Russia Fires Topol Ballistic Missile to Test New Tech to Defeat Missile Defense Systems

It's the latest in a string of Russian launches that take aim at the US missile defense shield, amid other disputes.

Vitaly Kuzmin

Russia says it has tested yet another new reentry vehicle design on an RS-12M Topol intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM. The development comes amid persistent complaints about America’s ballistic missile defense shield, as well as renewed tensions between the Kremlin and the U.S. government over various agreements limiting the development of nuclear weapons.

On Dec. 26, 2017, the Russian Strategic Missile Force fired a Topol with the “perspective [sic] armament” from the Kapustin Yar range in the Astrakhan Region near the border with Kazakhstan, state-run media outlet TASS reported. The Kremlin did not say how far the test missile flew, where it landed, or whether the experiment had been a success.

“During the tests, specialists obtained experimental data that will be used in the interests of developing effective means of overcoming anti-ballistic missile defense and equipping the perspective grouping of Russian ballistic missiles with them,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement, according to TASS. “The test courses and the measuring systems at the Kapustin Yar practice range allow testing perspective [sic] armament capable of overcoming ABM defenses, including their future configuration, across the entire range of the conditions for the armament’s delivery to targets in the interests of the Strategic Missile Force and the Navy.”

This would seem to suggest that the test of the modified RS-12M is in support of a broader, ongoing, and perhaps growing program to craft strategic weapons that can defeat ballistic missile defense systems. Russia often uses Cold War-era Topols for this test work, which makes sense given that it has been steadily replacing with the updated Topol-M and the improved RS-24, also known as the Topol-MR or Yars.

The Topol-M, in operation since 1997 and able to reach a peak speed of some 15,000 miles per hour, already improved the design's ability to defeat ballistic missile defenses, as our own Tyler Rogoway, then writing for Foxtrot Alpha, explained in 2014:

“The Topol-M missile was designed to penetrate an American anti-ballistic missile shield by leveraging high-speed, a relatively small infrared signature during its boost phase, advanced decoys (as many as ten carried on a single missile), maneuvering mid-course capability, and maneuvering independently targeted reentry vehicles, of which it can carry up to six, although they are said to carry just one operationally.

“The missile's high speed shortens the time anyone can react to it, and every second matters when it comes to ballistic missile defense. The rocket motors were designed for a short, very powerful boost stage so that American space-based infrared detection satellites (SBIRS, DSP) have less time to detect and track it. Its decoys make it hard for radar to adequately track the correct target, and its countermeasures are said to have been upgraded to fool infrared tracking systems, which are used for mid-course interception. The missile and reentry vehicles' ability to dynamically maneuver outside of their ballistic track makes producing an effective kill solution, or even predicting the TOPOL-M's target, problematic. All these features come together to make a missile that is probably outside of America's missile defense capabilities today, and the sheer number of them that exists makes the idea of defending against anything but a limited barrage totally invalid.”

This isn’t the first test of a modified Topol in 2017, either. In September 2017, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced it had fired an RS-12M with an unspecified “advanced combat payload,” which may have been a hypersonic boost glide vehicle.

“Russian officials claim a new class of hypersonic vehicle, probably called ‘object 4202,’ is being developed to allow Russian strategic missiles to penetrate missile defense systems,” U.S. Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center said in a 2017 review of worldwide ballistic and cruise missile developments. Hypersonic vehicles have very different flight characteristics and signature compared to ICBMs, which could make them harder for space- and surface-based defense systems to track and defeat.

Vitaly Kuzmin

A Topol-M on its road-mobile transporter-erector-launcher.

Also in September 2017, Russia reportedly tested an RS-24 with a new warhead design, again with an eye toward defeating ballistic missile defense systems. You can read more about these “independent post-boost vehicles,” or IPBVs, here. These experimental launches followed a massive strategic exercise the month before, in which the Russian military fired multiple nuclear-capable ballistic and cruise missiles.

The new work and displays of force are both aimed clearly at challenging America and its ballistic missile defenses in particular. The United States repeatedly insists that the shield is not a threat to the credibility of Russia’s nuclear deterrent, but the Kremlin has rejected these assurances. The Russian government is similarly critical of the U.S. military’s work on its own hypersonic systems, which could give it the ability to conduct long-range strikes with little notice against time-sensitive targets, including road-mobile ballistic missiles, critical command and control nodes, and even hostile foreign leaders, a capability commonly known as prompt global strike.

The video below shows the September 2017 Topol test:

“Why do they need such weapons?” Russian President Vladimir Putin said earlier in December 2017. “I believe they want it for one thing – blackmail – as it creates an illusion of a possible strike with impunity.”

At the same time, the dispute over ballistic missile defense has become increasingly intertwined with spats over deals limiting the two countries’ respective developments of strategic arms. In December 2017, the U.S. government formally accused the Kremlin of violating the terms of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, with the deployment of a new nuclear-capable land-based cruise missile, known as the 9M729.

The INF bans both Russia and the United States from fielding new land-based missiles of any type, conventional or nuclear, with a maximum range of between 310 and 3,420 miles. Experts also believe the still in development RS-26 Rubezh, a new ballistic missile design the Russians derived from the RS-24, may break the INF, as well.

In response, the Kremlin, including Putin himself, accused the United States of being in violating the agreement already with the construction of Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense sites in Poland and Romania. The U.S. military says that the launchers at these bases can only hold anti-missile interceptors that the INF does not cover, but Russia says they could potentially fire land-attack cruise missiles and, as a result, doubly threaten its national security.

Kay Nietfeld/Picture-Alliance/DPA via AP

US Navy sailors stand guard outside the Aegis Ashore facility in Romania.

“They are searching for some violations on our part while consistently infringing on it themselves,” Putin said. “All that seriously affects security in Europe and in the whole world.”

There is a concern that these growing disputes could lead to the erosion of other significant arms control deals, too, such as the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, and its follow-on agreements. As we mentioned earlier, there is already a debate about whether the RS-24 ICBM is in line with limits on increasing the number of warheads associated with existing missile systems.

The Russians claim the Yars is an all new design that isn’t subject to the treaties. The United States, along with many experts, say it is simply an upgrade of the existing Topol-M.

“We will not let ourselves be drawn into a senseless arms race that will exhaust our economic potential,” Putin has stressed. The latest RS-12M test launch and other developments would seem to suggest otherwise.

It’s true that Russia’s long standing budget woes have led it to delay or cancel various major procurement programs and upgrade projects in 2017 alone, including the rail-mobile Barguzin ICBM. However, the country remains committed to the development of the RS-26 and the silo-based RS-28 Sarmat ICBMs. There have been reports that Sarmat may be able to carry two dozen Object 4202 hypersonic vehicles and suggestions that it is a direct response to America's pursuit of a prompt global strike capability.

With fears over North Korea’s own rapidly advancing ballistic missile programs, the United States is only looking to expand its ballistic missile defense infrastructure, which will only continue to draw the ire of Russia, too. In November 2017, the White House asked Congress to approve $4 billion for more interceptors and other associated systems. The next month, legislators subsequently included nearly $5 billion in a short-term spending bill. It's worth noting, as we at The War Zone have repeatedly noted, that America's present ballistic missile shield has yet to prove itself under anything approaching real world conditions.

Separately, the U.S. military is working to modernize all three legs of its own nuclear deterrence, including new nuclear-capable stealth bombers and long-range cruise missiles, ballistic missile submarines, and silo-based IBCMs, which could cost the United States more than $1 trillion in total. In response to Russia's breach of the INF, Congress has allocated funds for the Pentagon to at least study potential designs for a similar American weapon, in an attempt to goad the Kremlin back into compliance with the deal. 

If the INF and other strategic arms deals do collapse completely, it could prompt to further and unrestricted development of new nuclear-capable ballistic and other missiles, potentially leading to further tensions in Europe and elsewhere. If even the treaties remain technically in place, Russia’s new missile developments are likely to continue to be a significant point of contention between it and the United States.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com