Russia Develops Multiple Nuclear Systems

By Bill Sweetman
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology

Underscoring the importance of the Topol-M's descendants, Topol/Yars technology forms the basis of the RSM-56 Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile, developed in parallel with the Project 955 Borey-class SSBN. The first Project 955 boat, Yuri Dolgorukiy, was accepted for service at the beginning of this year but will not be armed with missiles until 2014.

The six-warhead Bulava has had a troubled testing history. The 20th flight test of the missile failed in September. Before that, the missile had experienced seven successful tests in a row, following a sequence of complete or partial failures blamed on quality control and other issues.

There is also to be a gap in deliveries of the Borey SSBN. The first three Project 955 submarines, all of which have been launched, are being succeeded by a revised model, the 955A. The first of these, Knyaz Vladimir, was only laid down in July: Putin, attending the ceremony, said five 955As should be ready by 2020, bringing the Borey-class fleet to eight boats—a very ambitious schedule by post-Cold War standards.

Beyond that, notes leading Russian nuclear-arms analyst Pavel Podvig, an affiliate of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, “it appears that Russia has successfully managed to confuse everyone with its new missile-development programs.” Since even the officially unveiled Russian systems have more names than one of Tolstoy's aristocrats, the potential for confusion with developmental systems is huge. The absence of Soviet secrecy does not solve the problem, rather allowing for official and unofficial sources to disseminate diverse and often conflicting stories.

Four officially announced flight tests of a “new ICBM” between September 2011 and June 2013 seem to point to the development of a weapon that will supersede Topol and Yars in production, both developed by the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology (MITT). It has been associated with the designation RS-26 and may be the missile referred to as Yars-M and Avangard, but recently it has most consistently been identified as Rubezh (Frontier).

The Rubezh missile is believed to be mated to a new six-axle TEL, the Belarus-built MZKT-27291, which was unveiled this year. If it is used with this launcher, it must be smaller than the Topol/Yars family and easier to move. As in the case of some other recent ICBM tests, official announcements described it as a “maneuverable” system. According to Russian media, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, speaking after the test in June, called the new ICBM a “missile-defense killer—neither current nor future American missile defense systems will be able to prevent that missile from hitting a target dead on.” It is expected to be operational next year.

Like the Yars with MIRVs—an upgraded version of an existing missile—the apparently all-new Rubezh originated after the end of the Start II and ABM treaties. Despite Washington's protestations to the contrary, Russia has continued to insist that U.S. ballistic missile defense plans are aimed at tipping the nuclear balance between the two nations. Technically, it is possible that the missile could carry a maneuverable, evading warhead: Such a system, the Advanced Maneuvering Reentry Vehicle (AMaRV), was tested in 1979-80 in the U.S. as a counter to ballistic missile defense systems, which are designed to intercept nonmaneuvering targets. The AMaRV can also be launched on a flattened, aero-ballistic trajectory to reduce the defender's warning time.

Mark Schneider, an analyst with the hawkish National Institute of Public Policy, suggests another potential issue with the new weapon: I could represent the start of a breakout from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty signed in 1987, which bans both the U.S. and Russia from deploying any ground-launched missiles, nuclear or conventional, with a 270-3,000-nm range (500-5,500 km). Schneider notes that the Russian military has yet to release any images of the Rubezh missile. “They have not even released a photo of the missile in flight, which is very usual. That would probably tell if it has two or three stages,” he explains. If it is a two-stage missile, he says, it would be an INF violation. Podvig, however, remains convinced that the missile is an ICBM.

The relatively small Rubezh could be the basis of a project disclosed in April—the revival of rail-mobile missiles, extinct since the retirement of the last RT-23UTTH (SS-24 Scalpel) train in 2005. Russian media say MITT is the prime contractor, and either the Rubezh or the bigger Yars could be carried. The advantage of a rail-mobile missile, Russian commentators suggest, is that it is faster than a road-mobile ICBM—it could be relocated as far as 1,000 km in 24 hr.

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