Nuclear missile train at its final destination

MOSCOW. (Yury Zaitsev for RIA Novosti) - In February 1983, a rail-based missile system entered trial service in the Soviet Union.

Equipped with the RT-23 solid-fuel missile, the trains were able to stealthily travel more than 1,000 km (622 miles) a day, and launch missiles from any stop en route.

One regiment comprised a train consisting of three diesel locomotives and 17 cars, including nine flat cars with three missile launchers. The system was to become the core of a retaliation strike group because of its high survival potential in the event of an enemy first strike.

The first missile regiment with the RT-23 (SS-24 Scalpel) long-range ballistic missiles went on combat duty in October 1987. By mid-1988, the number of launchers increased to 20; and by 1999, there were three missile divisions with four missile regiments, or 36 launchers, in each. The rail systems were deployed at fixed locations, 4 km (2 miles) from each another. Whenever they went on duty, they dispersed.

The Scalpel missile has been fired only once. Launched during an exercise in the Kostroma Region, it hit a target in Kamchatka. American monitors were unable to fix the train's coordinates either before or after the launch.

In the early 1990s, the Gorbachev-led leadership decided to suspend rail patrols. The final blow was dealt by the START-2 arms control agreement, which stipulated the scrapping of all Scalpel missiles. But when the United States withdrew from the ABM Treaty in June 2002, Moscow declared START-2, which had never been ratified, to be void.

The authorities halted the destruction of several unique strategic weapons, including the rail missile system. Nikolai Solovtsov, commander of the Strategic Missile Force, said the system should remain part of the force until 2010. Increasing budgetary allocations gave hope that the system could one day be returned to combat duty.

But the reprieve was short-lived. Soon afterwards the military command decided to scrap it after all. The first of the systems was dismantled in Bryansk in June 2003. The last rail missile system, of the Kostroma Division, was removed from combat duty in 2005 and cut up a year later.

The official reasons for the decision were obsolete design, the high costs of resuming production in Russia (the missiles were initially made in Ukraine) and the advantages of towed missile launchers.

Scalpel missiles were first tested in 1985-1987 and were put on combat duty two years later. The SS-19 Stiletto, on the other hand, was tested in 1977-1979 and went on combat duty in 1980, almost ten years before the Scalpel. But Russia plans to keep between 70 and 100 Stilettos in the Strategic Missile Force until 2013.

The Stiletto was designed and produced in Russia and has proved very reliable during long periods of combat duty. Besides, Ukraine had turned over to Russia brand-new components for about 30 such missiles, which probably helped extend their service life to 30 years.

The SS-18 Satan missile, also produced in Ukraine, was tested and put on combat duty almost at the same time as the 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.

Solovtsov 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 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 missile, which is more than 24 meters 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% probability of 150 Satan missiles hitting 25 rail missile complexes (twice the number Russia had at the time) spread on a railroad network of 120,000 km (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.

Yury Zaitsev is a research adviser at the Russian Academy of Engineering Sciences.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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