The old Soviet Union once possessed the formidable SS-18/R-36M ICBM, which received the ominous NATO reporting name of Satan. It was a liquid fueled, inertial guided missile that was developed to replace the older SS-9 Scarp missiles that once formed the backbone of the Soviet strategic nuclear forces. Because it was so highly accurate, it was believed by military analysts at the time to have opened a window of opportunity for the Soviets to make a disarming first strike between its first deployment in 1975 till the mid-1980's, as it was accurate and powerful enough to destroy all of the Minuteman III missiles that existed then in their hardened silos easily. The existence of this weapon and the instability it caused provided much of the debate in arms control talks throughout the late 1970's and early 1980's, and gave impetus to the development of the MX missile systems and the Trident D-5 SLBMs throughout that period.

The SS-18 was a two-stage missile that could be modified to carry many different types of warheads. It was, as previously mentioned, liquid-fueled, and used a nitrogen tetroxide/hydrazine combination as fuel. Since nitrogen tetroxide and unsymmetric dimethyl hydrazine are highly corrosive and toxic chemicals, the Russian strategic missile forces probably rejoiced when the START Talks included this missile among those to be decomissioned. The guidance system was inertial and included an onboard digital computer. The missiles were 3 meters in diameter, and were between 33.6 to 37.25 meters tall, depending on the variant. The effective CEP (circular error probability) of the missiles was between 1 km to 500 m, making it ideal as a counterforce weapon.

There were six variants of the SS-18 that saw wide deployment, labeled by NATO intelligence as the Mod 1 through Mod 6, which differed only in the warheads they carried. They were either MIRV's that carried a fairly large number (8-10) of 500 kiloton to 1 megaton nuclear warheads (the Mod 2-5's were of this type), that were intended for hard-target kills of things like American missile silos. The Mod 1 and Mod 6 ('Voivode') variants carried a single 25 megaton nuclear warhead, whose only plausible military use would be the destruction of heavily armored command centers such as NORAD ("to turn Cheyenne Mountain into Cheyenne Lake" as Tom Clancy put it). All of the variants had ranges between about 10,000 km to 16,000 km, making them easily capable of hitting targets in the United States and Western Europe from anywhere within the Soviet Union.

The Reagan and Bush administrations respected the SS-18 to such a degree that they made it the main focus of their arms negotiations. The START II Talks banned land-based MIRV systems primarily because of the threat the SS-18 posed to the balance of power. As of 1997, there were 186 silos for these missiles in Russia, just after 104 silos were destroyed the previous year in Kazakhstan. By January 2003 all of these missiles will (hopefully) be gone forever.

However, a new life may be found for these once formidable weapons of war as space launch vehicles for lifting earth satellites into orbit. One proposal involves adding a stage from the Phobos probe that would allow it to place a 4 metric ton load into a 500 km altitude orbit. Yet another proposal involves taking a stage from an SS-24 Scalpel ICBM (which is also slated for decommisioning under the START II Treaty), creating a launch vehicle that would be able to place a 800 kg load into an orbit 1500 km high. Russian aerospace firms are attempting to market these ideas to investors looking for space launches, however as of this writing it seems nobody is willing to try the idea yet.

Update, July 2, 2004

Apparently last June 28 someone actually used refurbished SS-18's to launch satellites. The Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr Booster launched eight satellites into orbit, three American communications satellites, two research satellites from the European Space Agency, and three Saudi Arabian comsats, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It would seem that the Dnepr booster system can send payloads in to orbit much more economically than many other space launch systems currently in operation.


Tom Clancy, The Sum of All Fears

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