Understanding the significance of the Topol M missile

2007

Introduction

The Topol M is the latest version of the Topol missile that carries the NATO designation of SS-25. A road mobile version of this missile is referred to as Topol M1. The naval version of the Topol M is called the Bulava. A Topo M1 was successfully tested on November 1, 2005. The missile was launched from the Kapustin Yar test range in Astrakhan region and targeted at the 10th test range at Lake Balkhash (a.k.a. Priozersk) in Kazakhstan. A successful test of the Bulava was conducted on September 27.The missile was launched from the Dmitry Donskoy, a Typhoon class ballistic missile submarine towards a designated 'target' at the Kura test site on the Kamchatka Peninsula. An Interfax report datelined Oct 25, 2005 quoted Strategic Missile Troops Commander Col. Gen. Nikolai Solovtsov as stating that Russian Strategic Missile Troops' will switchover to Topol-M land-based mobile missile starting early in 2006.

A Paradigm Shift

Russian officials, including President Putin, have repeatedly alluded to Topol M in the past few years as a weapon system that will correct the strategic imbalance that has inexorably crept in as Russia has struggled with its economic and political restructuring and the US has vigorously pursued Ballistic Missile Defense systems. For example, in an AFP story datelined Nov 17, 2004 President Putin reportedly told an annual meeting of high-level Russian military officers: "We have not only conducted tests of the latest nuclear rocket systems, I am sure that in the coming years we will acquire them." "Moreover, these will be things which do not exist and are unlikely to exist in other nuclear powers," Putin added.

From the tenor of the remarks made at the highest level it is evident that the Russians regard the Topol M / Bulava missiles as special. As more facts have emerged on these weapon systems it is becoming increasingly evident that the Russian confidence in these weapon system is not misplaced. More significant than the capabilities of the missile, which as we will see are formidable, is the shift in paradigm from quantity to quality in Russian weapon systems. Under this paradigm shift even as the number of Russian nuclear warheads drops their quality increases. Even as Russia does away with a large number of its rail mobile ICBMs it replaces them with a smaller number of harder to detect road mobile ICBMs. The Topol M missile weighs 47.2 tons and carries a warhead of 1,200 kilograms. Its range exceeds 10,000 kilometers. It is capable of carrying 10 MIRV warheads.

Tens years back, when Boost phase and Midcourse Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) systems were unheard of, the information above is all you would have cared to know. However, the above facts give you very little idea about the true strength of the Topol M - The fact that it is capable of evading all BMD systems - Boost Phase, Midcourse as well as Terminal. Boost Phase missile defense systems rely on detecting and targeting a ballistic missile within seconds of its launch. During this phase the missile presents a large slow target that can easily be detected using space based infrared systems because of its hot exhaust plume and then attacked using an Airborne Laser System. The US Air Force Space-Based Infrared System-High (SBIRS-High) system is expected to be in place by 2007. The system will consist of four primary satellites in Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO), two spacecraft carrying infrared sensors in Highly Elliptical Orbit (HEO), and a Mission Control Station (MCS) located on the ground.

SBIRS-High can provide targeting information on an ICBM to an Airborne Laser System within 10-20 seconds of its launch giving Airborne Laser System enough time to incinerate the missile electronics. Infrared sensors in SBIRS-High use scanning and staring elements. In a typical combat scenario, the "scanning" sensors will detect a missile launch, and the "staring" sensors will lock on to the missile itself and transmit detailed data to the Mission Control Station. A silo based missile can be stared at before launch since its location is known. Hence targeting information on the missile is available almost immediately. A road mobile missile like the Topol M can delay detection because it cannot be 'stared' at. Additionally, the Topol M missile uses three engines during boost phase to allow it to accelerate much faster than conventional ICBMs. The missile is also reported to be hardened to withstand sustained illumination by the laser fielded on the Airborne Laser System.

Mid Course Capability

A ballistic missile is most vulnerable to anti missile defenses during its mid course phase when it is follows a predictable ballistic trajectory. This also happens to be the longest phase of its flight to target. The Topol M and Bulava missiles employ a maneuvering warhead called the Igla. This warhead was first tested in February 2004 with an older version of Topol. The trajectory of Igla is not just difficult but, in fact, impossible to predict because the warhead has auxiliary engines that switch on and off randomly. The targeting system of the warhead keeps track of changes in the trajectory on account of these random engine firings and eventually guides the warhead toward its target. The Igla will reportedly also use IR counter measures and decoys to confuse any Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicles (Interceptors) that may target it during that phase. It may be noted that the interceptors planned to be deployed as part of the US GMD (Ground Based Midcourse Defense) are equipped with on-board discrimination to identify the true warhead from among decoys and associated objects.

Terminal Phase Capability

During its terminal phase the Igla warhead travels at hypersonic speeds (Mach 6) and employs electromagnetic shielding. The combination of stealth and maneuvering make it difficult for the either the IR sensors on an interceptor missiles or their ground based guidance radar of the interceptor missiles to track the Igla. Even if they do sporadically track the Igla the latter's Mach 6 speeds make an interception near impossible.

Conclusion

Clearly, the Topol M and Bulava missile systems represent a significant milestone in strategic weapon systems. They are currently not deployed in numbers large enough to threaten the US, and probably never will be. These systems signal an attempt by Russia to flex its technological muscles - not to threaten the US but alert it to power and excellence elsewhere. One thing the Igla warhead does not signal is the irrelevance of BMD. It is not technology that countries like North Korea and Iran can acquire for decades to come. If anything the Igla reiterates what the US has always claimed - Its BMD is not designed to upset its strategic balance with Russia but to reduce the threat from rouge nations.

Source: http://kuku.sawf.org/Articles/3840.aspx

In related news:

Rude awakening to missile-defense dream


On Christmas Eve 2004, the Russian Strategic Missile Force test fired an advanced SS-27 Topol-M road-mobile intercontinental ballistic Missile (ICBM). This test probably invalidated the entire premise and technology used in the National Missile Defense (NMD) system currently being developed and deployed by the Bush administration, and at the same time called into question the validity of the administration's entire approach to arms control and disarmament. From 1988 to 1990, I served as one of the American weapons inspectors at the Votkinsk Machine Building Plant in Russia, where the SS-27 and its predecessor, the SS-25, were assembled. When I started my work in Votkinsk, the SS-25 missile was viewed by many in the US intelligence community as the primary ICBM threat facing the United States. A great deal of effort was placed on learning as much as possible about this missile and its capabilities.

Through the work of the inspectors at Votkinsk, as well as several related inspections where US experts were able to view the SS-25 missile system in its operating bases in Siberia, a great deal of data was collected that assisted the US intelligence community in refining its understanding of how the SS-25 operated. This understanding was translated into several countermissile strategies, including aerial interdiction operations and missile-defense concepts. The abysmal performance of American counter-SCUD operations during the Gulf War in 1991 highlighted the deficiencies of the US military regarding the aerial interdiction of road-mobile missiles. Iraqi Al-Hussein mobile missiles were virtually impossible to detect and interdict, even with total American air supremacy. Despite all the effort put into counter-SCUD operations during that war, not a single Iraqi mobile missile launcher was destroyed by hostile fire, a fact I can certify not only as a participant in the counter-SCUD effort, but also as a chief inspector in Iraq, where I led the United Nations investigations into the Iraqi missile program.

The rapid collapse of the Soviet Union did not leave much time for reflection on the American counter-mobile missile launcher deficiencies. In mid-1993, the Department of Defense conducted a comprehensive review to select the strategy and force structure for the post-cold war era. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the threat to the US from a deliberate or accidental ballistic missile attack by former Soviet states or by China was judged highly unlikely. In Votkinsk, US inspectors observed a Soviet-era defense industry in decline. SS-25 missiles were produced at a greatly reduced rate, and the next generation missile, a joint Russian-Ukrainian design, was scrapped after a few prototypes were produced, but never launched. After the resounding Republican victory in the midterm 1994 congressional elections, a new program for missile defense was proposed covering three distinct "threat" capabilities ranging from "unsophisticated threats" (an attack of five single-warhead missiles with simple decoys), to highly sophisticated threats (an attack of 20 single-warhead SS-25 type missiles, each with decoys or other defensive countermeasures). Funding for this program ran to some $10.8 billion from 1993 to 2000.

When President Bush came to power in 2001, there was a dramatic change in posture regarding ballistic missile defense. The administration announced it was withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, clearing away development and operational constraints. At the same time, the administration laid out a comprehensive plan that envisioned a layered missile-defense system. After studying the SS-25 missile for years, the US military believed it finally had a solution in the form of a multitiered antiballistic missile system that focused on boost-phase intercept (firing antimissile missiles that would home in on an ICBM shortly after launch), space-based laser systems designed to knock out a missile in flight, and terminal missile intercept systems, which would destroy a missile as it reentered the earth's atmosphere. The NMD system being fielded to counter the SS-25, and any similar or less sophisticated threats that may emerge from China, Iran, North Korea, and elsewhere, will probably have cumulative costs between $800 billion and $1.2 trillion by the time it reaches completion in 2015.

However, the Bush administration's dream of a viable NMD has been rendered fantasy by the Russian test of the SS-27 Topol-M. According to the Russians, the Topol-M has high-speed solid-fuel boosters that rapidly lift the missile into the atmosphere, making boost-phase interception impossible unless one is located practically next door to the launcher. The SS-27 has been hardened against laser weapons and has a highly maneuverable post-boost vehicle that can defeat any intercept capability as it dispenses up to three warheads and four sophisticated decoys. To counter the SS-27 threat, the US will need to start from scratch. And even if a viable defense could be mustered, by that time the Russians may have fielded an even more sophisticated missile, remaining one step ahead of any US countermeasures. The US cannot afford to spend billions of dollars on a missile-defense system that will never achieve the level of defense envisioned. The Bush administration's embrace of technology, and rejection of diplomacy, when it comes to arms control has failed.

If America continues down the current path of trying to field a viable missile-defense system, significant cuts will need to be made in other areas of the defense budget, or funds reallocated from other nonmilitary spending programs. With America already engaged in a costly war in Iraq, and with the possibility of additional conflict with Iran, Syria, or North Korea looming on the horizon, funding a missile-defense system that not only does not work as designed, but even if it did, would not be capable of defending America from threats such as the Topol-M missile, makes no sense. The Bush administration would do well to reconsider its commitment to a national missile-defense system, and instead reengage in the kind of treaty-based diplomacy that in the past produced arms control results that were both real and lasting. This would not only save billions, it would make America, and the world, a safer place.

Source: http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0104/p09s02-coop.htm

Russia to conduct strategic military exercises in 2008

Russia's Armed Forces will hold a series of command-and-post exercises under a common strategic concept in 2008, the defense minister said Tuesday. The Stability-2008 exercises will be held for two months in various regions of Russia with the goal of practicing strategic deployment of the Armed Forces, including the nuclear "triad," to counter potential threats near the Russian borders. "The maneuvers will include a number of theater-level, tactical and command-and-post exercises, under a common strategic concept," Anatoly Serdyukov said at a Defense Ministry meeting, attended by President Vladimir Putin. Addressing senior military staff at the meeting, Putin reiterated the need to continue the development of Russia's Strategic Nuclear Forces and said they should be able to respond promptly and effectively to any aggression. "One of the most important tasks today is to enhance the combat readiness of the Strategic Nuclear Forces. They should be in a position to deliver a prompt and effective strike against any aggressor," Putin said. Russia has recently resumed patrol flights of strategic bombers and continues building advanced nuclear submarines. It has also successfully tested a number of new and existing ballistic missiles. In 2007, Russia conducted 28 division-level and 255 regiment-level tactical exercises.

Source: http://en.rian.ru/russia/20071120/88834914.html

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