Which Missile?


Reader Nichevo asked a couple of good questions the other day, and today I’m going to try to answer the second one. Why does the change in from the SARMAT (aka SATAN II) to the YARS matter? This also will allow some expansion on my twenty percent references.

Let’s start by stating the obvious: nuclear weapons, particularly modern “safe” nuclear weapons, are extremely complex systems. Aside from various critters we’ve considered for use in weapons delivery, and we have looked at a surprising array of those, modern delivery systems are extremely complex systems. Most delivery systems today are multi-stage in that one system launches yet another system. Missiles launch independent re-entry vehicles. Aircraft launch cruise missiles at targets. Submarines launch missiles which may or may not have more than one independent re-entry vehicles. I am not trying to be obnoxious here, there really is a reason for getting this basic, please be patient.

There are two basic types of missile/rocket in use today: those that use solid rocket motors or liquid-fueled engines. Solid-fuel motors are pretty much like a bottle rocket. You light it, the fuel burns, and it burns until gone. Liquid-fueled engines can be cut on and off multiple times. Yes, for the pedantic, there are indeed some solid engines out there, and some motors that can be cut off at need. Yes, I’m sure you can create hybrid systems, and for a number of reasons that’s all I’m going to say about solid engines and hybrids. ICBMs tend to go tried and true for rather obvious reasons (that clearly aren’t obvious to some) and use either solid motors or liquid engines.

Third obvious point: modern delivery systems at all levels are far more accurate than their predecessors. When you look at Circular Error Probability (CEP) we’ve gone from hitting miles away from the target to hitting inches from the target. And that’s even with many modern delivery systems being able to maneuver in an effort to avoid defensive fire. The more modern the missile or delivery vehicle, the more accurate it is likely to be.

I’m going to drop the old proper style, and not do the all-caps thing on names. Sarmat, aka Satan II, aka the RS-28 is the latest and greatest Russian long-range ICBM allegedly in production. It can fly deceptive courses! It has longer range than any system the decadent West has produced! It carries more and larger warheads, and can carry a mix of standard and hypersonic delivery vehicles! It slices! It dices! The West has nothing that can stand up to it!! Sorry, think I just channeled Vladimir doing his rendition of Goodgulf Greyteeth’s rant on hocus pocus in Bored of the Rings.

It is also several years behind schedule, as it was expected to fully replace the remaining Satan-I, aka the R-36, aka the SS-18 two to three years ago if I’m remembering correctly (stupid lightning). Which suggests development or production problems, if not both. Sarmat is a liquid-fueled system that appears to have a rather complex launch system, as you can see here in this video. Note the “successful” test shown comes after the date previously announced by Russia for it to be operational. More on this in a moment.

The Yars system, a solid-fuel system, was introduced around 2010, and is an upgrade of the older Topol-M system. It is limited to three warheads as opposed to the 10-12 warheads (yeah, there are some arguments/debates/mixes) possible with a Sarmat. Note older, and solid-fuel.

One of those obvious reasons for tried and true is that with solids, there is no lost time loading fuel or doing anything else. Turn the key, press the button, they are reliable. Provided you’ve stored them correctly and replaced segments as they hit end of service life. Otherwise, you get cracks and other delights, and you always have the chance of voids in the fuel from production issues. In which case, that motor segment is going to get cranky. If it gets cranky anywhere at or near ground level, trust me you will feel it ten to twenty miles away.

So, why go with an older, likely less accurate, and less capable system? Look at what’s gone on at the ISS recently. Something caused a Soyuz capsule to lose it’s coolant, rather spectacularly. It may have been a micrometeorite. Some observers have noted other issues, and there has been discussion of shoddy workmanship (Soviet-era level) and possible sabotage with the Russian vehicles. Bad workmanship or sabotage of liquid-fuel rocket systems.

There are a lot of people, including some who should know better, that have maintained loudly that the Russians would never have skimped on their nuclear systems, or extended the corruption that took over the military to it. Really? In what flippin universe?

Hypothetical question for you. If there was indeed a failed launch attempt during the Biden Regency visit to Ukraine, what do you want to bet it was a Sarmat? After all, if you are going to do a demo and make a point a la Khrushchev at the UN, why would you not use your latest and greatest?

To be fair, the Soviet Union had a history of shoddy workmanship. Identical spacecraft where parts couldn’t be exchanged between them. Soviet rockets used so many engines because they expected to lose up to a third of them on any given launch. If you are curious, I think Jim Oberg has talked about it a few times, possibly in his book Red Star In Orbit and various magazine articles. Others have as well. While things were reportedly improving in the Russian Federation, we may be seeing a return to the Soviet era ‘they pretend to pay us, we pretend to work’ mindset.

We may also be seeing a different form of defiance. Sabotage by disgruntled workers would not be a new thing for Russia. Keep in mind that despite all the attempts to smash it, there is an anti-war effort and it appears to be growing. I’ve been hearing a lot of reports of sabotage across Russia, but have also been taking those with a grain of salt. I’m at a point where I’m giving the idea credence.

Which takes us back to my somewhat pedantic start to this article. My search-fu is off today as I can’t find the link, but a while back Glenn Reynolds was — I think — the first to openly comment on the twenty percent concept. At the height of the Cold War, the Brass was pushing the concept of 100 percent EWO (Emergency War Orders) ready. If the brass asked ‘Are you EWO ready?’ the answer better be ‘Sir, yes Sir! I am EWO ready Sir!’ Anyone with a brain knew that this was impossible, but it ensured that we could make the 80 percent threshold. That is, with all those complex systems, 80 percent of them would work. I suspect that 90 percent really was the goal, but…

Anyway, if the codes went out, at least 80 percent of the bombers would take off, 80 percent of the missiles would launch, 80 percent of the bombs would explode, etc.

Glenn was the first to say, in effect, that we would be lucky if twenty percent worked. The old equation has been stood on its head. I hope and pray we never find out, but I’m hitting a point where I think that if 10 percent worked I would be surprised. Complex systems require maintenance, testing, and upgrades. What’s the first thing that gets cut when Gen. Cyrus wants to have another struggle session on white rage during one of the lowest budgets in decades? Or, your newly minted “officer” who is really a civilian there to loot so he can maybe become a true oligarch, looks for easy money? Old story, on pretty much every side out there. Sigh.

That Russia is having to drop it’s nuclear threat to an older and more limited system speaks volumes. It says a lot about production, and the hints of sabotage are getting louder. It is also the strongest indicator yet that Russian nuclear forces have been, and possibly still are, getting gutted by corruption just like the rest of the military. Like I say, there is a lot of RUMINT going around, but there are enough indicators for me to feel confident on this.

So much so I am dropping my 40/60 60/40 level. I think we have less than a ten percent chance of any nuclear usage, but will drop the likelihood to 10 percent. The only reason I’m going that high is that stupidity is still a factor. MAD depended on stable and competent leadership. Right now, we have the Biden Regency, which is the Leroy Jenkins of competent action; Vladimir with health and other issues, including an associate who is looking to unseat him; Xi has more problems than many realizes; and, well, you get the idea.

The percentage really doesn’t matter in some respects. We have nuclear weapons and war being threatened as it is the last illusion of power Russia has to wave at the world. That, and Biden told Vladimir how scared he was of nuclear war and apparently that he would do anything to avoid it. What do we do about it? I’m going to try to write about that tomorrow.

For anyone just dropping by, this page has a lot of links to previous work, and this page is dedicated to nuclear articles. Feel free to take your time, browse around, heck, if you’ve got an adult beverage or a good cigar, go for it.

UPDATE: To answer/agree with several comments, disbanding SAC was a huge mistake. In fact, it was a clusterfuck of such a magnitude that I suspect it was felt in other dimensions. Those responsible deserve every bit of contempt and disdain that those competent in life can spare. I’m not sure we have the time and ability to recover from their gross incompetence.

Getting hit by lightning is not fun! If you would like to help me in my recovery efforts, which include moving, feel free to hit the fundraiser at A New Life on GiveSendGo, use the options in the Tip Jar in the upper right, or drop me a line to discuss other methods. It is thanks to your gifts and prayers that I am still going. Thank you.

7 thoughts on “Which Missile?”

  1. SAC was a LOT better than that. But we ate our young, and the end of the Cold War meant the end of SAC. I fear readiness has slipped…the nuke surety issues we’ve seen in recent years would have been unthinkable.

    1. I was in SAC when it was liquidated. It was a genuine mistake, aggressively pushed by MAJCOMs with lower standards.

  2. I was in SAC when it was liquidated. It was a genuine mistake, aggressively pushed by MAJCOMs with lower standards.

  3. The submarine and air-launched legs of the nuclear tripod, for both Russians and the US, will tend to be better maintained simply because people who ride in subs and planes tend to get dead if they fall out of the habit of maintaining their equipment pretty damned well. Land-based ICBMs, well, they’re anyone’s guess, but I share you skepticism as to whether they will work as advertised. But if the boomers’ bombs still fly, I’m not sure it matters.

  4. Love your work. Hope this adds.

    Article covers a lot of ground and ideas get mish-mashed together through a meat grinder. Differences and distinctions between systems can matter. All cats are gray in a dark room.

    Present day is different from history, US weapons are different from Russia’s, US weapon systems are highly heterogeneous.

    US SLBMs are entirely solid fuel (primarily for safety of the boats). ICBMs are solid fuel boosters with liquid fueled post-boost vehicles for warhead targeting and deployment. Cruise missiles are liquid-fueled jets, not really missiles at all.

    US ICBMs are presently loaded with single warheads, so our ICBM MIRV capability is largely moot at the present. One of the problems with this is that realistic operational testing burns an irreplaceable ICBM. (That is why our deployed missile population has shrunk from 500 to fewer than 400 and dropping.) It is possible to test three warheads with one missile, but that is not an operational configuration these days. And that works for Mk12As but not for marginally larger Mk21s which are singlet only.

    More here: https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF10519

  5. I heard an instructor from the Army War College speak on U.S. military readiness following WWII. This was the period of time before we revamped the military, the U.S. had sent everyone home, and most of those that remained in the military (other than career officer types) were those with few options in a postwar economy that was booming.

    At that point the only deterrence to Russian attack in Europe was nuclear weapons. Russia did not have them. We did. What was secret was none of them worked. We could build them, but they required maintenance about every two weeks were the batteries that ensure circuits could close and the would detonate had to be replaced (radiation hated batteries). No one knew how to do it. There were no manuals, no systems in place.

    He also noted that few planes were able to fly. No one was there to maintain them. All the mechanics had left to work for the exploding private aviation/airline sectors.

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