The mobile version makes it harder for an enemy to destroy your ICBMs in a surprise attack.

The original Topol (RS-12M) was the first mobile ICBM and entered service in the late 1980s. It was also Russia's first solid fuel ICBM. Two 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 will be 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.

The 17.4 meter (54 foot) long transporter for the RS-12/24 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, 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.

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 firinges for the last five 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 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.

Meanwhile, the government has to deal with the personnel problems in the defense industries. As the civilian economy boomed after 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 manufacturing personnel. During the Soviet period the best paying jobs were in defense. Since 1991, that has shifted to commercial firms or overseas. Recent failures in weapons development have forced the government, and the defense industries, to acknowledge that they could not create first class weapons with second class staff. So more money is being spent to attract the talent back to defense work, at least when the work involves ICBM penetration aids.



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