Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 197

Russia’s strategic nuclear modernization plans suffered a serious setback last week when a Topol-M missile exploded shortly after takeoff from the northern Plesetsk test range. The Topol-M is to be the jewel in Russia’s strategic nuclear crown. Designated the SS-27 by NATO, the missile is an improved version of the SS-25. Unlike any other Russian ICBM, it uses only Russian-made components. The solid-fueled, three-stage missile carries a single nuclear warhead and is to be deployed both in silos and mobile launchers. In what can be seen in retrospect to have been purely a public relations move, the Strategic Rocket Forces put two Topol-Ms on alert last December (1997). Top military officials have repeatedly referred to the missile as a “weapon of the 21st century.” They have especially touted its supposed ability to evade American antiballistic missile systems (Russian and foreign media, October 24).

Even before last week’s failure during the fifth test flight, it was clear that the program was in trouble. The missile had not been tested for more than a year. While a full regiment was to be operational by the end of this year (1998), no additional missiles had taken their place alongside the token two at the base of Tatischevo, near Saratov. The ambitious production schedule announced by the military was recognized by most analysts as economically and technologically impossible.

Problems with the Topol-M also have serious implications for the sea-borne leg of the Russian strategic triad. While the keel for the first of a new generation of ballistic-missile submarines was laid down in November 1996, work on that vessel–the Yuri Dolgoruk–has reportedly been suspended because the missile that was to arm it has failed all its tests. The submarine is now to be modified to accept a new missile, one designed by the Moscow Heat Technology Institute and based on its Topol-M. In September, Navy commander in chief Vladimir Kuroyedov said that the new naval missile would be 70 percent compatible with the land-based version (Izvestia, September 9).