Russia Develops Multiple Nuclear Systems

By Bill Sweetman
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology

Following behind the Rubezh, according to multiple reports, is a new heavy liquid-fueled ICBM to replace the R-36M2 (SS-18 Mod 6 Satan), a late-1980s development of a design that originated in the 1960s. Forty R-36M2s remain in service and can carry ten MIRVs each.

According to Russian media reports, the Makeyev design bureau was selected in 2011 to develop the new heavy missile, which is to replace the R-36M2 starting late in the decade. This was an unusual move since Makeyev has previously specialized in submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM)—but the design team seems to have distinguished itself in the development of the modernized R-29RMU2 missile, which has been deployed aboard aging Delta IV-class submarines, helping to fill the gap caused by delays to the Bulava SLBM.

Bomber forces continue to be upgraded with the service entry of the Kh-101 cruise missile on the Russian air force's 63 Tu-95MS and 13 Tu-160 bombers. More importantly, however, development of the PAK DA bomber has started, with the aim of replacing the bomber fleet after 2020. It was announced in April that the conceptual design and specification of the new bomber had been approved, with the Tupolev bureau being selected to lead the program. It is expected to be a blended wing-body, stealthy, subsonic aircraft.

If the picture surrounding strategic weapons is confusing, Russian tactical systems are a morass of Soviet-style ambiguity. Much discussion revolves around a single system: the 9K720 Iskander missile produced by the KBM company.

The Iskander is a tactical ballistic missile in a class that is extinct in the U.S. and Europe, being more than twice the size of the U.S. MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System. It is one of very few all-new nonstrategic weapons to have entered service in Russia in large numbers since the early 1990s, becoming fully operational in 2010. The Russian army plans to acquire a total of 120 Iskander systems, each with two missiles, by 2018.

On a basic level, the Iskander is an INF-compliant replacement for KBM's 9K714 Oka (SS-23 Spider), which was scrapped under that treaty. It is a single-stage missile with a 480-kg (1,060-lb.) warhead and a nominal range of 400 km. An Iskander-E export version has been offered, with range reduced to 280 km to comply with Missile Technology Control Regime limits. The initial version has inertial guidance, but in 2011 an Iskander was tested with a digital scene-matching guidance system.

Most observers agree that the Iskander is physically capable of exceeding INF range limits. A detailed report from Finland's National Defense University estimates that the weapon's range is likely to be 700 km or more, with the standard warhead, based on contemporary solid-propulsion performance standards. Only in a low-trajectory, high-drag profile would the weapon's range be inside INF limits. However, the Iskander remains INF-compliant unless it is test-fired beyond the 500-km limit. A more direct violation would be the full-range testing of the Iskander-K, using the same launch vehicle and control system but armed with a turbojet-powered cruise missile.

The Iskander is not officially described as nuclear-capable, but it is designed to be fitted with a variety of different warhead types. Notes Podvig: “I don't think Iskander is actually a nuclear system, but it appears to be nuclear-capable, and Russia would like to keep ambiguity about that.” Schneider notes that although Iskander is a single-stage weapon, it is shipped and stored in two components.

This meshes with the long-standing belief of some U.S. intelligence officials that in the 1990s and early 2000s, Russia engaged in technically illegal “hydronuclear” tests in which the metallic cores of nuclear weapons are compressed explosively but only to a point where small nuclear effects are released. These tests, those officials have argued, could allow Russia to develop new low-yield warheads suited to the relatively accurate Iskander vehicle. This would result in a system that could be suited to the Russian concept of a “de-escalatory” nuclear strike in a conventional campaign, if a high-value target could be found.

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