Strategic Weapons: Built To last

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October 24, 2008:  Russia carried out a successful test launch of a 31 year old SS-19 (RS-18 in Russian) ICBM on October 22nd. Russia still has 130 (out of a 1980s peak of 360) SS-19s in service, and now expects to keep 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. Russia was late to perfecting solid fuel rocket technology. The SS-19 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 SS-19s were manufactured in 1990, and Russia expects each of them to have a useful life of 30 years. This is confirmed each year with the test launches.

The SS-19 (and a similar missile, the SS-17) were developed as a "light" ICBM, in effect, a competitor for the U.S. Minuteman series. The SS-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. The SS-19s are being replaced by the SS-27 (Topol-M), a solid fuel missile. The current plan is to take some, or all, of the retired SS-19s and convert them (by adding a third stage) to satellite launchers. This has already been done, and the converted missile can lift 1.8 tons into orbit. Current technology enables small satellites (as small as 200 pounds) to do useful work. The civilianized SS-19s are perfect for launching these military states.

Russia is also extending the life of its heavier SS-18 (RS-20) ICBMs to 30 years. This missile carries ten warheads.

 


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