The Buzz

Russia Is Building the Largest ICBM Ever (and America Should Be Worried)

Russia will deploy its new RS-28 Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missiles to units in Siberia and the southern Urals when the enormous new weapon becomes operational in 2018. The massive liquid-fueled missiles will replace the existing Cold War-era R-36M2 Voyevoda (SS-18 Satan) ICBM—which is the largest such weapon ever built.

“The development of the Sarmat silo-based missile system with a heavy missile is nearing completion,” Col. Gen. Sergei Karakayev, commander of Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces told the Moscow-based TASS News agency. “It will replace the Voyevoda missile system in the Uzhur missile division and the Dombarovsky position area.”

The first prototype missiles have already been built. The first test launches are scheduled for later this year. Should the tests prove successful, the Sarmat will enter into full production so that it enters operational service in 2018.

There is not much concrete data available about the new Sarmat missile—but what information is available suggests that it will be an extremely formidable weapon like the appropriately-named Satan ICBM it will replace. However, the Russians are not developing the Sarmat entirely from scratch. The new missile will used a modernized variant of the Voyevoda’s liquid-fueled rocket motors. As such, it will be equipped with four RD-274 engines to power its first stage.

The Sarmat will weigh at least 100-tons and carry a 10-ton payload. That means the missile could carry as many as 15 independently targeted thermo-nuclear warheads. It has a range of at least 6,000 miles. Once it is operational, it will be the largest ICBM ever built.

Like other modern Russian ICBMs such as the Yars, Topol-M and the Bulava, the Sarmat is being designed specifically to overcome ballistic missile defenses using a combination of decoys, a host of countermeasures and sheer speed. It might also be equipped with maneuvering warheads—which would make it much more difficult to intercept.

Meanwhile, the United States Air Force has started preliminary work on the development of a new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) to replace the existing Minuteman III. The service is working on upgrading the missile, but U.S. Air Force officials have testified before Congress that the elderly Minuteman III is not likely to be able to provide assured deterrence as enemy missile defenses continue to improve rapidly.  

Ultimately, the United States needs a new missile to maintain its deterrence against Russia and China. However, whatever new missile emerges out of the GBSD is not likely to be as large—or have the same throw weight—as the Russian weapon.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.