Soviet/Russian Silo-Based Nuclear Weapons

A definitive historical account of the origins of the Russian A-bomb has never been published, but by consulting various sources a brief account can be gleaned. Only a summary can be provided here.

Research into nuclear physics had gone on in the Soviet Union as far back as the 1920s, and some scientists such as Igor Kurchatov had at the beginning of the Second World War recognized the atom’s potential military application and had recommended funding for laboratory work. The war prevented such research from taking place, but when Josef Stalin heard the Americans had driven down that road, he decided Russia should follow suit. Stalin had heard from his spies working in key American labs that the research they were engaged in was ultimately to be used in an atomic weapon. But it was really only the United States government’s test and only after two bombs were dropped on Japan in the summer of 1945 that the Russians began seriously focusing on their own weapons. The secrets passed onto Moscow from those American individuals greatly helped the Russians in their endeavour, and in August 1949, years earlier than the Americans had predicted, they detonated their first bomb.

The next step in Soviet weapons development was to find ways to deliver those bombs. Air dropping was the first mode of delivery, but since the bombers the Soviet air force then possessed had a limited range, other methods were contemplated. Research on rocket technology had progressed well, thanks mainly to captured German scientists and information, and tests were made with missiles that carried conventional warheads. By the 1950s, Soviet rocket technology had so advanced that by 1957, it succeeded in placing a Sputnik satellite into space. At the same time, rockets were being examined as nuclear delivery platforms, and more than a full year before Sputnik said ‘hello’ to the world, the first ballistic missile regiments were deployed. Within a few years, the Soviet Union’s first operational rocket, the R-5M, would be supplemented with the R-7, the R-12 and the R-14. The rockets then became so plentiful Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev claimed they were coming out of the factories like sausages.

By the late 1950s, Soviet missile production was running at full speed. Rockets were being deployed on launch pads in bases throughout Russia. The missiles represented such an important element of the Soviet Union’s warfighting machine that some generals thought a new and separate branch of the armed forces should be created specifically for them. At first, all rocket units belonged to the artillery corps, but eventually some were assigned to Long-Range Aviation forces and others to the Soviet Supreme High Command. On 17 December 1959, however, history would be made and the new Strategic Rocket Forces (RVSN) were born. It would soon become a military service on a par with the army, air force, air defence service and navy.

The RVSN would be Russia’s first line of action against the West, and in consequence it recruited the best and the brightest among Russian conscripts. Throughout its history, it would have the best facilities, the best equipment and the smartest and most loyal officers. The officers and men were treated so well that in return, Moscow expected utmost dedication from them. To expect anything less, in the Kremlin’s mind, would have invited disaster.

The RVSN’s organizational structure follows a pattern very similar to that of the USAF. In the United States, numbered ‘Air Forces’ consist of Wings and Wings are made up of Squadrons. The latter are further divided into Flights. Since the Strategic Rocket Forces were an outgrowth of the artillery corps, it adopted the army structure of numbered Armies, Divisions and Regiments. The latter are composed of Battalions where each consist of a single launcher. Armies and Divisions have their own primary underground headquarters, and the Armies have apparently also a secondary command post that is airmobile. Regimental headquarters are located in launch tubes on remote properties. The missiles are either silo-based or rail or road-mobile. Following the standard Soviet practice, the various units are identified by both ordinal and five-digit numbers. Some units use the prefix ‘Guards’ to indicate a form of eliteness. Divisions are normally numbered, although some carry names. The RVSN has its own test and support sites such as the No. 4 Central Research Institute at Bolshevo in the suburbs of Moscow, and the No. 25 Central Military Clinical Hospital at Odintsovo, again outside Moscow. Training of staff takes place at military engineering institutes at Perm, Rostov-on-Don, Krasnodar, Serpukhov and at the Peter the Great Military Academy in Moscow.

In 1985, the RVSN consisted of the following six Armies:

Headquarters Missile Army Location

Vladimir 27th Russia

Orenburg 31st Russia

Omsk 33rd Russia

Vinnitsa 43rd Ukraine

Smolensk 50th Belarus

Chita 53rd Russia

It then had 1,398 missiles in service, 6,840 warheads and counted 415,000 men and women on its payroll. Today, however, only the first three armies remain, and its population is only a fraction of what it used to be. In 2008, the RVSN had 430 ICBMs in service.

Ultimate use of nuclear weapons is decided upon by a very small number of individuals: the President, the Minister of Defence and the Chief of the General Staff (the Nachalnyk Generalnovo Shtaba or the NGS). All three have access to a nuclear football, called Cheget or more colloquially chemodanchik, that is nearby at all times in the hands of an officer from the General Staff’s 9th Directorate. According to Peter Pry in his book War Scare, only one person, the President, needs to issue the order. He does not need, ‘in all likelihood’, the consent of the other two, although he would certainly consult with them. If the President was unavailable or dead, the Minister of Defence would likely assume command, and if the Minister was incapacitated, he would probably be replaced by the NGS. This line of succession seems to confirm that only one person needs to issue the go signal from the Cheget.

The Russian command and control system is predicated on the concept of ‘launch on warning’, which states that nuclear forces should act only when there are definite indications that an attack is under way. Orders to launch can be passed through the footballs (or from some of the underground command posts around Moscow) via a special communications network called Kavkaz, to the General Staff’s and to the military services’ command centres. At the General Staff’s bunker, the orders are transmitted via the Signal-A multifaceted communications system to the RVSN main staff, then to Armies, Divisions and Regiments. Here, they are received by special equipment called Baksan. The orders are then transmitted to the launchers by launch crews. At the same time, missile unlock codes (which are nicknamed ‘goschislo’) and authorization codes are passed onto the regimental command posts. One key feature present in the Russian command and control system not present in the American system is the ability of the Russian high command to bypass intermediate stages using a radio system called V’yuga and transmit orders to fire directly to launch control centres. As Bruce Blair put in in his book The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War, the General Staff is not only the band leader but can also play the instruments.

Before the missileers shoot their loads, several steps must take place throughout the command and control system. First, a preliminary command must be sent from Moscow. The command is really generated from two parts, one that originates from the General Staff and the other from the RVSN main staff, and is then validated, combined and transmitted down the chain of command. This order can only be created after enemy launches have been detected by at least two types of sensors and only after the President has so decided. Once this order is received at the regimental Launch Control Centres, launch consoles are activated. Next, a permission command is generated by the same three individuals (the President, Minister of Defence and the NGS) and transmitted to the Commander-in-Chief of the RVSN. Its only role is to provide legality to the launch order. Finally, a direct command is generated in two parts, one from the General Staff and the other from RVSN Headquarters. The command is later combined and again sent down the chain of command. Once received by Baksan equipment at the LCCs, it is authenticated by launch crews. The same crews then check certain computer symbols against a list kept in their safe, choose their targets (probably from a coded list) and set launch times. The command also allows any missile blocking device to be disabled. It then only remains to turn the two keys. Some Russian experts estimate that launch can take place within twenty-one minutes from the time of initial missile detection. Since an American ICBM takes thirty minutes to reach Russia, this would still give a nine minute window of reaction time. On the other hand, this would prove of little comfort to Russian forces if SLBMs were fired from American or British submarines from the Barents or Mediterranean Sea.

Individual missiles contain the target co-ordinates in the memory of their re-entry vehicles. The co-ordinates are chosen from a set listed in the ‘Plan of Operations of the Strategic Rocket Forces’, a document that parallels the American SIOP. In the 1990s, the two superpowers agreed to de-target their missiles as a gesture of goodwill, but this is only a symbolic move as the rockets can be reprogrammed within minutes thanks to computerization. During an attack, some writers have speculated that silo-based missiles would be fired first because of their susceptibility to a first strike, and that mobile missiles, which can relocate to virtually any point, would be used in a retaliatory assault.

The command and control system in Russia has a feature that guarantees near-total reliability. Should the various communications systems be rendered inoperable, or should the human decision triad described above be unavailable, the RVSN would still be able to launch its missiles. In the early 1970s, a decision was made by Moscow to develop a system that would allow the launch of missiles if most of the human input was erased. In 1974, work began on a system that would see special UHF radio-equipped rockets take off if certain conditions were satisfied and that would automatically transmit pre-recorded voice commands to launching crews. Other missiles would then fire after a pre-set time interval. Called Perimetr, this system was implemented to give Russian leaders an insurance policy against decapitation. This ‘Doomsday Machine’, as it is often called in the Western press, was declared operational in 1985. It is also referred to as ‘Dead Hand’.

The Perimetr system operates in three stages. First, once duty officers located in a special underground radio command post receive the proper order, they must turn the system on. Second, they must determine if communications are still available with the Supreme High Command (e.g. the President). If they are not, they are to assume the leadership no longer exists. Third, the officers are to determine if any detonations have taken place on Russian soil. If all three conditions are met, they are to load a message into the radio warhead and launch the rockets, one from each end of the country. Over the next fifteen minutes, these rockets will broadcast the order to fire to the launch crews. There is apparently no way to stop the Perimetr rockets, which means the responsible officers must be sure of themselves before launching them.

Automated systems notwithstanding, the value of human input in the Russian command and control system was clearly demonstrated in 1983. On 25 September of that year, Lieutenant-Colonel Stanislas Petrov was working as a missile warning officer in one of the nation’s early warning facilities, called Serpukhov-15, south of Moscow. The facility received inputs from a series of detection satellites flying high over the planet. At 12.15am on the 26th, one of the warning panels in the control centre flashed the word ‘launch’. It had originated from the United States.

This had never happened before to Petrov. A launch from the US required the Colonel to contact higher authorities and brace for the worst. He and others began to wonder if the United States was using the NATO exercise Able Archer which was then in process as an excuse for a missile attack. Petrov’s staff began to worry and looked to him for guidance. Another indicator panel in the room showed ‘high reliability’. The electronic map in front that showed all the American missile bases had one lamp turned on showing from which base the missile had come from. Petrov’s duty was to alert the Kremlin and the General Staff, but he held off until he could confirm the systems were working properly and that the launch was real. He knew the system was not perfect, and he began to have doubts when the map showed only one missile launch and when the optical telescopes could not confirm that launch. Petrov’s instincts told him it was a false alarm, and said so to his staff. Soon, however, the system showed five more missiles on the way. Again, knowing the system was full of glitches, he assumed it was giving false readings. Petrov knew that if the United States was to attack, it would do so with hundreds of missiles, not just five, so this knowledge served to reinforce his suspicion. He thus refused to sound the alarm, and the world was spared from a potential Armageddon.

One would think that Soviet generals would have thanked Petrov for using his judgment. Not so. A few hours after the event, senior Army officers dropped in not to congratulate him, but to berate him for not passing on the warnings. Had he done so, however, who knows what actions would have been taken by the leadership? For his actions, Petrov was soon transferred to less sensitive duties, and within a year, he would be gone from the military. Eventually, it would be learned that the warnings were generated from the sun’s reflection from the clouds.

When it comes to Russian targeting policy, very little has been revealed about it. What has been divulged has often been based on educated guesswork, limited military writings and, on rare occasions, on information from defectors. What is known is that during the Cold War, the Soviets’ targeting plan called for the destruction of every single enemy nuclear device, preferably in one massive sweep. The most important targets were bomber airfields, submarine bases, nuclear weapons depots and strategic command and control centres. Secondary targets included radar stations and tactical air and missile bases. Other less important aimpoints would have been large army bases, conventional munitions stores and fuel depots. Civilian sites such as political centres and economic facilities (such as power stations and petroleum stockpiles) would also have been wiped out. Early Russian missiles were not very accurate, so they were likely reserved for large facilities such as air and naval bases, although when the Americans began building missile-launching facilities in the 1960s, the rockets’ quick reaction time meant they too would have to be knocked out in the first wave. To ensure their destruction, some installations, such as ammunition depots (of which there were many in West Germany), could have required up to eighteen bombs to destroy because of their hardened igloos. Russia therefore had a clear incentive to build up its arsenal and to increase the accuracy of its weapons.

While it was always clear that the United States and Canada were prime targets for the Strategic Rocket Forces, some have wondered how Western Europe would have fared. Some academics thought that part of the continent might have been spared the use of strategic weapons during an all-out attack for a number of reasons. First, if the Soviet Union’s goal was annexation, they obviously would not want to occupy a smouldering radioactive ruin. Second, more than likely the Russians would have wanted to take over heavy industries for their own use, as they did with Germany after the Second World War. (This would have also applied to Japan.) Third, if the Russians had indeed attacked with ICBMs, normal west-to-east wind patterns and the resultant radioactive clouds would have meant that they themselves would have been contaminated. For these reasons, theorists believe the Soviets would have restricted their attacks to mostly military targets using tactical weapons only.

When it comes to actual missiles, Russia has developed a much larger array than the United States. Victor Suvorov in his book Inside the Soviet Army claims that one of the reasons was that the Soviet Union was not capable of manufacturing a large quantity of rockets because of the dearth of key components; it was therefore forced to produce limited runs. Whereas the United States had only two ICBMs deployed in 1975–the Minuteman and the Titan II–the RVSN had nine models. The larger number of types was not necessarily a disadvantage, though, since one could make up for the shortcomings of another.

The year 1975 also saw three new missiles come off the assembly line; the UR-100, R-36M and the UR-100N. The UR-100N, known in the West as the SS-19, is described here as an example.

The UR-100N was a two-stage UDMH-fueled ICBM with a range of 10,000km. It was designed by the OKB-52 development facility at Reutov outside Moscow and built in two models: the first carried six independent warheads of 550 kiloton yield each and the second, a single 5 megaton re-entry vehicle. The Russians claim it had a circular error of probability (or impact accuracy level) of 350m, but in his book Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces Podvig claims it is 920m, which is still better than older ICBMs. The UR-100N was a leader in fourth-generation missiles since it incorporated new microprocessor technology and improved launch techniques. Some thought that the heavy warhead model was aimed at American missile silos, until it was realized too few were produced and that their high yield made them more suitable for deeper targets such as Mount Weather. Both models were manufactured at the Krunichev machine plant outside Moscow and fitted into modified SS-11 silos, such as at Pervomaysk, Ukraine, or into new silos such as at Tatishchevo. The UR-100N was also eventually put in Derazhnaya, Ukraine, and Kozelsk, Russia. When hints of the missile first appeared in the 1970s, Jane’s Weapons Systems asserted it was hot-launched–launched from within its silo–while the US Department of Defense claimed it was raised first, then fired, or cold-launched. As it turned out, Jane’s was right. The UR-100N was replaced with the UR-100NU in the 1980s due to its launch instability.

The pattern of missile deployment in the Soviet Union seems to have paralleled, up to a point, American patterns. The rockets were either placed in earth-covered bunkers, kept on launching pads or installed in groups of silos, but later models were placed in individual silos. One of the early ICBMs, the R-7, was kept on launching pads and supported by four masts, while some of the R-12Us were put in Dvina complexes that consisted of four silos. One variant of the R-14U was placed in a Chusovaya complex of three silos located less than 100m apart, while the R-16U was deployed in threes in a Sheksna-V complex of three silos forming a straight line 60m from each other. All these complexes included an underground command post. Newer missiles, such as the UR-100 and the RT-2, were placed in individual silos, and their LCCs were located separately.

Russian engineers would end up devising unique ways to install and launch a missile. The R-16U, for example, was placed in a silo in a tube that could be rotated to align the missile’s guidance system. The UR-100 was delivered to the launch facility in a sealed container that was simply lowered in a silo and fastened. In the case of the UR-100U, the missile and its tube were suspended from the top and stabilized at the bottom. Unlike American missiles, some Russian missiles are launched first by ejection from the tube by forced gas, followed by ignition of their motors once outside.

Where launch facilities are concerned, from satellite photos these appear simple. They are often located in wooded areas far from major highways. The properties are large and clear of nearby trees. They include a small number of buildings–one to house guards–and a square landing pad nearby for helicopters. The silo hatches are often circular-shaped and open on a hinge, unlike American silo hatches which travel horizontally on rails. The facilities are connected to their control centres by underground cable. They can be spotted relatively easily on the Internet; two of the facilities associated with the Tatishchevo base can be seen west of Saratov near Petrovo and Bolshaya Ivanovka respectively.

To say that security arrangements at Russian missile bases are tighter than in the US is an understatement. The precautions taken against enemy intrusion are more than adequate and leave practically nothing to chance, as the following shows.

Both launch and control sites are ringed with three or four coils of barbed wire, an electrified fence and in the internal perimeter POMZ-2 anti-personnel and MON-type directional mines. The first coil of wire is 200m to 300m from the silo giving guards much response time and latitude for action. The fence normally carries 800V but this can be increased to 1,600V when conditions require. In between the coils of wire, another fence responds to large objects through a change in capacitance, and the approximate point of disturbance is registered on the guards’ security control panel. The entire site is kept clear of obstructions and mowed to give the greatest possible field of fire.

Inside the perimeter of a launch site, the only structure seen is a bunker for the guards. As stated above, the bunker houses intrusion detection equipment that is continuously monitored. The guards are armed with submachine guns, night vision goggles, floodlights, radios and loudspeakers. The bunkers are topped with either armoured turrets or concrete heads with small arms slits. The land mines can either detonate when tripped or be remotely activated from this position. The launch sites also include an antenna, the main role of which is to receive emergency war orders. The silos are very survivable since they can reportedly withstand thousands of pounds of overpressure.

A command post consists of much more. The property is divided into two parts where the first contains a number of buildings such as the guards’ quarters and a vehicle garage, and the second, a defensive bunker, office hut, a buried LCC (called globes, or in Russian, shariki) and an ICBM launcher. A tunnel that connects the launch control centre to the guards’ barracks provides protection against enemy fire and radiation. The entrance to the LCCs came in two basic forms. The older model, which is no longer used, consisted of only a round metal hatch set on a concrete pad from which one descended by way of ladder. The newer entrances are hidden in camouflage-painted buildings. The mode of descent, whether stairs or a lift, leads to a very long and narrow tunnel that terminates at three consecutive blast doors. The two-man launch crew, a captain and a lieutenant, sit in chairs a few feet apart at desks surrounded by consoles and indicator lights. Two of the most important features of the consoles are the launch-key slots and the square ‘launch’ indicator light. Working in six-hour shifts, these ‘raketchiki’, or missileers, routinely practise drills and continuously monitor the various systems. A third man, a warrant officer, mans a communications panel. At any given time, the trio can be subject to inspections and exercises where the focus could even include armed attacks on their posts. During the Cold War, the two launch officers carried sidearms and had to surrender these to the warrant officer for safekeeping, but nowadays, they no longer carry these. Also, it was the KGB, not the missileers, that armed the warheads, but again, this is no longer the case. Two of the Tatishchevo LCCs can be seen near Chernyshevka and Radishchevo northwest of Saratov.

The support bases contain all the amenities found on a typical military base. There are offices, dormitories, schools for dependents, a store, a gym and dining halls for the missileers where food is served by young women wearing short black skirts. Several missile bases are located near large cities, such as Saratov and Novosibirsk, which provide additional shopping and recreational convenience. The bases have their own motor pools that include a fleet of green trucks used to ferry launch crews to their posts. All three Missile Armies have their own aviation squadrons that use helicopters to ferry such personnel as security response teams and VIPs. Some of the helicopters can serve as airborne command posts.

Some of the key questions that have dogged defence analysts about Soviet/Russian warfighting capability regard the reliability of the RVSN. How reliable are the weapons and how dependable is the personnel? What changes are going on in the Russian nuclear world that will guarantee that the forces will work as required? Of the hundreds of ICBMs, how many will actually launch? Initially, the RVSN counted on the fact that while its missiles had low accuracy, they compensated for this by outfitting them with high-yield warheads. Nowadays, we see the opposite. Accuracy has increased and yields have been lowered. One of the early missiles, the R-9A, had a 5 megaton warhead with a maximum error of 20km, but later on, one of the variants of a newer missile, the MR UR-100, had four 550 to 750 kiloton warheads with a maximum error of 400m. The RT-23UTTH (SS-24) road-mobile missile’s accuracy is even better at 200m. Also, some of the weapons in the RVSN’s arsenal now have the capability to deliver an EMP pulse, which would be particularly useful in knocking out an enemy’s electronic systems. On the other hand, in Soviet times some scholars estimated that during a nuclear war, perhaps only 50 per cent of the missiles would fire, and this may have been the reason why they had so many of them deployed. Bruce Blair in his book The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War writes that the Russian armed forces have established three tiers of nuclear forces, first echelon, operational reserves and uncommitted reserves, where the second category is meant to compensate for launch failures of the first, and where the uncommitted reserves are simply surplus weapons. What they lacked in quality, they made up for in quantity.

When it comes to the reliability of the command and control system itself, besides its high redundancy (radio, radio relay, satellite, cables), new technology developed in the 1990s was designed to enhance threat data collection and analysis. The RVSN tried to establish a system that reduced guesswork partly, no doubt, because of the early warning mishap of 1983. On the other hand, the RVSN has suffered from the same funding problems as have other military services, a situation that has sometimes put it in a precarious position. Throughout the 1990s, articles appeared in the press on the RVSN’s reduced effectiveness. Not only were bases put at risk for not paying their electricity bills, some parts of the command and control system were said to still suffer because they relied on older technology or because of crime. For example, the system has been known to put itself into combat mode for no reason, and thieves have been found to steal underground cables that link the LCCs to the silos for their metal. The armed forces have made up for the decline of its strength by deploying new weapons such as the EMP device previously mentioned, nuclear earth-penetrating weapons, ABMs and precision low-yield warheads, but it is not known how they have tackled the issue of theft. In the final analysis though, if the RVSN command and control system works well enough, and if the new rocket technologies it has acquired have increased firing probabilities, Russia may very well have the ability to meet its attack objectives.

Concerned about the security of its weapons, the RVSN has established its own personnel reliability programme. The missileers are tested for personality defects, not only before they enter the service, but also routinely once accepted. Membership in the ‘nuclear club’ is restricted to those who would turn the keys unhesitatingly and who possess no serious vices. During Soviet times, the staff was also checked for political reliability, but these days the requirement no longer exists: gone is the annoying zampolit. In the offices of missile commanders, one will no longer find the ubiquitous red star but perhaps rather a picture of St Barbara, the patron saint of the RVSN. On the other hand, Deborah Yarsike Ball writes in Jane’s Intelligence Review that since the end of the Cold War, the Russian armed forces have seen a dramatic increase in diseases and drug abuse in its soldiers. If such individuals were to be put in charge of nuclear weapons, the West could be put at risk. Russian officers claim the West does not need to worry since those in charge of the nuclear arsenal are ‘different’.

For a few years following the end of the Cold War, the two superpowers enjoyed a spirit of co-operation. Both the United States and Russia sent officers to each other’s country to see first hand how their armed forces worked. Both have also witnessed the destruction of each other’s silos, and in 2001 a Joint Data Exchange Center was created in Moscow as a point of contact when the USAF and NASA want to warn the Russians when they are launching missiles. This spirit, however, soon disappeared when the relationship between the two superpowers began to freeze; even though its ICBMs are supposed to be de-targeted, the RVSN still conducts exercises where the main enemy is the United States. At the doctrinal level, while the Russian government has dropped its ‘no-first-use’ policy on nuclear weapons employment in 1993, it has stated that it would be willing to use such weapons in a conventional conflict, this to make up for the reduction of its conventional forces. Some say that if the United States began such a war and later decided to use atomic weapons, Russia would respond in kind. Both sides would then end up with a conflict no one wants.

Missile development in Russia is still taking place. The new single-warhead Topol RS-12M Model 2 ICBM (the SS-27) was put into active service in existing silos in 1997–98, despite long delays and financial cutbacks, at the 104th Missile Regiment at Tatishchevo. At the same time, a road-mobile version was developed. The Topol is a three-stage rocket with a single 550 kiloton warhead and comes equipped with protection against ABMs. It is thought to have a CEP of 100m to 200m. The RVSN was expected to have 160 to 220 RS-12Ms in active service by 2005, but in 2007, only 47 of both the fixed and mobile variants were found on the roster.

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