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Soviet strategic missiles - From SS-16 to SS-20

By Sakhal

From the mid 1960s, United States interrupted the development of new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). But during the fifteen years following that time, the Soviet Union put in service more than half a dozen of new ICBM, which in some cases - specially the SS-18 - were terrifying weapons whose power greatly surpassed the one of any other known weapon. In the beginning of the 1980s, while in United States it was intensely debated the construction of a new ICBM - the MX -, the Soviet Union had in development five new projects of similar strategic weapons.

SS-16 (RS-14)

Four new missile systems were tested in flight in the early 1970s, all of which incorporated completely new techniques, much more "unstoppable" than in their predecessors. All of them, also, were developed to reach operative status in 1975. Of these, the SS-16 (then denominated SSX-16 because it was in development) was the only one operating with solid fuel. It was generally considered as a replacement for the SS-13 with much higher characteristics. Of similar size (the United States Department of Defense pointed that it was slightly smaller while the diagrams from the Pentagon showed it somewhat longer) but with an engine of so higher prestations that provided it with increased range despite carrying a considerably superior explosive charge. Until mid 1978, it was believed that every operative SS-16 carried a sole nuclear warhead, with a power estimated between 1.5 and 2 megatons, but since the beginning of the test phase it was known that it had capability - controlled via computer - to successively release the multiple reentry vehicles which with it was fitted, above targets very separated among them.

Three-phased missile, the SS-16 had multiple (probably quadruple) nozzles and it used the traditional technique of hot launching. Its configuration allowed its emplacement in silos but also its mobile deployment, and for such the Soviet Union was supposed to have tested a new transporter/erector suitable for the formidable SS-16 or even larger weapons. Albeit in the mid 1978 there was news that the deployment of the SS-16 had started, subsequent informations signaled that there was no one in operative status, because of the existence of more perfected later models and the will of not exceeding the limits set in the treaty SALT-2. There were two theories about the destiny of the SS-16. The first one stated that they were built in large quantity and later stored, to be deployed - probably in mobile systems - if the international political situation required it. The second one stated that the two upper phases were used to build the intermediate-range missile SS- 20, deployed in the late 1970s and the early 1980s against West Europe and the Far East. The SS-16 had a length of about 20 meters, a diameter of about 1.7 meters, a launching weight of about 36000 kilograms and a range of about 9000 kilometers.

SS-17 (RS-16)

This ICBM was seen for the first time in flight tests effectuated in 1972. Along with the SS-19 - which was almost surely a competitor project for safety and incentive - this extraordinarily formidable missile was the successor of the SS-11 and during the 1980s it was installed in many former silos of this one. Contrarily to the formerly known Soviet missiles, the SS-17 had ejection by cold launching, which limites the damage caused to the silo and additionally provides an increase in the final range. Compared with the SS-11, this missile had similar caliber but very superior length. It first phase was particularly long. It used storable liquid fuel and the cold launching was produced via a piston that pushed the missile with strenght. Once in the exterior it was started the ignition of the first phase, which avoided damage in the silo unlike when the ignition started in the bottom of the silo. The first trials were effectuated with missiles carrying three reentry vehicles and this one was the first ICBM of multiple warheads in service in the Soviet Union. It was estimated that the explosive charge was as much as twice than the one in the SS-11. The Model 1, operative since 1975, had four nuclear warheads whose power was calculated during five years to be between 200 kilotons per unit and one megaton (this last data published in February 1983). The Model 2 had a sole reentry vehicle of very great power, which together with a precision deemed as impressive, granted the SS-17 the capability to support the powerful SS-18 as counterforce weapon. In the early 1983 it was estimated that about 150 missiles SS-17 had been deployed and that the deployment had ended. Apparently, most of them were of the Model 1. The SS-16 had a length of about 24 meters, a diameter of about 2.5 meters, a launching weight of about 65000 kilograms and a range slightly above 10000 kilometers.

SS-18 (RS-20)

This huge weapon system was the missile that demolished almost all the capability of pact of the West and its capacity to stop an agression. It was the largest missile in the world, whose appearance pointed at it as a modern successor of the SS-9, but nobody in the West was prepared for its terrifying precision, which along with which was by far the largest explosive charge - or charges, depending on the version - seen in History, turned any degree of protection into a waste of effort. The United States Department of Defense stated that the frightening capability of this missile presented itself between four and five years before than expected. The SS-18 was launched in cold from a silo of new design, albeit often it was installed in the existing launching facilities of the SS-9. It had two phases propelled by storable liquid fuel and a computer-controlled separated propulsion for the reentry vehicle or the multiple reentry vehicles. The thrust provided by the engines was estimated to be a 30 percent more than the one in the SS-9, and this was multiplied in effectiveness from dozens to hundreds of times by the truly notable precision of its guidance system. In trials effectuated in 1977-78, the average circular error probable was estimated in 180 meters. The importance of this lies in that, according to the United States Department of Defense, the force of Minuteman was vulnerable to large nuclear warheads that exploded in a radius of 370 meters from the silo where they were installed. That means that the SS-18 could destroy the force of North American ICBM and that these could only escape from destruction by being launched immediately before against their targets in the Soviet Union. This was anything but a calming perspective. More recent information sources pointed, however, that the average circular error probable of the SS-18 was somewhat superior to the alarming figure of 180 meters.

The Model 1, which reached operative status in 1974, had a sole reentry vehicle, whose power was initially estimated between 25 and 50 megatons and later in the early 1980s in 24 megatons. The circular error probable was estimated in 400 meters and the first exemplars deployed were of this type. The Model 2 was submitted to intensive tests in 1975-76 and in all of them it was fitted with eight reentry vehicles. The models in service - from 1976 - could have between eight and ten reentry vehicles, whose unitary power could vary between 550 and 900 kilotons. Its circular error probable was similar than in the Model 1 and it was deployed in smaller numbers. The Model 3 had a sole reentry vehicle, lighter and more precise than in the Model 1 and with even higher range. The power of the warhead was estimated in 20 megatons and the circular error probable in 350 meters. The test flights of the last version, the Model 4, suggested that it could carry 14 payloads, which could be a mix of ten nuclear warheads and four decoys or other forms of helping the penetration. Its circular error probable was estimated in 260 meters. The treaty SALT-1 allowed the Soviet Union the deployment of 310 of these terrifying weapons. In the early 1983 there was news of having being deployed 308 missiles SS-18 of every model. The SS-18 has a length of about 35 meters, a diameter of about 3 meters, a launching weight of about 220000 kilograms and a range of 12000 kilometers for the Model 1/2, about 13000 kilometers for the Model 3 and 10000 kilometers for the Model 4.

SS-19 (RS-18)

Competitor of the SS-17, this missile had several hundreds of units deployed in the 1980s. According to some source, the SS-19 would be less technically advanced than the SS-17, but later it was considered as the most effective of the Soviet ICBM. It is a bit larger than the SS-17, and in 1977, referring to the success of its trial flights, the United States Department of Defense commented that they were convinced that the SS-19 was clearly conceived to achieve a great precision and that Soviet projectists did everything needed to achieve that purpose. The two phases, both with parallel fuel tanks that occupy as much as possible the space in the silo, use storable liquid fuel. The model built in plastic by the North Americans showed two orientable chambers which projected completely outside under the "coat-tails" of the first phase, unprecedented characteristic in a Soviet ballistic missile which suggested that the piston for the cold launching would push the structure up above the chambers. The Model 1 of this missile was deployed in 1974, fitted with four or six reentry vehicles of 200 kilotons each. The Model 3 carried an explosive charge constituted by several reentry vehicles, but it was unknown the number and the power of every nuclear warhead. The deployment of SS-19 ended in 1980 and about 300 were in service in the subsequent years. It was estimated that all of them would be converted to the Model 3. The SS-19 has a length of about 27 meters, a diameter of about 2.5 meters, a launching weight of about 78000 kilograms and a range slightly above 10000 kilometers.


Based in the two upper phases of the SS-16, this extremely utilitarian mobile missile has much more range and higher payload and precision than predicted by the United States Department of Defense, and from 1977 it was deployed in numerous and growing quantities, albeit its surveillance resulted almost impossible. The deployment of this missile against targets located in West Europe - albeit it was also deployed in the Far East - was one of the basic factors that ended with the "era of deterrence". Albeit the SS-20 largely replaced older missiles - the SS-4 and SS-5 - the very superior prestations of this one constituted such a serious threat for the European NATO - even for the farthest territories, such as Iceland, Azores or Canary Islands -, that the European countries and United States posed the installation of response nuclear weapons in West Europe (the intermediate-range ballistic missile Pershing 2 and the cruise missile Tomahawk). In the early 1983 it was estimated the operative deployment of SS-20 in about 330 units, of which two thirds were located in the western part of the Soviet Union and the remaining third in the Far East, threatening mainly China and Japan. It was estimated that after ending the production program about 465 of these missiles would be deployed. This weapon is fired from a tracked vehicle and it is fitted with three reentry vehicles. Every operative launcher has also a spare missile. The circular error probable is about 750 meters if the missile is launched from previously set locations. The SS-20 has a length of about 16 meters, a diameter of about 1.7 meters, a launching weight of about 25000 kilograms and a range of 4000 kilometers.

Soviet strategic missiles - From SS-16 to SS-20

North American drawing showing the deployment and launching of missiles SS-20 in the forests located in the western areas of the European part of the Soviet Union.

Newest Soviet missiles

There was news in the early 1980s about the development of new ballistic missiles in the Soviet Union and also a new strategic cruise missile, of barely known characteristics. Two of these ballistic missiles were tactical weapons. One was the SS-21, similar to the North American Lance, with a range of 100 kilometers and mounted in a wheeled vehicle. It was intended to replace the system Frog and in respect of this one it improved payload and precision. Its deployment started in 1976, but it was reduced. The SSX-23 was developed to replace the Scud B, having a range of about 500 kilometers and increased payload and precision. This new system was intended as well to considerably reduce the required time to enter action. The rest of ballistic missiles in development were of strategic character:

1) An ICBM of solid propulsion, emplaced in silos and of similar size than the SS-17. It first test flight took place the 26th October 1982, constituting a failure due to a failure in the first phase. This weapon was probably intended for being installed in extraordinarily protected silos and its circular error probable could be inferior to 260 meters. 2) A missile of mobile emplacement and solid propulsion, similar to the North American Minuteman. If it were launched from preset locations, its circular probable error could be similar to the missile mentioned in the first place. The North American satellites detected which could be a multiple refuge for these missiles in Plesetsk: a net of railways running from a central track and deriving in a number of what seemed to be protective shelters. Apparently, in 1983 the trials of this missile had not been yet started. 3) A large ICBM of liquid propulsion, probably conceived as a replacement for the SS-18, being in the early development phases. 4) The last project known was an ICBM of liquid propulsion which could constitute a support for the projects of solid propulsion based in silos. 5) Finally, according to statements from the contemporary leader of the Soviet Communist Party, Yuri Andropov, there were in course trials for a long-range cruise missile of similar conception to the North American weapons. Such missile was most probably in the first phases of development and it was not expected to enter service before the late 1980s.

Soviet strategic missiles - From SS-16 to SS-20

Scale drawing of the five most modern Soviet ICBM. Without the need of the impressive force of the former missiles, these five models would be enough to destroy the whole West in a single attack.

Note from the author/translator: At the moment of writing these lines (2015) the last three of these missiles (SS-18, SS-19 and SS-20) still seem to be in service.
Categories: Missiles - Cold War - 20th Century - [General] - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2015-06-02

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