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Oh, the Cold War how I miss it so: Russia and America's missile wars

By Marko Beljac - posted Thursday, 14 June 2007

Russia's test of a "new" Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), the RS-24, and a new cruise missile, the R-500 or Iskander-K has been reported variously as Russia re-igniting a new cold war. The Western media, while reporting breathlessly on Russian missile tests, has displayed a curious lack of interest in Washington's missile and strategic programs.

One of the main talking points about Russia's RS-24 test has been the testing of the missile's capability to deliver multiple nuclear warheads.

The RS-24 test did indeed involve the employment of multiple re-entry vehicles, known as Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles that enable the missile to deliver multiple nuclear weapons against different targets, albeit within a limited footprint (there is an upper boundary on how big this footprint can be but planners can vary its size by altering the geometry of targeting). Currently, Russia is slowly replacing its old fleet of missiles, the SS-19 and the SS-18 with the Topol-M.


Under the old Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) arms control process all Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs) on long range missiles were to be eliminated.

The new Topol-M has been deployed with one, 550Kt warhead (the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima had a yield of 12.5-15Kt). It was the now defunct START II treaty that carried the provisions to eliminate MIRVs but START II is no longer in force, for reasons to be explored below.

However, the earlier START I treaty remains in force and this limits the number of warheads to be deployed on a missile of a given type. Given that the Topol-M was deployed with one warhead to put in more would require modification so that it can be presented as being of a new type. And that is essentially what the RS-24 is. It is a semantic artifice. It is basically a Topol-M that has been modified so that according to arms control counting rules it is deemed "new".

Initial reports suggested that the RS-24 could carry 10 nuclear warheads, like the old Cold War heavy missiles, but this claim is false. The Topol-M does not have a "throw weight" sufficient to deliver 10 warheads unless Russia's nuclear physicists at Sarov have invented a new ingenious way of lowering the weight of high-yield nuclear warheads. And we know this cannot be, given the absence of any nuclear testing.

The Iskander missile tested (the R-500) is a new cruise missile of short range. It would not be able to hit the proposed US radar base in the Czech Republic if launched from Kaliningrad but could hit the proposed anti missile interceptors for Poland. These interceptors would be housed in hardened missile silos. If the hardness of these silos is comparable to the hardness of Washington's other missile systems then strategic planners in Moscow would be tempted to target them with nuclear warheads.

How do we explain these tests? The idea behind MIRVing the Topol-M is to both defeat a Ballistic Missile Defence system and to maintain a cost effective strategic deterrent in the absence of the treaty that previously banned BMD - the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABMT).


The fact that both tests occurred on the same day was clearly a gesture with BMD in mind and follows exactly five years after Washington withdrew from the ABMT.

Of course, BMD in Europe is presented as a measure to deal with the ballistic missile threat from Iran. An Iranian ICBM targeted at the United States would over fly Europe but Iran does not have the capability to deliver a nuclear warhead against the US and such a capability is not even on the horizon.

Recently US officials have claimed that Iran could acquire a North Korean ICBM, but Pyongyang does not have an ICBM to deliver. Indeed the North Korean Taepodong 2, which thus far has proven to be a dud, would not give Iran the ability to hit the United States. Also, for states with relatively crude missile programs the greater the range of the missile the less the payload that the missile can deliver.

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About the Author

Mark Beljac teaches at Swinburne University of Technology, is a board member of the New International Bookshop, and is involved with the Industrial Workers of the World, National Tertiary Education Union, National Union of Workers (community) and Friends of the Earth.

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