Aby June 15th, 2007
In the nuclear age, a nation’s military superiority and immunity from military attacks is judged by its nuclear capability. Apart from the number and quality of warheads deployed, a nation’s nuclear capability is also judged by its nuclear delivery systems, most preferably missiles. In the current era - the United States of America, Russia and China maintain the nuclear missile supremacy, both in numbers and in capabilities. What follows is a brief review of the primary nuclear missile systems in these three countries, with a little background on the capabilities and limitations of ballistic missiles. For the sake of understanding, the language has been kept as simple as possible.
An American Trident 2 SLBM launched from an Ohio submarine (Click video to play)
Why ballistic missiles?
Ballistic missiles are the most effective delivery systems for nuclear warheads against fixed targets like cities and military bases, because of their short flight duration and and precise course , that cannot be altered once the missile spends its fuel and becomes ballistic. Defence against ballistic missiles are yet to be reliable enough to be considered foolproof , especially against long-range, high-speed ones like ICBMs (Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles) and SLBMs (Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles). Moscow remains the only city in the world with a somewhat credible ABM (Anti Ballistic Missile) defence system, while the US National Missile Defence (NMD) project is still under development. Ballistic missiles coupled with MIRVed warheads are the deadlist nuclear weapons because of their high penetrability. The longest range ballistic missiles are made by China, USA and Russia. This limits our focus on these three countries and their most powerful ballistic missile systems in regard to nuclear capabilities.
What is so bad about MIRVs?
MIRV (Multiple Independent targetable Reentry Vehicle) is a collection of several nuclear warheads carried on a single missile, with the ability to strike each seperate targets over a given area. This reduces the number of missiles needed to hit many targets, increases the area of destruction and reduces the effectiveness of missile defence systems.
People’s Republic of China - China’s ICBM system is mainly based on the Donfeng project which comprises the DF series of ballistic missiles. The Dongfeng DF-5 has the longest range of the series, capable of hitting targets 13000 kms away with an accuracy (CEP) of 1000 metres radius. It was inducted into service in 1981 and is still active as DF - 5 Module 2. According to unconfirmed reports, DF 5 can be launched with an MIRV payload of up to three nuclear warheads. China is also carrying out testing and development on Julang series of SLBM missiles, the latest being JL 2, capable of being launched from a submarine and hitting targets 8,000 kms away. Unconfirmed reports also suggest that JL 2 missile can be loaded with as many as 6 warheads. Due the the secrecy which shrouds China’s defence system, it is difficult to get the exact specifications and capabilities of China’s missile or nuclear forces. The available reports rely mostly on professional obsevations, using satellite reconnaissance data and public releases by the PLA. As of 2006, it is estimated that China has deployed over 90 nuclear missiles, of which at least 20 are targeted on United States.
Russian Federation - Russian missile systems are a legacy of the missile and space technology supremacy of former USSR. The fourth generation ICBM, RT-2UTTH Topol M is capable of striking a destination 10,000-10,500 kms away with 10 MIRVed nuclear warheads (~ 3.6 tons payload). However its warhead is limited to one, in compliance with the START II treaty. The Topol M has the distinction of being the fastest missile in the world, averaging speeds of Mach 11+ (11 x Speed of sound). The RS 24 ICBM, which was recently tested on May 2007 is an MIRV variant of the Topol-M and is reported to be equipped with maneouverable warheads Igla which can change course during re-entry phase, to overcome missile defences. The high re-entry speed of Topol M missiles and their multiple MIRV warheads with decoys make them the deadliest strategic nuclear missiles till date. In the area of submarine nuclear forces, the liquid propelled RSM 54 Skiff, deployed in 1986 is Russia’s longest range and most accurate of SLBMs, with a strike range of 8300+ km. The RSM 54 can carry four to ten MIRVed warheads of 0.3 - 0.55 megatons each, based on Delta class ballistic missile submarines. Russian submarines are unique in their kind for using inverted MIRVed warheads. As of 2006, Russia is estimated to have over 750 nuclear ICBMs and SLBMs deployed with at least 2600 warheads.
United States of America - The retirement of Peacekeeper made the LGM-30 ‘Minuteman’ III the only land based ICBM of the United States at present, with a range of 10,000 km plus. The Minuteman series is the first American ICBM to be MIRVed and has a capability to carry 3-6 nuclear warheads of 0.2 megaton yield each. Currently, Minuteman can be launched from a fixed Silo (ICBM launch system) and programs are under way to start mobile ICBM launch vehicles like those of Russia. The Trident II is the active and operational US’ strategic SLBM, that was deployed in 1990, with a strike range of more than 7,360 km. It can carry up to eight MIRVed warheads of 100 kilotons each and is based on Ohio class SSBN submarines. The Trident II D5 is known to be the most accurate long range missile at present, with a CEP of 90 metres. Both Minuteman III and Trident II have very high re-entry speeds in the order of 25000 km/h. Due to their high accuracy, the US long range nuclear missiles like Trident II have both first and second strike capabilities. The vulnerability of US ICBM silos to a Soviet first strike shifted the priority of US nuclear missile forces to SLBMs. The Ohio submarines with Trident SLBMs are deployed in the Pacific region and patrol the seas about 20 times a year, making it the most active naval nuclear force. By mid-2006, the United States has an arsenal of 836 nuclear missiles, deployed with 2600 active warheads.
More Information and Resources -
- The Military Balance 2007 - International Institute for Strategic Studies
- World Special Weapons Guide - Global Security
Possibly Related posts:
- US vs Russia vs China - Nuclear Warhead Stockpiles
- Intercontinental SLBMs - Russian Bulava vs American Trident
- Nuclear ICBMs of United States and Russia - Past and Present
- The Future of Nuclear Deterrence Between US and Russia
- United States vs China - Consequences of a Nuclear War