Russia: The Strategic Missile Upgrade Challenge

3 MINS READDec 14, 2007 | 20:21 GMT
Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces could field a new intercontinental ballistic missile in the next five to 10 years, military officials announced Dec. 14.
This would be a significant development given the downward trajectory of Russia's strategic deterrent — especially if Russia moves to build a new heavy intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Given the chronically slow pace of fielding the Topol-M missiles and the deeply troubled Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), there is little reason yet to expect significant progress in the near term, however. Moscow faces a number of problems, including:
  • A declining deterrent in both qualitative and quantitative terms
  • A doomed treaty structure that has thus far sustained the bilateral nuclear dynamic of the Cold War with Washington, if only on paper
  • Continued domestic troubles with design and production
  • A resurgence of ballistic missile defense technology
With the Topol-M and the Bulava, Russia has attempted to trim and modernize its aging nuclear arsenal. But a major issue underlies these four problems: the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II (START II). START II never went into effect, but its language set Russia on a course to shift much of its deterrent to the sea. START II mandated that land-based ICBMs would carry only a single warhead. The Topol-M (which relies heavily on the original Topol design) was the right ICBM for the START II regime. Even after its demise, the Topol-M was the missile Russia was essentially stuck with. But with the development of the Bulava in serious question (Russia has always struggled more with SLBMs than the United States), Russia might have decided to rethink how it addresses its future needs. The old, liquid fueled SS-18 "Satan" and SS-19 "Stiletto" ICBMs carry 10 and six warheads apiece (respectively) — more than 80 percent of Russia's land-based deliverable warheads. Recent tests of the RS-24 have raised the possibility of multiple warheads (known as multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle, or MIRVs) for the Topol-M design. But the Topol-M is fundamentally limited by its original design parameters for a single warhead. A fundamentally new ICBM design probably would be closer to the SS-18 and SS-19 in MIRV capacity, though almost will certainly use solid fuel. If such a missile can be designed, tested and produced in meaningful numbers, it could represent a way for Moscow to meaningfully alter the downward trajectory of its strategic deterrent. Unfortunately for the Kremlin, its track record does not make for promising prospects in this regard.

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