assessments

Russia: Missiles That Work

4 MINS READJan 3, 2008 | 20:43 GMT
Summary
A pair of strategic missile tests Dec. 25, 2007, offers an important perspective on the future of Russia's strategic deterrent. Though neither represents new developments or solutions to underlying problems, each is poised to play a significant role in the near-term future of the Kremlin's nuclear deterrent.
Russia successfully tested two strategic missiles Dec. 25, 2007. Neither was an inaugural test, but the missiles — the new RS-24 and the Sineva upgrade to the SS-N-23 "Skiff" — promise to play two very significant roles in Russia's strategic deterrent.

The RS-24

Although little concrete information is available, the RS-24 is a variant of the Topol-M (SS-27), Russia's most recently deployed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Indeed, it might simply be a Topol-M fitted with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (known as MIRVs), which allow a single missile to deliver multiple warheads on several targets. The significance of the RS-24 is twofold. First, with its MIRV capacity (the two successful tests of May 29, 2007, and Dec. 25, 2007, reportedly each involved three MIRVs), the RS-24 could offer Moscow an avenue to significantly expand the fielding of new warheads as it revitalizes its strategic deterrent but struggles with the pace of production. Second, all indications thus far suggest that the RS-24 is a fairly conventional design, which means it will be a manageable evolution for Moscow. Externally — from the scant information and photographs available — the RS-24 appears almost identical to the Topol-M. It is almost certainly heavily reliant on that design heritage. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Moscow was forced to reconfigure the design of the Topol (or SS-25 "Sickle") — which was produced largely in Ukraine — so that it could be built entirely inside Russia proper. But the differences between the Topol and Topol-M largely are rooted in manufacturing realities. Between the Topol and the Topol-M, the design has been honed, adjusted and operationally deployed for nearly two decades. (The first Topol entered service in 1988.) It is a sound and proven solid propellant, cold launch design. (These characteristics make for a more reliable and faster reacting missile.) Though more testing will be necessary, it could see operational deployment in or after 2010 and will be a significant expansion of Russia's aging nuclear arsenal.

The Sineva

More significantly for the near-term, Russian Delta IV nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) appear to already be outfitted with the modified SS-N-23 "Skiff" submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) design known as the Sineva, which also was tested Dec. 25, 2007. Even more conventional than the RS-24 appears to be, the Sineva is a liquid-fueled SLBM. This alone makes Western missile submariners quake in their boots. The U.S. Navy refused to ever field a liquid-fueled SLBM because it considered the corrosive (though these days more storable and stable) mixtures unacceptably dangerous. Though there are strong arguments in favor of this, Russia has always struggled with solid propellant SLBMs and continues to stumble with the latest Bulava design, which is chronically behind schedule and has suffered significant test failures. (All three tests during the fourth quarter of 2006 failed.) The Russian navy has been sailing with liquid-fueled SLBMs for decades; they have been the backbone of Russia's sea-based deterrent for the deterrent's entire existence. The significance of the Sineva upgrade is simple: It sustains the Russian sea-based deterrent for at least a decade, allowing the painfully slow-paced Bulava SLBM and Borei-class SSBN development the time to potentially succeed. There are still massive underlying problems with Russia's ability to sustain its deterrent. But the twin tests on Dec. 25, 2007, serve as a reminder that Russians can indeed build missiles that work — two in particular that might bear more of the burden of the strategic deterrent than either ever was intended to.

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