Russia is having problems with the test launches of its new RS-29 Sarmat ICBM. The latest test launch in February 2023 failed. The 200-ton missile carries multiple Avangard hypersonic warheads. The 220-ton RS-28 is having similar reliability problems which have delayed efforts to declare the missile operational. Some of the problems are with the firm that manufactures the missiles. There have been accusations of corruption involving theft of money and substandard work. Russia has been having similar problems with aircraft production and military procurement in general.
This failure to procure reliable ICBMs is a major problem for Russia because the strategic missile forces are Russia’s ultimate defense. If all else fails, Russia can threaten to retaliate with its ICBMs. The problem is that Russia only has fewer than 300 operational ICBMs. About half of these are the RS-24, a relatively small ICBM carrying four warheads each. All Russian ICBMs together carry about 1,200 nuclear warheads. About half as many warheads are carried by SSBNs (nuclear powered ballistic missile subs). These subs have availability problems because they are either too old, or new and still finding and fixing problems. A similar situation exists with the 500 nuclear warheads and cruise missiles used by the long range bombers. Most of these are the fifty Tu-95 propeller driven aircraft. Designed right after World War II, over 500 were built between 1952 and 1993. Fewer than a hundred remain in service, mainly as bombers that normally carry non-nuclear bombs and cruise missiles. Some of these have recently been used against Ukraine.
Since the 1980s, Russia has had problems producing new ICBM, SSBNs and heavy bombers. There have been technical problems with all of these and not enough money to build enough replacements for the older missiles, SSBNs and ICBMs that eventually become inoperable. These problems are one reason why Russia recently withdrew from the START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). START is actually a series of agreements that began in the 1980s and continued to be revised and renewed after the Soviet Union disbanded. These treaties not only reduce the number of nuclear weapons each treaty member has but also allow everyone to inspect each other’s systems regularly. Because of the Ukraine War, Russia (Vladimir Putin) believes that wartime secrecy requires that Russia temporarily suspend these inspections, which required suspending its participation in START. While some nuclear systems, like the Tu-95 bomber, are also used for delivering non-nuclear missiles against Ukrainian targets, Russia also does not want the current quality and quality problems with its nuclear weapons to be scrutinized by foreign nuclear powers.
One item to be kept from foreign inspectors is the many problems Russia is having with its new ICBMs. While there have been some successful test launches of the new RS-29 Sarmat ICBM, recent failures made it clear this model was not ready for prime time. Then there are the problems with the other new ICBM. The RS-28 ICBM was supposed to be ready for service, along with its Avangard hypersonic warheads, in 2022. That did not happen. RS-28 missiles were supposed to begin replacing 40 older RS-18 missiles by the end of 2020 but that was delayed as a few more technical problems had to be fixed with the production model. The successful launch from a silo of a production missile allows those already built to begin replacing older ICBMs.
Design errors and quality control problems are an issue with all new Russian weapons, especially aircraft, warships, tanks and ICBMs. All of these weapons entered service in smaller numbers than planned and with some flaws still present. This has become customary with Russian ICBM and SLV (satellite launch vehicle) rockets and the Russians have adapted by making allowances for that as well as work-arounds. An example of this can be seen in the 2020 decision to delay acceptance of the solid-fuel SS-26, which was also supposed to carry the Avangard hypersonic warhead. The solid-fuel RS-26 had run into a lot more problems than the liquid-fuel RS-28. In 2019 Russia announced the suspension of the RS-26, one of the two ICBM projects that were designed to use the Avangard, a revival of a Cold War era hypersonic glide vehicle system. RS-26 was a solid fuel missile based on the Topol M, which was the first successful solid-fuel ICBM missile Russia was able to deploy. It is comparable to the 1960s era U.S. Minuteman. Solid fuel is tricky to manufacture, and after many abortive attempts, the Russians stuck with liquid fuel until the 1980s. They finally perfected their solid fuel technology in the 1980s with the successful test launch of the 45-ton Topol in 1985. The 52-ton Topol-M followed ten years later. Both missiles have a range of 10,500 kilometers.
This is the second time Russia ran into problems adapting the Topol M for other uses. The first effort was to turn Topol M into Bulava, an SLBM (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile) for the new Borei class SSBN ((ballistic missile nuclear subs). The Bulava problems were largely caused by a shortage of competent engineers and manufacturing specialists. Getting Bulava to work took a lot longer and cost a lot more than expected. Sensing the same pattern with the RS-26, Russia “suspended” work on this until 2027, or whatever future time when the personnel and manufacturing quality control problems can be solved.
The other new missile designed to carry Avangard, the 220-ton RS-28, had fewer problems but was still behind schedule and officially not expected to be ready until 2021. RS-28 was finally declared ready to use in 2022. Previously, because of several successful test launches, Russia declared the Avangard/RS-28 missiles ready for deployment in 2019. That means these missiles are being taken off the production line, equipped with their Avangard third stage and headed for an existing R-36M (SS-18) base at Orenburg (1,500 kilometers southeast of Moscow) where those R-36M silos have been prepared to accept the RS-28 missiles. Satellite photos confirmed that many RS-28s were now in the R-36M silos. Given Russian production and budget problems, only a token number of RS-28s were in those silos by the end of 2019, with the number slowly increasing. The Orenburg ICBM base has been in service since the 1960s and has 62 silos. Since the 1990s most have been taken out of service. Some of those silos were used for launching ICBMs modified to carry commercial satellites. A dozen or more silos are available for the RS-28s and loading a silo with a new missile is a very visible (from the air) and time-consuming process.
RS-28 development began as a replacement for Cold War era ICBMs that are rapidly becoming too old and unreliable to use. By 2016 the RS-28 had also evolved into the primary carrier for the new hypersonic glide vehicle project Russia announced in 2013 but was believed to have suspended because of budget cuts brought on by low oil prices and sanctions. That crisis is still active and made worse by additional sanctions in 2022 because of the Ukraine invasion. The defense budget has undergone cuts for several years in a row. Yet the Avangard project remained quite active and has apparently received budget priority to get it into service as soon as possible.
The RS-28 was originally scheduled for testing before the end of 2016. That did not happen and there followed the usual succession of delays because of technical or manufacturing problems. RS-28 has been in development since 2009 and was originally scheduled to enter service in 2018. Russia has had a growing number of quality control problems throughout the Russian space problem and military tech development in general. The cause was the return of a market economy to Russia in the 1990s. At that point, most of the more talented people in defense industries found better-paying jobs in the commercial sector or overseas. No solution to this has been found, especially not with Russia suffering from an economic recession and pervasive corruption. Despite the fact that the government has devoted a lot more money and management talent (also in short supply) to nukes, ballistic missiles and nuclear subs, the problems and delays persist.
Russia believes the RS-28 is essential for state security because it can carry nine or more independently targeted warheads and will be the most important weapon in its ICBM arsenal. Moreover, the missile RS-28 is replacing (R-36M), is aging to the point where refurbishment is no longer able to keep these decades old missiles operational. The Russians saw this problem coming and in 2003 decided to refurbish its force of 1970s era R-36M (SS-18 or "Satan" in the West) ICBMs so they could remain in service another 10-15 years (2013-18). Both the old (210-ton, 32.2 meter long and 3.05 meters in diameter) R-36 and new (210-ton, 36.3 meter long and 3 meters in diameter) RS-28 are similar in size. The new missile is longer and that will require some adjustments to the existing R-36 silos. Some of that work appears to have already been done.
The R-36M was designed in 1969, first tested in 1972 and entered service in 1975. It's the largest ICBM the Russians ever built, with a liftoff weight of 210 tons and a warhead weighing eight tons. While it's a liquid-fuel rocket, storable liquid fuel is used. This avoids lengthy fueling procedures common with earlier Russian ICBMs. Modifications and upgrades for the missile produced six separate models, the last one entering service in 1990. Russia wanted to refurbish a hundred of the most recently built (in the 1980s, for the most part) R-36Ms. Shortages of cash and resources reduced the number refurbished and as of 2016 only about fifty were operational. By 2018 only about 30 will be usable and by 2020 none were. The RS-28 is very similar to the R-36M, weighing 220 tons and a warhead hauling up to ten tons of smaller warheads (up to 15) or 24 Avangard vehicles.
The secretive Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle project was something that began during the Cold War but never got into service. Suspicions that Russia had changed its mind may have been a side-effect of China revealing in early 2016 that they had perfected the technology for a maneuverable ballistic missile warhead. This came a little after it was revealed that since 2014 China had conducted six tests of a maneuverable gliding warhead for ballistic missiles. Five of the six tests were successful and this hypersonic glide vehicle was officially known as the DF-ZF.
In effect, this Chinese hypersonic glide vehicle is a warhead that can glide rather than simply plunging back to earth, and is purportedly maneuverable enough to hit small moving targets in space or down on the surface. The DF-ZF was initially developed as China sought to perfect a version of the DF-21 ballistic missile that could hit moving warships at sea. DF-21 is a 15 ton, two-stage, solid fuel missile. The DF-21D (the carrier killer version) missile using the DF-ZF warhead is also more difficult for anti-missile missiles to hit. This is what the Russian hypersonic glide vehicle is designed for.
Russia and the United States had developed this technology much earlier but neither has deployed it in the form the Chinese appear to favor. The original work in this area was by the Germans during World War II. The U.S. and Russia both investigated the concept more during the Cold War but never felt it worth building. In the 1990s the United States proposed reviving work on hypersonic glide vehicles for its Prompt Global Strike system. This would put hypersonic glide vehicle warheads, using high-explosive and not nuclear explosives, on ICBMs. This meant a very expensive weapon that could hit a target anywhere on earth in less than an hour of the order being given. In any event, the United States successfully tested its version of the hypersonic glide vehicle in 2011 but with the defense budget shrinking the project was halted. This was encouraged when a 2014 hypersonic glide vehicle test failed. Now, this effort has been revived, sort of.
The United States moved ahead with reviving its Cold War era hypersonic glide vehicle ballistic missile warheads. In late 2017 the U.S. revealed several active research projects like TBG (Tactical Boost Glide) and HAWC (Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon) which are similar in size and shape to the cruise missiles carried by bombers, and launched from high altitudes into orbit or remain in the atmosphere, but moving at hyper speeds (over 5,000 kilometers an hour). This is similar to the X-51A Waverider project that was halted in 2013 but not forgotten. The problem with the X-51A was that it could not be made reliable enough. A 2010 flight test had the 8 meter (36 foot) long, cruise missile-like X-51 aircraft boosted to 3,300 kilometers an hour, using a solid fuel rocket, at which point the scramjet engine took over, and successfully operated for over two minutes, achieving speeds of nearly 6,000 kilometers an hour. This was the longest a scramjet had ever operated (the previous best was ten seconds). By 2013 the 4th test got the liquid fuel engine going for five minutes.
What makes scramjets work is the compression of incoming air without the use of a fan system (as in conventional jet engines). But while scramjets have been in development for half a century, the lack of adequate materials (that can handle the high heat and pressure), and adequate design tools, frustrated attempts to build workable and reliable scramjets. Scramjets have few moving parts but must cope with very extreme conditions and the design challenges have proved very frustrating. The recent X-51 tests, like all previous ones, ended with the aircraft crashing. The next step was to get longer hypersonic engine use, de-acceleration, and landing via parachute (and eventually an auxiliary engine.) Going beyond the 2013 test proved too expensive and time consuming to continue when there were cheaper alternatives available and these depended more on getting into orbit and letting gravity provide and maintain the high speed. It was definitely easier to achieve those high speeds with orbital technologies like TBG and HAWC. Or the new Chinese systems like DF-ZF.
Russia stresses the need for Avangard to deal with American missile defense systems. This doesn’t make sense to Westerners because the American anti-ICBM systems are limited and meant to deal with small numbers of ICBMs from North Korea or Iran. Russia interprets it differently because Russian leaders since 2010 have blamed their internal problems on the growing threat of NATO. The reality is that the NATO threat is a myth but Russia’s growing economic problems are not. This is made clear via opinion polls and international economic surveys. Corruption rankings put Russia among the most corrupt nations, and those are the ones that have the worst economic and military performance. The most recent corruption surveys show Russia as more corrupt than China and getting worse. Avangard is an expensive defense against an imaginary threat. Meanwhile growing corruption, Western sanctions and shortage of competent people (who are leaving Russia or avoiding defense industries) make it more and more difficult to complete high-tech weapons projects of any kind.