Russian ICBMs: An Aging but Mixed Arsenal

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 136

Yars RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missile system (Source: Newsweek)

Undeniably, Russia has fewer deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) today than the Soviet Union fielded during the Cold War (at its peak, in 1985, it had 1,398 such missiles at its disposal). However, the exact number and condition of Moscow’s current ICBMs varies according to the source. In late 2016, the commander of the Strategic Rocket Troops, Colonel General Sergey Karakayev, mentioned an arsenal of about 400 ICBMs, a number also cited by TASS (Tvzvezda.ru, December 15, 2016; TASS, December 17, 2016). Other sources mention 286, 299 or 316 missiles (Russianforces.org, Bintel.com.ua, June 30; Armscontrol.org, October 2017). The latest “New START Treaty Aggregate Numbers of Strategic Offensive Arms” report registers 501 deployed Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), and heavy bombers—i.e., approximately 299 ICBMs, if the SLBMs and bombers are discounted (State.gov, October 2). The following missile models are known to be in Moscow’s inventory:

First, Russia has 46 SS-18 Satan missiles (other designations: R-36M, RS-20, 15A14/15A18) (TASS, December 17, 2016). A two-stage, tandem, storable, liquid-propellant, silo-based missile, the SS-18 was developed by Yuzhmash, in Dnipro (formerly Dnepropetrovsk), Ukraine, and produced until 1991. By 2022, it is to be entirely replaced by the more modern RS-28 Sarmat (currently under development) (Topwar.ru, August 13, 2017; Gazeta.ru, March 11, 2015; TASS, December 17, 2016). It seems unlikely, however, that the SS-18s will remain operational until that point since the Yuzhmash plant—as a result of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine since 2014—is no longer involved in the upkeep of these ICBMs. The maintenance has instead been transferred to the Academician V.P. Makeyev Space Rocket Center (located in Miass, Chelyabinsk oblast, Russia). But according to Yuzhmash, the Russian facility cannot cope with this task due to, among other problems, not having access to the missile’s design documentation (Gazeta.ru, March 11, 2015).

Additionally, Moscow deploys 40 SS-19 Stiletto missiles (i.e.: RS-18 Mod 1/2/3, UR-100N, UR-100NUTTH, 15A30, 15A35) (TASS, December 17, 2016) Like the Satan, the Stiletto is a two-stage, silo-based, liquid-propellant missile, and until 1985 it was produced by JSC MIC NPO Mashinostroyenia (formerly OKB-52); but the guidance system was built by factories now found in independent Ukraine (Vz.ru, October 25, 2015; Kommersant, August 24, 2015). The missile’s service life was initially 10–15 years but has since been prolonged to 35 years (hence, until 2021–2022) (Npomash.ru, accessed October 24; and Mind.ua, August 11).

The ICBM inventory includes a further 70 SS-25 Sickle models (RS-12M, RT-2PM, Topol) (TASS, December 17, 2016). This three-stage, solid-propellant missile was developed by the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology and is the only Cold War–era ICBM entirely produced on Russian territory after the dissolution of the Soviet Union (Raur.org, accessed October 24; RT, July 23). It is also the first fully road-mobile Soviet ICBM. It became operational in 1985, with an initial service life of 10–15 years, but will remain in service until at least 2022 (RT July 23, 2017; Defendingrussia.ru, July 23, 2014; TASS, December 17, 2016)

Eighty of Russia’s ICBMs are the SS-27 Stalin (Topol-M, RS-12M1, RS-12M2, RT-2PM2) (TASS, December 17, 2016). The successor of the Topol, the Stalin was developed by the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology and produced by Votkinsky Zavod and later Titan-Barrikady (Oruzhie.info, accessed October 24). Like its predecessor, it is a three stage solid-propellant missile with a service life of 20 years (http://cdbtitan.ru/ and https://tvzvezda.ru, 7 December, 2011). The original, silo-based version became operational in 1998, and the mobile version entered service in 2006 (http://www.arms-expo.ru, April 30, 2016). Since late 2012, no further SS-27s have been procured due to the introduction of the Yars (see below) (Bulgari-istoria-2010.com, accessed October 24).

Russia has 101 SS-29 Yars ICBMs (SS-27 Mod 2, RS-24) (9may.ru, April 27). A three-stage, solid-propellant missile developed from the SS-27 and produced by Votkinsky Zavod, the Yars was publicly unveiled on May 9, 2015, during a parade on Red Square (Tvzvezda.ru, May 14, 2015). The missile became operational in 2009 and has both silo- and mobile-based versions (Toparmy.ru, September 27, 2014; Dokwar.ru, September 13, 2012; Militaryrussia.ru, September 23, 2017). The Yars is the only ICBM type Moscow procured after 2012 (Dokwar.ru, September 13, 2012).

Each year, Russia’s Strategic Rocket Troops carry out a number of test launches in order to assess new warheads as well as verify the technical status of their missiles (Russkoye Agentstvo Novostey, January 10, 2016). The most recent took place on September 26, when a Topol missile was fired from Kapustin Yar in order to test a new warhead (Tvzvezda.ru, September 26). About 10–16 such tests are planned annually, but the actual number of launches is always smaller—in 2008–2015, they never exceeded 10 on any given year (Republic.ru, January 10, 2016).

In 2013, the Strategic Rocket Troops’ Colonel General Karakayev mentioned that the service life of Russia’s older missiles—the SS-18, SS-25 and SS-19—would expire in 2019, 2021 and 2022, respectively, to be replaced by modern ICBMs (https://ria.ru, 17 December, 2013). He apparently had in mind specifically the SS-X-30 Sarmat. Whereas the SS-X-31 Rubezh, a missile that lately seems to have disappeared from official announcements (see EDM, September 27), was not mentioned. Development of the silo-based Sarmat began in 2011; the first tests were reportedly accomplished in 2015, but later ones were postponed and will possibly take place in the fourth quarter of 2017. This means that the delivery of the Sarmat should not be expected in 2018–2019 (as had been announced in 2016), but at a later, undefined date (Gazeta.ru, July 3).

Another ICBM currently under development is the Barguzin, a railroad-based missile and the heir to the Soviet SS-24 Molodets. Initial tests were carried out in 2016 with flight launches planned for 2019. The Barguzin may enter service after 2020 (Topwar.ru, January 20; Gazeta.ru, July 3).

Assuming there are no further delays in the development of the Sarmat and Barguzin, and if the financial situation permits, the Strategic Rocket Troops will likely be fully rearmed with modern missiles by 2027 (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, May 5). Today Russia’s nuclear deterrent is, according to one source, 70 percent made up by the Strategic Rocket Forces; but this could decline to 35 percent by around 2020, if the older ICBMs in the inventory cannot be kept operational (Mind.ua, August 11). And in this context, the development of the other parts of Russia’s nuclear triad also has to be considered—including the modernization of the strategic bomber fleet, the introduction of the Tupolev PAK DA stealth bomber, as well as the delivery of Borey-class nuclear-missile submarines. Thus, for a period of time, Moscow faces a very real risk of a declining number of launchers for its strategic nuclear arsenal.