Nuclear ICBMs of United States and Russia - Past and Present


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Feb 19, 2009
Origin and History of the US vs Soviet (now Russia) ICBM Race
The first steps to develop long range strategic missiles were taken by the National Socialist (Nazi) Germany during the World War 2. Known as Project Amerika, the rockets were developed with the intention to target and strike continental United States. The missiles were tested a few times during 1945, however the World War 2 ended and Germany was captured before they could be successfully deployed. Following the Operation Paperclip, the US administration secretly transferred prominent Nazi scientists like Erich W. Neubert and Wernher von Braun to America with assurances of immunity from persecution if they cooperated with the US in developing nuclear ballistic missiles.

Following the end of the World War 2 and the beginning of the US vs USSR Cold War, America began to deploy its forces in the bases of its NATO allies near Soviet Union (USSR). To counter the threat resulting from deployment of US bombers in NATO countries, Soviet scientists under Stalin’s regime started to research on long range missiles which could strike US mainland. The team was headed by aviation engineer Sergei Korolev and after a series of disappointing failures, they tasted success on August 1957 when the first ICBM, designated as R-7 Semyorka managed to cover 7000 km to strike a target in Kamchatka peninsula. The missile was capable of carrying a 2.9 MT nuclear warhead weighing 5.4 tons, up to a maximum range of 8600 km. A modified version of the R-7 ICBM was later used to launch the first satellite to space – the Sputnik 1 on October 1957. The US attempts to build an ICBM met with several spectacular failures till November 1958 when an Atlas missile logged a successful flight of 6350 miles, making it the first ICBM of the United States.

Early First and Second Generation ICBMs
Both the Soviet R-7 and US Atlas ICBMs used large launchers which were located in open space and vulnerable to an enemy attack. To make missile launch systems more secure against enemy first strikes, both the US and USSR started to develop underground Silo and sea based missile launch platforms. The period between 1960–70 was the second generation of nuclear missiles on which strategic missiles went from overground launchers to underground Silos and submarine SLBMs. The command and control centre were based separately from the launch locations for added protection. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the secret US nuclear missile deployments in Turkey created a situation of high tension and distrust between the superpowers USSR and USA resulting in the largest nuclear missile build-up in history.

The Third Generation ICBMs, MIRV and the Second Missile Gap
The third generation nuclear missiles (~ 1960-70) were marked by strategic missiles with multiple-warheaded MIRV capabilities. The LGM-30 Minuteman was the first ICBM to be deployed with MIRV warheads, in the late 1960s. The Soviets followed up in the early 1970s by modifying the heavy R-36M Voyevoda with MIRV warheads. The R-36M had a high throw weight of 8.8 tons, giving it a payload capacity of 10 MIRV warheads at 0.55 Megatons each or a single large warhead of 16-20 Megaton yield. The LGM-30 Minuteman, in comparison had a throw weight of less than 1200 kg which could carry up to 4 MIRV warheads of 0.17 kilotons each (or a single warhead of 2 Megaton yield). The US administrations of Reagan and Bush respected and feared the R-36RM (NATO name SS-18 Satan) to such an extent because of its speed, yield and survivability; that it became the focus of discussions with Soviet Union (now Russia). The START II treaty banned land based MIRVs partly because of the destabilising power of SS-18 Satan. However the treaty is yet to be ratified because of heavy opposition in Russian Duma (Parliament) against it. [Source]. The period was often known as “second missile gap“, as the lack of political will made the US strategic nuclear missile technology fell behind the Russian technology. To offset this disadvantage, the US started moving its strategic nuclear force to SLBMs and making long range nuclear capable ’stealth’ bombers.

The Fourth Generation ICBMs and the end of Cold War
The fourth generation nuclear missile age started somewhere around the 1980s with the introduction of mobile ICBMs, widespread submarine based SLBMs and hardened blast proof Silos. With the end of the Cold War and dissolution of USSR, the arms race between US and Russia (ex-USSR) decreased to a small extent. The US started to prioritise its conventional capabilities to spread its influence over the globe (often termed as ‘neo-imperialism’). Russia went into an economic crisis after 1991 which resulted in a severe cut-off in defence spendings, perhaps due to confidence on its huge military it inherited from Soviet Union. However Russia continued to research and develop its land based ICBMs and up to a little extent, the submarine launched SLBMs (perhaps to counter the US’ ICBMs’ accuracy advantage). The Soviet/Russian ICBMs of this generation were RT-2PM Topol (NATO desig. SS-25) and RT-23 Molodets (NATO SS-24 Scalpel) - both of them had mobile launch capabilities and heavy throw weights. The comparable US ICBMs were LGM-118A MX Peacekeeper and LGM-30 Minuteman III, both deployed in the 1980s - both of them known for high accuracy in targeting.

The Fifth Generation ICBMs and Present Scenario
The introduction of fifth generation ballistic missiles began with Russia’s RT-2PM2 Topol M and Iskander missiles after the re-emergence of Russia, owing to the recent economic boom. The fifth generation missiles are known for their high speed (scramjet rockets), manouverable warheads (MARV), high penetration decoys, cold launched mobile and fixed silos and a few other classified advantages. The Iskander tactical missile with a CEP of 10m is the most accurate ballistic missile till date. These missiles were deployed to preserve Russia’s nuclear deterrence in response to the US NMD (National Missile Defence) program which started to secure US mainland, on the lines of Moscow A-135 ABM defence of Russia. Russia has been opposing the US ABM system which would result in deployment of base-10 radars in Czechoslovakia and Poland, apparently compromising Russia’s national security. The Strategic Rocket Force (SRF) of Russia which overlooks the missile offence and defence system gained privileged status after the recent militarisation moves of Russian President Dr. Vladimir Putin. The latest missiles under development in Russian arsenal are RS-24 and RSM-56 Bulava, the latter a new generation SLBM.

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