Why Road Mobile Nuclear Missiles Matter to Russia
Moscow will continue to rely of these hard-to-track weapons to keep up its nuclear deterrence.
Russia’s Armed Forces wield a powerful, and growing, arsenal of road mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that will continue to occupy a prominent plank of the Kremlin’s nuclear modernization strategy.
In the latter stages of the Cold War, the Soviet Union became interested in developing a mobile force. There are several advantages to mobile ICBMs, including one that figured prominently into Soviet strategic thinking was survivability. Namely, the Soviets became increasingly concerned that the United States either already had achieved, or is on the cusp of attaining, first-strike capability against their silo-launched missile systems. Everything else being equal, mobile missile launchers are much more difficult to locate, track, target, and destroy than their silo-fixed counterparts. Mobile ICBMs are thus a key source of strategic redundancy, offering a survivable alternative if the other parts of the Soviet nuclear triad fail.
It is widely believed that the RT-21, or SS-16, was the USSR’s first attempt to develop a mobile ICBM. There is no clear indication, however, that the SS-16 ever entered service, with some reports pointing to a slew of design flaws and failed tests. The RT-2PM (SS-25) Topol, a three-stage solid-fuel rocket ICBM carried atop a Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL), was the first major Soviet success in bolstering the land leg of its nuclear triad. The SS-25 was the foundation of Russia’s mobile ICBM forces in the years following the Soviet collapse. But the Kremlin immediately got to work on a successor, picking up on a late 1980’s Soviet project to build an advanced Topol variant. Topol-M (SS-27) boasts a single 550-kiloton warhead, is capable of basic evasive maneuvers as well as several other countermeasures. As with several of Russia’s later missiles, it uses a GLONASS digital inertial navigation system. The Kremlin aims to replace all Topol systems with the Topol-M by the early 2020s; a fairly realistic goal assuming that Russia is able to sustain its current modernization pace. Then there is RS-24 Yars, or SS-27 Mod 2, widely believed to be a Topol-M variant equipped with three multiple independent reentry vehicle (MIRV) warheads. Precise deployment details remain scant, but analysts maintain that Yars exists in both mobile and silo-based variants.
So, where does all this leave Russia’s current mobile ICBM arsenal? Precise estimates vary, but it is generally believed that Russia’s Armed Forces possess around forty-five Topol, sixty Topol-M, and as many as 135 mobile Yars systems. With the latter being actively phased out, Russia’s ICBM modernization rate will exceed 80% over the next several years if not already. In recent times, Russia’s development focus has shifted somewhat from mobile ICBM’s back to cutting-edge land-based systems. There is little question that RS-28 Sarmat, one of the six new weapons unveiled by Russian President Vladimir Putin in his 2018 annual state-of-the-nation address, is among Russia’s most consequential new ICBM’s. A 200-ton, Mach 10, liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile, Putin maintained that Sarmat is wholly immune to interception by “any current or prospective” air defense system.
Nevertheless, road mobile ICBMs continue to occupy a vast chunk of Russia’s nuclear strategic arsenal. That reality is unlikely to change anytime soon.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.