The Devil is in the Details: Assessing the Threat of Russia’s “Satan 2” ICBM

Photo Credit: 112 Ukraine

By: Emily Kangas, Columnist

On October 27, 2016, Russian missile design company Makayev Rocket Design Bureau published the first declassified image of Russia’s new RS-28 Sarmat rocket.[i] Monikered “Satan 2” by NATO, the unveiling of the new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) sparked considerable attention from Western media outlets, many of which emphasized the catastrophic damages of the missile’s payload capabilities. But attention regarding this missile and its potential impact is not new, and with US-Russia tensions at an all-time high in recent decades, it is not surprising that the design’s declassification sparked such attention and raised concerns about the potential for conflict escalation.[ii] However, when looked at more closely, the Satan 2 more accurately reflects Russia’s consistent and predictable preferences with regard to missile design rather than a detrimental innovation that poses an immediate threat to U.S. national security.

The Makayev Rocket Design Bureau co-developed the RS-28 with Russia’s military to replace the R-36 “Satan” ICBM, which was originally deployed in the 1970s.[iii] Under development since 2009, the new rocket is a two-stage, liquid-propelled heavy ICBM with a range exceeding 10,000 km and a mass of 100 tons.[iv] The missile’s payload consists of multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs) with individually steerable warheads. Using MIRVs allows the missile to deploy multiple warheads during one missile’s launch, either to one specific target or multiple independent targets.[v] The warheads reportedly will also have antimissile countermeasures to penetrate the United States’ Anti-Ballistic Missile shield.[vi] In addition to the countermeasures, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov claimed that the missile is capable of flying across both the North and South poles, thus bypassing America’s ballistic missile defense in the northern part of the continent.[vii]

Based on the technical specifications, the RS-28 may appear as the cataclysmic threat that news outlets claim it to be. In reality, though, the missile likely will not represent any great change to the nuclear balance of power between Russia and the United States.[viii] The missile’s design represents Russian technological preferences rather than catastrophic innovation.[ix] Indeed, Russian and Soviet missile designers have historically favored two-stage liquid propellant rockets with a MIRV’d payload. Additionally, the improvements made to the R-36 in the RS-28’s design are not without strategic disadvantages. The fact that the rocket carries multiple nuclear warheads means that Russia must store the rocket in an underground silo, which makes for a very attractive target.[x] And Russia’s preference for liquid fuel, which is not easy to handle, limits mobility and requires complex storage, which again make for an easy target.[xi]

While the RS-28 alone will likely not significantly alter Russia’s nuclear threat to the United States, the weapon may present risks of destabilization. Missiles equipped with multiple warheads give the advantage to the actor who carries out the first strike.[xii] If a single missile launch has the potential capability of destroying 15 targets, as in the case of Satan 2, then Russia has an incentive to strike first. However, the advantage does not entirely belong to Russia. With each missile holding multiple warheads, the United States only needs to strike one missile silo to take out a significant portion of the warhead arsenal. So it is advantageous for the United States to strike first as well to protect the targets for which Russia aims to destroy.[xiii]

Just as with Russia’s design preferences, however, this aspect of the threat is not new. Traditionally, Russia’s military has favored heavy ICBMs—that is, missiles capable of delivering a large number of warheads per missile.[xiv] This preference for heavy ICBMs is in part due to the Kremlin’s budgetary and resource constraints. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia reduced the total number of its missile silos, repurposing a number of ICBMs into lightweight satellite launch vehicles.[xv] Even during Russia’s economic boom in the early 2000s, it was ultimately too expensive to replace the old Soviet systems and build a new missile for each warhead. Russia remedied this problem by building heavy ICBMs, loading each missile with multiple warheads to maintain a competitive number of warheads.[xvi] The United States, by comparison, has taken the opposite approach, favoring fewer warheads per missile but having more missiles. Thus, while the Satan-2 may appear to increase the risks of potential destabilization and escalation of conflict, it instead reflects a continuation of weapons development trends Russia has traditionally followed.

Although Sputnik’s reports of Satan 2’s destructive capabilities paint an ominous picture of nuclear destruction, it is more accurate to consider Russia’s flaunting of the RS-28’s capabilities as a reflection of Russian insecurity with regard to U.S. initiatives. The original announcement of the missile in May 2016 occurred just days after the United States Aegis Ashore missile defense system went operational in Romania.[xvii] The RS-28’s announcement is also not the only Russian initiative regarding nuclear policy. In early October, Putin withdrew Russia from a plutonium disposal treaty with the U.S. that had once been lauded as a “landmark nuclear security agreement.”[xviii] In explaining why he chose to withdraw Russia from the agreement, Putin cited “hostile actions of the U.S. against Russia, and the inability of the U.S. to deliver on the obligation of excessive weapons plutonium under international treaties.”[xix] These events coincide within the context of broader Russian-U.S. relations and it is therefore important for U.S. policymakers and national security officials to consider all events and circumstances surrounding the RS-28’s development and it’s publicity. While on the surface, the missile gives the impression of certain destruction, the devil truly is in the details and the public nature of the missile’s unveiling and lack of significant technological innovation indicate that Russia is simply publicly flexing its nuclear technological muscles. In reacting to Russia’s provocation, the U.S. should seek to de-escalate the potential for an arms race and decrease the destabilizing effect of the RS-28.

[i] David Reid, “Russia publishes image of ‘Satan 2’, the missile that could ‘wipe out Texas’,” CNBC, October 25, 2016. Online.

[ii] This past May, the Kremlin-sponsored news publication, Sputnik, alleged that the Satan 2’s payload had the capability to wipe out an area the size of Texas. See: Sebastian Shulka and Laura Smith-Spark, “Russia unveils ‘Satan 2’ missile, could wipe out France or Texas, report says,” CNN, October 27, 2016, online.

[iii] Joel Hruska, “Russia unveils its new class of RS-28 ‘Satan 2’ nuclear missiles,” Extreme Tech, October 27, 2016, online.

[iv] “Russia’s new ICBM Sarmat can penetrate defense shield, wipe out Texas,” SpaceWar, May 10, 2016, online.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Shulka and Smith-Spark, “Russia unveils ‘Satan 2’ missile.”

[viii] Jeffrey Lewis, “Size Matters for Putin’s Nuclear Arsenal,” Foreign Policy, May 13, 2016, online.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Federation of American Scientists, Special Weapons Primer, Ballistic Missile Basics, January 3, 2006, online.

[xii] Jeffrey Lewis, “Size Matters for Putin’s Nuclear Arsenal.”

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Joel Hruska, “Russia unveils its new class of RS-28 ‘Satan 2’ nuclear missiles.”

[xvi] Jeffrey Lewis, “Size Matters for Russia’s Nuclear Arsenal.”

[xvii] Mike Eckel, “New Weaponry, More Spending, Tough Rhetoric Stoke Fears Of New U.S.- Russia Arms Race,” RadioFreeEurope RadioLiberty, May 18, 2016, online.

[xviii] Andrew E. Kramer, “Vladimir Putin Exits Nuclear Security Pact, Citing ‘Hostile Actions’ by US,” New York Times, October 3, 2016, online.

[xix] Ibid.

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