Strategic Weapons: Russia And The Capitalist Curse


May 23, 2016: The new Russian heavy ICBM, the RS-28, will finally be ready for testing in a few months. RS-28 has been in development since 2009 and was originally scheduled to enter service in 2018. That has now been delayed until 2020, or even later if the 2016 tests do not go as expected. Problems are a possibility as another project, Bulava (RSM-56), was in development since the late 1990s and after many failures, most attributed to a shortage of qualified workers and engineers, entered service in 2013. These quality problems are found throughout the Russian space problem and military tech development in general.

The cause was the return of a market economy to Russia in the 1990s. At that point most of the more talented people in defense industries found better paying jobs in the commercial sector or overseas. No solution to this has been found, especially not with Russia suffering from an economic recession and pervasive corruption. Despite the fact that the government has devoted a lot more money and management talent (also in short supply) to nukes, ballistic missiles and nuclear subs, the problems and delays persist.

The government believes the RS-28 is essential for state security because it can carry nine or more independently targeted warheads and will be the most important weapon in its ICBM arsenal. Moreover the missile RS-28 is replacing (R-36M) is aging to the point where refurbishment is no long able to keep these four decade old missiles operational. The Russians saw this problem coming and in 2003 decided to refurbish its force of 1970s era R-36M (SS-18 or "Satan" in the West) ICBMs so they could remain in service another 10-15 years (2013-18).

The R-36M was designed in 1969, first tested in 1972 and entered service in 1975. It's the largest ICBM the Russians ever built, with a liftoff weight of 210 tons and a warhead weighing eight tons. While it's a liquid fuel rocket, storable liquid fuel is used. This avoids lengthily fueling procedures common with earlier Russian ICBMs. Modifications and upgrades for the missile produced six separate models, the last one entering service in 1990. Russia wanted to refurbished a hundred of the most recently built (in the 1980s, for the most part) R-36Ms. Shortages of cash and resources reduced the number refurbished and as of 2016 only about fifty are operational. By 2018 only about 30 will be working and by 2020 none will.

The refurbished R-36Ms carry ten warheads, have a range of 16,000 kilometers and will put half its 550 kiloton warheads within 500 meters of the aiming point (the other half will land up to several kilometers outside that circle.) The missile is 34.5 meters (112 feet long), three meters (ten feet) in diameter, has two stages and is fired from silos. Russia had about 200 of them left in 2001, out of about a thousand that were manufactured during the Cold War. The refurbishment, in addition to replacing any motor and missile body parts that had deteriorated over the years, also included a more accurate and reliable guidance system. Some R-37Ms, scheduled for destruction in compliance with disarmament treaties, are being used to launch satellites instead. Disarmament officials considered this a satisfactory form of "destruction." About 150 R-36Ms were purchased by a private firm for this. Russia's decision to keep R-36Ms in service was unavoidable as development of the replacement RS-28 was already running into problems. More recent missiles than the R-36M have proved more expensive to build and have not been as reliable. Russia plans to build at least fifty RS-28s and as many as a hundred if money is available.




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