In the meantime:
(Historical background for the events described in this section)
1991 August: A group of Communist Party officials stages a coup in Moscow aimed to overthrow Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and to impose martial law. The coup fails in two days.
1991 December: The Soviet Union officially ceases to exist.
Classified as the fifth generation of the Soviet strategic missiles, the Topol-M program was expected to negate renewed US efforts in mid-1980s to develop missile defense shield. (72) The program also aimed to create a single design of the ICBM, which could be deployed without significant modifications in existing silos and on highly mobile tracks. As such, the Topol-M could replace RT-2P missiles.
A test launch of the Topol-M ICBM. Credit: RVSN
Roots of the program
The development of the Topol-M was initiated around 1989. Logically, but somewhat unusual for the Soviet rocket industry, the effort was divided between two prime developers -- KB Yuzhnoe, the manufacturer of heavy ICBMs and Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology, MIT, long specialized in mobile missiles.
The Topol-M was conceived as a three-stage solid-propellant ICBM with a single nuclear warhead in compliance with US-Russian arms control treaties. (There were reports, that the original design of the Topol-M envisioned three warheads, and the missile still could be theoretically upgraded for multiple warhead, MIRV, capability in case of US-Russian agreements unravel.
First three booster stages of the missile burned solid propellants. In the initial phase of the project, KB Yuzhnoe was developing a 4th stage burning one-component liquid-propellant. It was specifically designed to carry a "package" of unguided warhead along with decoys intended to confuse enemy's missile defenses. In parallel, MIT was developing the 4th stage with solid-propellant designed to carry a single warhead without decoys.
The 3rd stage of the missile was housed inside a special cylindrical adapter, connecting the 2nd stage with the warhead section. Such design intended to provide additional protection for the propulsion system of the 3rd stage from nuclear blast. (Developers apparently believed that the missile would be most vulnerable to nuclear-tipped interceptors during boost phase of the 2nd stage.)
At the end of its nominal powered flight, the 3rd stage was programmed to turn around about 180 degrees and fire in opposite direction until full consumption of its propellant. Such maneuver would allow to minimize velocity differences accrued by the end of the flight.
The missile was specifically designed to fly a trajectory with shorter and lower boost phase, again aiming to reduce its vulnerability to prospective missile defense systems.
Both, mobile and silo-based versions of the missile would take off using so-called "kholodnyi start" or "cold launch," where a special booster, known as PAD, would be used to push the rocket out of its storage container, allowing the 1st stage to fire in midair. The rocket would be stored in the launch container from the time of its rollout from the assembly line and until the end of its service life.
During the flight, the rocket would be guided to its target by the inertial control system with the onboard computer.
Silo-based launch complex
The stationary deployment site for the Topol-M missile was designed to include 10 isolated silos, known as OS, and originally designed for R-36M and UR-100N missiles. Official Russian sources stated that the most expensive elements of the silos, such as protective covers and control systems would be retained without significant changes. The Topol-M would also use existing launch control and communications infrastructure. (72)
Silos would protect launch containers with missiles and flight control antennas. Each site would also feature underground command and control bunker, security, power supply and nuclear blast detection systems. Apparently, provisions were made for deployment of antimissile systems around launch sites and flight control facilities. Along with high survivability in a nuclear war, the launch complex was also expected to withstand strikes by high-precision conventional weapons.
Mobile launch complex
The mobile version of the Topol-M would be deployed on a 16-wheel, computer-controlled MZKT-79221 transporter powered by a 710-horse power diesel engine.
The missiles were designed to require only minimum maintenance at the deployment site, except for the warhead, which could be serviced periodically along with systems of the launch complex.
During nominal maintenance the warhead can be replaced, the missile and its warhead can be transported separately in special tracks equipped with climate controlled containers. The missile with its container could be loaded into the silo without the assistance of a crane.
Major systems of the rocket can be diagnosed remotely, its avionics can be calibrated at the launch site and its flight control system switched between "permanent" and "high" levels of readiness. (98)
KB Yuzhnoe in Dnepropetrovsk, started active development of a silo-based version of the Topol-M around 1989. The first flight-worthy missile had been manufactured during 1991 and its inaugural test launch was scheduled for February 15, 1992.
However in December 1991 the Soviet Union officially ceased to exist and KB Yuzhnoe located in the Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk overnight became a foreign entity. As a result, the Russian government decided to consolidate the development of the Topol inside Russia, along with a few other rocket and space projects. Ultimately, the Topol-M survived as Russia's only effort to develop a new land-based ICBM at the turn of the 21st century.
In February 1993, back in Russia President Yeltsin signed a decree No. 275, making Moscow-based MIT a sole prime-contractor in the development of the Topol-M. (72) On January 14, 1995, KB Yuzhnoe transferred the first flight version of the Topol-M rocket to the Russian Federation. (98)
A pricetag for the development of the Topol-M system from its preliminary design to the first test launch reportedly reached 142.8 billion rubles (in prices of 1992). (74)
After the upgrade of existing silo facilities in Plesetsk, the first launch of the Topol-M ICBM was conducted on December 20, 1994. At the time, levels of funding only allowed production of four missiles per year, according to Russian officials.
Putin's remarks in November 2004, apparently referred to a new type of maneuverable warhead for the Topol-M. Despite such high-profile statements, many observers were skeptical about prospects of such system.
Deployment of silo-based Topol-M missiles
On December 27, 1998, after five successful and one failed launch from Plesetsk, the first unit of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces armed with silo-based Topol-M was declared operational in Tatishevo, Saratov region. (177) At the time, Colonel General Vladimir Yakovlev, head of the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces, promised to deploy 20 - 30 Topol-Ms annually during next three years and 30 - 40 missiles annually during the following three years. At such pace, Russia would deploy between 250 and 340 missiles by 2007. However the reality was nowhere near this rate.
The second regiment of the Topol-M missiles was deployed in 1999 and the third in 2000, however the fourth unit would not enter service until December 21, 2003. The unit apparently entered service with six missiles, while four remaining missiles were declared operation in December 2004. As result, by the end of 2004, four Topol-M regiments with a total of 40 missiles were in service.
In February 2005, the official Russian media reported that Russian forces would receive between three and nine launchers a year.
Deployment of mobile Topol-M missiles
In December 2004, the Russian government sources promised to fund the deployment three or four of the mobile Topol-M missiles during 2005, however in 2005 it became clear that the first mobile Topol-Ms will not be deployed until at least 2006. However the State Program of Armaments, GPV-2015, adopted in 2006, called for the procurement of 17 Topol-M missiles, including both, mobile and silo-based systems.
In June 2008, speaking at the graduation of Peter the Great Strategic Missile Forces Academy, the RVSN commander Nikolai Solovtsov said that nine mobile and two stationary Topol rockets would be operationally deployed during that year. Solovtsov also promised a brand new missile system in several years. Solovtsov also added that currently Russian spending for strategic missiles does not exceed four percent of the nation's total defense budget.
Mystery of maneuverable warhead
According to an article published in Washington Times, sometimes in the middle of July 2001, Russia conducted an unannounced test of a new scramjet-powered missile, which, reportedly was tracked by US radar, as it hit an impact range at Kamchatka Peninsula (apparently Kura range). The newspaper claimed that the missile was launched on top of the SS-25 (Topol) ICBM and after reaching the apogee of its trajectory separated from the booster stage reentered the atmosphere and continued flying toward the target. According to the newspaper, the launch took place in "central Russia," which is probably Plesetsk.
The Washington Times report apparently reached Russia in misinterpreted form, so when asked if Russia had conducted any new ICBM tests, the representative of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces said that no new ICBMs had been tested recently.
In the meantime, in the August 2001, at the MAKS air and space show in Moscow, the Flight Research Institute, LII, based in Zhukovskiy, displayed a full-scale mockup of the winged HFL-VK experimental vehicle designed for test flights at hypersonic speeds. Launched by a Rockot booster, a scramjet-powered unmanned craft would reach a speed of 8-14 Mach (1 Mach is equal to the speed of sound) and fly at the an altitude of up to 100 kilometers -- faster and higher then most experimental vehicles in development around the world at the time. The HFL-VK is 8 meters long, has a wing span of 3.6 meters and a weight of 2,200 kilograms.
After launch from Plesetsk onboard the Rockot, the HFL-VK plane was expected to land with a parachute in the Russian Far East.
The program is partially financed by the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, Rosaviacosmos, however, according to LII representatives, the funds were insufficient for active development. It was unclear, if the program had any connection to the development of the ramjet-powered warhead for the Topol-M.
Three years later, in the course of Security 2004 exercise, Russia conducted multiple launches of ballistic missiles including one of the RT-2PM Topol and UR-100UTTKh missiles, fired on February 18, 2004. In apparent reference to the Topol launch, Colonel-General Yury Baluyevsky, First Deputy Chief of the General Staff, told reporters on February 19 that Russia had tested a highly maneuverable vehicle, potentially capable of penetrating antimissile defenses.
According to independent Russian sources, the Topol was carrying an experimental warhead equipped with its own rocket thrusters and, possibly, with some sort of air-breathing engine. Such a propulsion system reportedly enables the vehicle to conduct multiple entries into the Earth atmosphere (like a stone ricocheting at the surface of water) and/or enables a powered flight in the atmosphere. Maneuverability of the warhead, along with a lower then traditional trajectory, reportedly makes it more difficult for a potential missile-defense system to track and intercept an incoming reentry vehicle.
The Topol was originally designed to carry three warheads, however it was "downgraded" to a single-warhead vehicle to comply with arms-controls treaties. As a result the vehicle obtained extra payload capacity, which allowed the integration of propulsion systems for the new type of warhead. One of the previous tests of the system apparently took place in mid-July 2001.
Other Russian sources claimed that an experimental warhead flew on top of a UR-100NU rocket, while the Topol conducted a routine training/test flight.
On November 17, 2004, an ambiguous statement by Russian President Vladimir Putin about soon to be deployed new Russian missiles with unmatched capabilities made headlines in the West. Although many dismissed the speech as public relations stunt aimed to cover up a sorry state of affairs in the Russian armed forces, some observers linked Putin's statements to the developed of the maneuverable warhead.
Launches of the Topol-M missile:
1994 Dec. 20: First test launch (from a silo in Plesetsk)
1995 September: Second test launch
1996 July 26: Third test launch
1997 July 8: Fourth test launch
1998 Oct. 22: Fifth test launch (Failure; rocket self-liquidated)
1998 Dec. 8: Sixth test launch
1999 June 3: Seventh test launch
1999 Sept. 3: Eighth test launch
1999 Dec. 14: Ninth successful launch of the Topol-M missile targeting the Kura impact range in Kamchatka Peninsula.
2000 Sept. 26: The 11th test launch of the Topol-M missile
2000 Sept. 27: The first test launch of the Topol-M missile from a mobile transporter.
2001 July: An unannounced test of the Topol-M missile, flying toward Kura impact range on a "low" trajectory reportedly with a "scramjet" upper stage.
2001 November: An unannounced launch of the Topol-M missile toward Kura impact range on a "low" trajectory reportedly with a "scramjet" upper stage.
2002 June 6: The second launch of the mobile version of the Topol-M missile from Plesetsk
2004 April 20, 21:30 Moscow Time: Topol-M test launch at full range from a mobile launcher. Unlike the majority of Topol missions, which target an impact site on the Kamchatka Peninsula, this time, the missile apparently flew its full range sending the warhead mockup in the Pacific Ocean. The RVSN statement hinted that the launch had a development rather than training nature. The official statement said that rocket was testing "new design solutions" among other goals during its flight. On May 15, 2004, Yuri Solomonov, the head of Moscow-based MIT, said that the impact of the missile's warhead was captured on film, apparently illustrating an unprecedented accuracy of the system.
2004 Dec. 24: Russia's newest intercontinental ballistic missile, Topol-M, flew an apparently successful test mission, following a blast off from a mobile launcher deployed at the nation's northern cosmodrome in Plesetsk on Dec. 24, 2004.
Russia's Minister of Defense Sergei Ivanov and Minister of Economic Development Herman Gref attended the launch. According to the Russian media, the missile successfully hit a target at the Kura impact range on the Kamchatka Peninsula. The mission was described as the final test of the system before its mass production and delivery to the armed forces begins in 2005.
2006 April 22: Russian Strategic Missile Forces, RVSN, tested a new platform for nuclear warheads, which reportedly increases the chances of the weapon to penetrate enemy missile defenses.
The K65M-R booster rocket, commonly known as Cosmos-3M launch vehicle, blasted off from the Kapustin Yar test range in the evening of April 22, 2006 and flew in the direction of the Sary Shagan antimissile test site. The rocket lifted a test version of the upper stage, designed to carry multiple warheads onboard the latest generation of the Russian strategic weapons -- the Topol-M ICBM and the Bulava submarine-based missile.
According to Russian military officials, the new upper stage is capable of maneuvering in flight, carries fake warheads designed to confuse missile defense radar, and is less detectable than its predecessors.
A well-informed Kommersant newspaper, reported that the first test of the upper stage was conducted on November 1, 2005, when the previous-generation Topol missile was launched from the mobile launcher deployed in Kapustin Yar. That launch had also fulfilled the goal of certifying old Topol missiles for the extended service. However, since only a single Topol is available for certification launches each year, the next test of the upper stage was carried onboard the K65M-R booster. Based on the Cosmos-3M space launcher, the vehicle was specifically modified for suborbital missions and as many as 300 were launched toward the Sary Shagan antimissile site.
2007 May 29, Russia tests multi-warhead version of the Topol-M missile: An intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying multiple warheads flew a test mission from Russia's northern launch site. Officially identified as RS-24, the missile closely resembling Topol-M, lifted off from mobile launcher in Plesetsk Cosmodrome on May 29, 2007, at 14:20 Moscow Time, according to ITAR-TASS.
A spokesman for Russia's strategic missile forces, RVSN, told the agency that all goals of the launch had been accomplished. The vehicle apparently targeted the Kura impact test range at the Kamchatka Peninsula.
2007 Dec. 25: A new intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying multiple warheads flew its second test mission from Plesetsk, Roskosmos announced. Apparently, referring to the RS-24 missile, which first flew in May 2007, Roskosmos, characterized its mission as a success, promising its acceptance in the armaments "in the near future."
In June 2008, the head of RVSN, Nikolai Solovtsov told reporters that two more test launches of the RS-24 missile were scheduled for 2008 from Plesetsk, after which the system would be declared operational.
2008 Nov. 26, 16:20 Moscow Time: Russia conducted a third test launch of the RS-24 missile, equipped with MIRV warheads from Plesetsk. According to the official Russian media, multiple warheads of the missile successfully reached their targets at the Kura impact range on the Kamchatka Peninsula. A representiative of the Russian strategic missile forces, RVSN was quoted by RIAN news agency as saying that RS-24 would replace RS-18 and RS-20 missiles and it would be deployed concurrently with Topol-M missile.
A modified version of the Topol-M ballistic missile lifted off from a mobile launcher deployed at Russia's northern cosmodrome in Plesetsk on Sept. 27, 2011, at 11:08 Moscow Time. The rocket failed almost immediately after the launch during the powered flight of the first stage. A search helicopter found the crash site eight kilometers from the launch pad. According to the Russian media, the accident caused no injuries or damage to property.
It took military officials almost 24 hours to confirm the fact of the accident. The launch reportedly aimed to test a multiple warhead system, which is being developed for the new-generation ballistic missile known as RS-24 Yars. Representatives of Moscow Thermal Technology Institute, MIT, reportedly oversaw the test in Plesetsk, alongside military personnel.
Russia's main intercontinental ballistic missile, ICBM, flew another test mission. According to the state-run RIA Novosti news agency, quoting Russian military officials, an RT-2PM2 Topol-M missile lifted off from an underground silo facility at Russia's northern launch site in Plesetsk on Nov. 1, 2014, at 09:20 Moscow Time. The vehicle's warhead then successfully hit its target on the Kamchatka Peninsula, officials said. According to the announcement, the goal of the launch had been to confirm technical specifications of this type of ICBMs. Such phrasing usually refers to certification of old missiles for continuous operational readiness. The particular missile which was used in the test had been previously operationally deployed at the Tatishevo missile division. It was also belived to be the 12th silo-based launch of the Topol-M ICBM and the first since the flight testing of the missile in 2000.
Read (and see) much more about Russian rocket technology and space program in a richly illustrated, large-format glossy edition:
Known technical specifications of the Topol-M (15Zh65) missile (98):
Topol-M development team (212):
Page author: Anatoly Zak;
Last update: November 17, 2018
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Artist rendering of the Topol-M missile. Copyright © 2005 Anatoly Zak
Major elements of the Topol-M missile. Click to enlarge: 162 x 400 pixels / 16K Copyright © 2005 Anatoly Zak
Silo-based launch complex for the Topol-M missile: Credit: KB Yuzhnoe
Test launch of the Topol-M missile from Plesetsk circa 1997. Credit: RVSN
Full-scale mockup of the GLL-VK hypersonic research vehicle developed at LII research institute could have connection to the development of the maneuverable scramjet-powered warhead for the Topol-M missile. Copyright © 2001 by Anatoly Zak