The missile that does not care
MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei
This year shows little prospect for a much needed
Russian-U.S. missile defense treaty. The American ballistic missile defense
system, credible though increasingly costly, is going to become operational
within years. New Russian missiles could penetrate it now – if it were in
On January 19, Lieutenant General Henry A. Obering III,
Missile Defense Agency Director, touted a successful static test firing of the
second stage rocket motor for the future Kinetic Energy Interceptor, the
antimissile to be commissioned in the early 2010s and a key element in a
ballistic missile shield.
last year, the Boeing-led Airborne Laser team delivered on Boeing’s commitment
to strengthen the 10-crew Alaska-based interceptor group by announcing the
successful completion of a series of tests involving a high energy laser at
Edwards Air Force Base, California.
A credible capability indeed, but, as Russian President
Vladimir Putin told the marathon Kremlin news conference last month, Russia has
missiles that don’t care. When asked about the new Russian weapon, he said:
“These are very strong systems, and they – how shall I put it mildly - are not exactly a response to a ballistic missile defense system. With
such missiles, it does not matter whether you face a missile shield or not; they
travel at hypersonic speeds and change heading and altitude, while missile
defense systems are designed to counter ballistic-trajectory weapons.”
Experts know the missile Putin was referring to – the
formidable Topol-M (SS-25 Sickle) developed by the Moscow Institute of Thermal
Technology (MITT) – well enough. Below are some facts for the general public.
Originally, the Topol-M was a double-headed project
launched in the late 1980s in an effort to develop a missile that could be
equally successfully fired from a silo and from a mobile launcher. However,
while Yuzhnoye Design Bureau in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, was developing the silo
and Moscow-based MITT, traditionally stronger in road mobile technology, was
preparing its own design, the Soviet Union broke up and the Ukrainian part of
the program faded out. In the face of unaffordable research and development
costs, MITT decided to upgrade the operational Topol missile, rather than
develop a new one.
The original silo-based Topol-M (SS-X-27) was
commissioned for use in December 1997 – two underground systems were deployed
at Tatishchevo military base, Saratov region (central Russia). Since then, five
Strategic Missile Force regiments have been rearmed with the Topol-Ms.
The road mobile launcher was successfully tested in
2004-2005 and commissioned for use with the Strategic Missile Force this year.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said seven road mobile missile systems
would enter service in 2006.
A road mobile launcher ensures concealment,
maneuverability, utter survivability, and long endurance. The Topol-M itself is
more accurate, reliable, robust than the old Topol, and more immune to the
action of interception weapons, including nuclear interceptors.
the U.S. is stepping up its effort to deploy early warning radars and
interceptors as close to Russia’s borders as possible to detect missile
launches and kill missiles at the boost stage of flight when they are the most
vulnerable – and as long as the body and the warhead are still in one piece
– the Topol-M, powered by three solid-propellant boosters, accelerates faster
than earlier ICBMs and is accordingly less vulnerable to that kind of attack.
The missile also has scores of auxiliary jets and a state-of-the-art flight
control system that enables a 3D avoidance maneuver capability from the first
seconds of flight.
And on top of everything else – in every sense - is the nuclear re-entry vehicle, in fact a ramjet-boosted supersonic
cruise missile whose additional sustainer engine accelerates it to between Mach
4 and Mach 5 (Mach is the speed equal to the speed of sound in the air).
The United States had its own designs but the program
was discarded as too costly, shifting the focus to transonic vehicles. Russia
dropped its own hypersonic project in 1992. Or so they said.
Back in July 2001, observers animatedly discussed a
Topol test launch, in which the warhead demonstrated a clearly non-ballistic
performance. Someone suggested the warhead had special engines capable of
generating enough thrust for a maneuver at high altitudes and at very high
However, the topic was highlighted again only three
years later during the Security 2004 exercise. An RS-18 (SS-19 Stiletto) carried
a new experimental re-entry vehicle that in effect “bounced” between the
upper atmosphere and outer space. This maneuver is incredible as a normal
re-entry velocity for a warhead is around 5,000mps. The test vehicle, however,
defied skeptics and successfully survived all the maneuvers thanks to its
effective heat and g-load protection systems.
Such maneuverability renders a missile system a crucial
surprise advantage, as the adversary cannot launch a fire-and-forget interceptor
weapon because no anticipated point of contact is known or can be reliably
calculated. Normally, the Topol-M carries one warhead but, unlike other
strategic ICBMs, it can be easily upgraded with an advanced warhead carrying up
to three independently targetable re-entry vehicles. The warhead fires off the
vehicles in midcourse, changing direction twice a minute to fool warning radars
as to where the charges are heading. Each vehicle is assigned an individual
target at up to 100km (60 miles) from the separation point.
As Russian Chief of Staff Colonel General Yuri
Baluevsky put it, “The vehicle can successfully avoid monitors and penetrate
all missile defense systems, including the ones still under development.”
“In a huge improvement over conventional ballistic
warheads, this re-entry vehicle can either follow a preset flight maneuvering
program or be re-targeted when it is already over enemy territory,” he said.
This means that the re-entry vehicle will effectively penetrate anything the
U.S. military is trying to build now. -0-