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Outside View: Russian rail ICBMs -- Part 2

By YURY ZAITSEV, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   March 11, 2008 at 3:49 PM
MOSCOW, March 11 (UPI) -- Russia's SS-18 Satan intercontinental ballistic missile, also produced in Ukraine, was tested and put on combat duty almost at the same time as the rail-mobile RT-23 -- NATO designation SS-24 Scalpel. But it has been modernized several times and its service life was extended after trial and commercial launches -- the latter as the Dnepr boosters -- until 2020.

Nikolai Solovtsov, commander of Russia's Strategic Missile Force, is unrepentant about the withdrawal of the rail-based systems from the Strategic Missile Force: "It is inadmissible to keep systems with an expired service life on combat duty. Nuclear weapons are not a joke."

But Russia has extended the service life of the Stiletto and Satan missiles. Why not the SS-24 Scalpel?

Solovtsov also said that the rail systems were being replaced with Topol-M silo-launched and mobile systems.

The silo-based missiles have an even higher rate of survival in nuclear attack than their rail-based counterparts. It takes at least two direct nuclear strikes to kill such a missile, and even more if their deployment site is safely protected.

But the move to mobile systems is less understandable. Modern satellites can easily detect the mobile Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile, which is more than 24 meters -- 72 feet -- long, nearly 5 meters high and with a diameter of 3.5 meters, and has a substantial volume of thermal and electromagnetic emission. Outside the silo, it is a sitting duck.

A rail network, on the other hand, can ensure missile systems' stealthy movement. When the Americans planned to create a rail system, they concluded that there was only a 10 percent probability of 150 SS-18 missiles hitting 25 rail missile complexes -- twice the number Russia had at the time -- spread on a railroad network of 120,000 kilometers --74,580 miles.

So the only serious reason for Russia's decision to dump the rail systems was lack of maintenance funds.

By 2015 Russia plans to have produced just 54 mobile Topol-M systems and 76 silo-based ones -- enough for two missile divisions. Would they be able to deliver a retaliatory strike if hundreds of Minutemen missiles had hit their positions?

The maintenance and possible modernization and trials of 36 rail missile systems with 10 charges each -- their yield 25-27 times larger than that of the Hiroshima bomb -- would be the best option in terms of cost effectiveness. At the worst, combat-ready missiles would not be liquidated and replacement systems would not need to be hastily produced.

Today Russia's last rail missile system stands in the central museum of the Oktyabrskaya Railway at St. Petersburg's Warsaw Terminal. This is a better fate than that of the Buran multiple-use booster, which has been turned into an entertainment and restaurant complex.

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(Yury Zaitsev is a research adviser at the Russian Academy of Engineering Sciences. This article is reprinted by permission of RIA Novosti. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

© 2008 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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