Recently the nuclear arms race has been heating back up. Russia has just announced that it’s new RS-28 “Sarmat” will be operational by 2018 and eventually replace the R-36M, also know by the NATO code name SS-18 “Satan”, in front line service. The new missile will be liquid fueled and capable of carrying a four to 10 ton payload, allowing it to carry MIRVs and decoys.
Despite reports to the contrary such a missile would not be capable of destroying an area to size of France or Texas. If Russian media reports are correct, It will be roughly 33 percent more powerful than the current SS-18 in terms of nuclear payload.
While the current R-36M can carry 10 warheads, the new Sarmat will be able to carry 15. The fact that two load weights are listed seems to suggest two different loadout options. The four ton variant might be loaded with a single high yield warhead like the 20 megaton device mounted in the SS-18 mod 6, while the 10 ton variant is probably the 15 warhead variant, mounting the smaller warheads present on the SS-18 mod 5.
I’ve already gone into the political context an implications of the new American ICBM‘s and the same logic applies to the Russian buildup. Not only are the SS-18 aging, but anti-ballistic missile technology is advancing. Systems like the Aegis Ashore are just now being activated in Romania. While NATO claims the new anti-missile installations are designed to counter missiles launched from Iran into Europe, Russia sees American missile defense systems as a threat to it’s nuclear deterrent.
To combat these systems, Russia and China have been experimenting with new missile technology. There is a concern the Sarmats may eventually be loaded with more advanced warheads, like Russia’s YU-71 hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV). Currently, the United States has no countermeasure for a warhead like this.Fortunately, it does not appear that such a system will be deployed on the missile initially.
This means that, if anything, the RS-28 is currently only a slight improvement on the older “Satan,” just adding the ability to stuff more warheads inside.
Remember that more warheads per missile does not necessarily mean more deployed warheads. The Russian’s are currently limited by the 2010 START treaty, which caps deployed nuclear forces at 1,550 total warheads. When the RS-28s come online they will either come downloaded with less warheads or utilize the same number of warheads on fewer missiles.
Also remember that America has equally capable missiles based on Ohio-class submarines. The Trident II is capable of holding almost as many MIRVs with the 2010 START treaty current limiting this to eight reentry vehicles per missile. With 24 missiles each, every Ohio submarine currently carries 192, 100 to 475 kiloton nuclear warheads. With a CEP of 90 meters these are more than capable of matching the less accurate Russian warheads.
Even if the START treaty were breached the current American nuclear delivery systems have enough excess capacity to easily match the number of deployed warheads without adding more missiles or bombers. Each Minuteman III can hold an additional two warheads and the Trident IIs each have room for another five to seven. America’s B-2, B-52 bombers and all front line fighters are also nuclear capable.
Jeffrey Lewis was correct to point out that the RS-28 is more of a phallic symbol than an emerging threat to the American nuclear deterrent. It is more or a less a slight improvement on the SS-18 that is unlikely to change the balance of power. With nuclear weapons, size isn’t everything, it’s how you use it.