In the nuclear age, a nationâ€™s military superiority and immunity from military attacks by opponents is judged by its nuclear capability. This is the reason why there is such a mad rush by defence forces around the world to nuclearise their armed forces. But a nuclear defence system is of little use if the nuclear countries do not possess adequate delivery systems for the nuclear bombs. Bombers can be intercepted and destroyed, even stealth fighters can be intercepted as was shown in the Kosovo conflict. This leaves the countryâ€™s nuclear bomb delivery system in the strength of its long range ballistic missile systems. In the present world - United States of America, Russia and China maintain this superiority over missile offence and defence systems. What makes ballistic missiles so powerful and which country possesses the most powerful ballistic missiles?
Why are ballistic missiles so deadly?
Ballistic missile systems have a short flight duration and a precise course which cannot be altered after the missile had spent its fuel and turned ballistic. Defences against ballistic missiles are yet to be foolproof. It is much less so against long-range and high-speed ones like ICBMs (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile) and SLBMs (Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile). Moscow remains the only city in the world with a credible ABM (Anti Ballistic Missile) defense system. Ballistic missiles coupled with MIRVs (see below) are the deadliest among nuclear weapon delivery systems. 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 many nuclear warheads carried on a single missile with the ability to independently strike each targets over a broad area. This reduces the number of missiles needed to hit many targets, increases the area of destruction and reduces the effectiveness of ABM defence systems all of which make a MIRV attack deadly.
Peopleâ€™s Republic of China
Chinaâ€™s ICBM system is mainly based on the Donfeng project which comprises are DF series of ballistic missiles. DF 5 which is capable of hitting targets up to 13000 kms away has the longest range among the series. It was inducted into service in 1981 and is still active as DF - 5 Module 2. According to 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 which is 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 Chinaâ€™s defence system it is difficult to get the exact specifications and capabilities of Chinaâ€™s missile or nuclear forces and available reports rely mostly on observed tests using satellite reconnaissance data. It is estimated that China has deployed over 90 single warhead nuclear missiles, at least 20 of them targeted on the US as per 2006 records.
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 km away with 10 MIRVed nuclear warheads (~ 3.6 tons total weight). However its warhead is limited to one, in compliance to the START II treaty. The Topol M has the distinction of being the fastest missile in the world at an average speed 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 that it can be equipped with maneouverable warhead Igla which can change course during re-entry to overcome missile defences. The high re-entry speed of Topol M based missiles and the 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 Russiaâ€™s longest range and most accurate of SLBMs with a range of 8300+ km. The RSM 54 can carry four to ten MIRVed warheads of 0.3 - 0.55 megatons each, launched from the 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 about 2600 warheads.
United States of America
The retirement of Peacekeeper made the LGM-30 â€˜Minutemanâ€™ 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 yields 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 USâ€™ strategic SLBM which was deployed in 1990 and has a range of more than 7,360 km. It can carry up to eight MIRVed warheads of 100 kilotons each and is launched from Ohio class SSBN submarines. The Trident II D5 is known to be the most accurate long range missile at present, with a CEP of 90m. 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 US nuclear missile force in favour of safer SLBMs. The Ohio submarines with Trident SLBMs are deployed in the Pacific region and patrol the seas about 20 times a year, the most active among global submarine based nuclear forces. By mid-2006 the United States has an arsenal of 836 nuclear missiles, actively operational with about 2500 warheads mounted on them.
There is no clear cut winner although Russia and USA lead the pack in nuclear missile capable countries. The US SLBMs can carry the largest number of MIRVed warheads which can increase its attack radius while Russian ICBMs can carry more warheads and have more sophisticated mobile launch capabilities. US ICBMs and SLBMs possess somewhat greater accuracy than Russian ones but the need for accuracy for targets in nuclear strikes is limited (as shown by Chinaâ€™s nuclear tests). The Russian RSM 56 Bulava SLBM is on way to be deployed in 2008 and could be the fastest and most effective SLBM if the current pace of development continues. Russia at present leads on the speed, maneuverability and penetration among ballistic missiles with its Topol-M rocket based ICBMs mentioned above. Russia has a slight advantage in missile attack capabilities than US which is not surprising considering Russiaâ€™s many firsts in rocket science and technology (first satellite, first man in space, first ICBM, etc.). Missiles are nothing but modified rockets with weapons as warheads instead of satellites as payloads.
written by lokesh, June 13, 2010