WASHINGTON, April 14 (UPI) -- Russia's leaders appear interested in a new strategic arms-reduction agreement with the United States. But until one is finally negotiated, they are pushing ahead with an ambitious and expanded program of nuclear-missile development.
Three-star Col. Gen Nikolai Solovtsov, the commander of the Strategic Missile Forces, last week unveiled plans to test at least 14 intercontinental ballistic missiles within the next nine months.
"Fourteen launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles of various types are planned for 2009," Solovtsov told the RIA Novosti news agency.
The general also said that by the end of this year, the number of Topol-M mobile ICBMs -- NATO designation SS-27 Stalin -- in service with the SMF will have doubled.
As we have previously reported in these columns, the SMF activated its first mobile operational Topol-M regiment near the town of Teikovo, close to Moscow, in December 2006. However, Solovtsov added, "By late 2009 we plan to complete the provision of the second missile regiment with Topol-M missile systems."
He also announced an ambitious program of inaugurating no fewer than six new missile systems with the SMF this year, including the new Topol-Ms.
"Six missile systems will enter service with the SMF in 2009," Solovtsov stated.
As well as rushing as fast as possible to deploy new ICBM systems, the Russian Strategic Missile Forces are also working hard to keep older ones operational long beyond their original phase-out dates. Solovtsov said the famous and formidable RS-20 Voyevoda-M ICBM -- NATO designation SS-18 Satan -- that first came on duty in 1988 would now have its operational life extended for another decade until at least 2019.
"The extension of the service life of the (Voyevoda-M) missile will allow us to keep these missiles, the most powerful in the world, in the SMF for another eight to 10 years," Solovtsov announced. "We have no technical difficulties in accomplishing this task," he said.
The RS-20/SS-18 Satan can carry as many as 10 Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles with nuclear warheads. The RIA Novosti report said Russia still has 88 SS-18 systems in operational use and that each of their nuclear warheads has a yield or destructive power of 550 to 750 kilotons.
The report also said most of them were currently located at the Dombarovsky missile base in the Orenburg oblast, or region, in the southern Ural Mountains.
RIA Novosti said the RS-20/SS-18 could hit cities as far away as 6,600 miles and carry payloads of up to 8.8 tons. The entire missile system weighs 210 tons, the news agency said.
The Strategic Missile Forces have also lost no time in implementing their ambitious new testing schedule. RIA Novosti also reported that last Friday a RS-12M Topol ICBM -- NATO designation SS-25 Sickle -- was successfully test-fired in an exercise to explore the prospects for maintaining it in service for at least 22 years.
The missile that was fired had been in operational deployment from 1987 to 2007 as part of the SMF's 54th Strategic Missile Division near Teikovo, the report said.
RIA Novosti described the RS-12M Topol as "a single-warhead intercontinental ballistic missile approximately the same size and shape as the U.S. Minuteman ICBM."
The Topol, like the RS-20, is a reliable old warhorse of the Russian strategic nuclear arsenal. It was first operationally deployed in 1985. RIA Novosti said it had a maximum range of 6,125 miles with a single 550-kiloton nuclear warhead.
RIA Novosti said the current operational strength of the Strategic Missile Forces came to 541 intercontinental ballistic missiles, of which 306 were Topols, 59 were Topol-Ms and 88 were Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicle-equipped RS-20s/SS-18 Satans.