The missile that does not care

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Kislyakov.)

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 place.

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.

Late 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.

While 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 speeds.

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-