Russia may resurrect its missile trains by 2020

The first regiment armed with the RT-23UTTH Molodets missile went on combat duty in October 1987. Source: Lori / Legion Media.

The first regiment armed with the RT-23UTTH Molodets missile went on combat duty in October 1987. Source: Lori / Legion Media.

According to official information from the Ministry of Defense, military railroad missile complexes are currently under development and will appear in Russia by 2020.

“Russia’s political leadership has made the decision to start the development of a military railroad missile complex for the Strategic Missile Forces, as a response to the threat the European Missile Defense System will present between 2018 and 2020,” said Igor Korotchenko, editor-in-chief of the Natsionalnaya Oborona magazine and director of the Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade (CAWAT).

“By that time, the European Missile Defense System will be able to intercept Russian ICBMs, thanks to new versions of its SM-3 anti-BM missile. Under the circumstances, Moscow has been forced to take adequate countermeasures,” Korotchenko said.

He added that, once deployed, Russia’s missile trains would make it totally impossible for American technical reconnaissance to determine their location.

“Besides mobile surface-based complexes, our country will receive additional potential to launch an effective counterstrike,” said Korotchenko.

He believes that adapting the Bulava, solid-fuel, submarine-launched, ballistic missile for rail would be the optimal course of action, as the missile would fit into a standard railroad freight car — an extremely important consideration in terms of camouflaging the missile trains.

“What’s more, it can be done very quickly, given the available technology,” Korotchenko said.

Yuri Zaitsev, a veteran of both the Strategic Missile Forces and the Russian space program, also believes that the new missile trains will substantially increase the combat potential of the Strategic Missile Forces. Until recently, rail-based ICBMs were an integral part of Russia’s surface-based nuclear deterrence force. 

The Soviet Union began testing a missile train armed with the RT-23 solid-fuel missile in February 1983. The train was able to travel more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) per day without being discovered and could launch missiles from any point along its route. A missile train regiment included a train consisting of three locomotives and 17 railcars, with nine platforms carrying missile launchers. Missile trains were expected to become the core of the counterstrike group because of their improved durability and their ability to withstand a first enemy strike.

The first regiment armed with the RT-23UTTH Molodets missile went on combat duty in October 1987. Some 20 missile launchers had been deployed by the middle of 1988, and, in 1999 there were three missile divisions with four regiments each — that is, 36 launchers in total.

The trains were kept in stationary shelters located four kilometers apart. When on combat duty, they were dispersed. The Molodets only performed one live launch throughout its entire history, during a military exercise. A missile fired from the Kostroma region hit a target at Kamchatka. The Americans were unable to track down the train’s coordinates before or after the launch.

The country’s political leadership, which was represented by Mikhail Gorbachev at the time, decided in the early 1990s to suspend combat patrols by missile trains. Incidentally, according to Zaitsev, the Americans feared missile trains even more than the famous “Satan” missile — the RS-20 ICBM — and did all they could to make them disappear from the Strategic Missile Forces.

START II spelled the end of missile trains. Under the treaty, all RT-23UTTHs were to be scrapped. However, after the United States unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Moscow declared the START II null and void, especially since it was never ratified.

Nevertheless, a decision was made shortly afterward to decommission missile trains and gradually dismantle them. The first strategic train was disassembled in Bryansk in June 2003. Two years later, the last train of the Kostroma Missile Division was taken off combat duty and sent to a recycling yard, after spending a year at a storage base.

The fact that Russia has accumulated experience operating missile trains, in addition to a highly developed railway network, make the decision to restore a military railroad missile complex to Russia’s nuclear missile arsenal a logical one.

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