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Strategic missiles of the Cold War


Written by Sakhal

This history begins with the German missile A4, better known as V-2 and which was widely used during the last months of the Second World War. Despite being a primitive design, it was not very unworthy of subsequent missiles. Regardless of the imperfections of its design, it is ironic that its effect in military history was not to win a war for the country which designed it, but to allow its enemies to build similar weapons after their victory in 1945.

One of the first of these postwar weapons was the Redstone. Like the A4, it was a single-phase missile, fitted with a fixed propulsion chamber and graphite control fins in the exhaust nozzle. It was not only larger than the primitive German model, but had better prestations as well. Its designers were basically the same who created the A4 and they were led by Werner von Braun, whose work for the United States Army produced later a truly significant model: the Jupiter, which was not only the first mid-range ballistic missile (with a range of almost 3000 kilometers), but was also designed for allowing a mobile deployment. After the Jupiter was transferred from the Army to the Air Force, this one shown no interest for the former equipment of the Army and instead developed its own intercontinental and mid-range ballistic missiles, to be installed in fixed land emplacements.

While the North American, between 1947 and 1954, ignored the intercontinental ballistic missiles to build instead missiles fitted with wings and cruise engines, the Soviet put themselves ahead. They tried to build an intercontinental ballistic missile and realized that they could do it. But despite the important help of a few Germans who had been working in the A4 and the experience acquired with the mid-range missiles SS-4 and SS-5, the result was a monstrosity which was much more useful as a space launcher than as a weapon. And in fact it was this missile - the SS-6 - which started the Space Age the 4th October 1957, when it launched to the space the first artificial satellite, the Sputnik. It also contributed to reaffirm the Soviet belief that a temporary military advantage is the merit of unlimited expenses. The SS-6 was propelled by 32 rocket engines, all of which were simultaneously ignited on launching. All the models that will be shown ahead in this article will have at least 29 propelling rockets less.

The Thor, developed by aircraft manufacturer Douglas faster than any other large weapon system, had only one engine and would have been an excellent system if it had not been tied to fixed land emplacements, which occupied many of the old airfields of the Royal Air Force where they were installed. The Atlas, the first non-Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile, was built as a thin stainless steel globe, inflated by gas pressure and initially installed in ground facilities which were highly vulnerable. Its warhead was a thermonuclear bomb of considerable size, protected by a heavy copper cover which gave the top of the missile the shape of a Chinese hat. This missile was in operation during several years. The last Atlas were placed underground, at an immense cost, and they carried much more compact explosive charges inside a thin and sharp atmosphere-reentry vehicle, which increased their precision, their payload, the range and the impact speed after their long flight.

In this moment a new concept appeared, that of "global deterrence", represented by nuclear weapons which required just "to press a button" to unleash havoc in distant countries. But in their deployment in fixed emplacements lied their strategic vulnerability. Little was known about the facilities of the Soviet counterpart weapons which were contemporary of the Atlas, such as the SS-7, but their size was an unequivocal indication of the Soviet phylosophy, which did not want to leave to United States the exclusivity of strategic global deterrence. Immediately later the ballistic missiles launched from nuclear submarines, such as the Sark and the Polaris, made apparition; this concept quickly matured in both superpowers and determined that even from the depths of the oceans the cities could be threatened. Contrarily to what many experts have stated, these missiles are still harder to destroy than the intercontinental ballistic missiles installed in terrestrial underground armored silos.

United Kingdom successfully finished the development of the Blue Streak, but then preferred to cancel and replace it. France, for its part, was keeping a modest family of mid-range ballistic missiles and ballistic missiles launched from nuclear submarines. Meanwhile, the scene continued being dominated by the power of the Soviet Union, which did not stop building increasingly large, powerful and precise intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The Minuteman, the only western missile - apart from 54 outdated Titan II - which could reach the Soviet Union from United States, could have been deployed in trains accross the country, but instead it was turned into the most immobile object on Earth, installed in silos increasingly vulnerable to the new generations of land-based Soviet missiles, especially the SS-18. This monstrous intercontinental ballistic missile was not so dangerous because the power of its warhead was the strongest, but because it was a missile of extreme precision. Many of its long-range launchings were controlled by the North Americans, who confirmed that estimation. The fact that in a time of missiles with multiple nuclear warheads the SS-18 carried a single and very powerful one confirmed that its target were the armored silos of the Minuteman.

As an answer, the Unites States Air Force tried to deploy a new intercontinental ballistic missile. This was the MX, whose budget was approved in November 1982 by President Reagan. The deployment of the new missile - which would be subsequently renamed as Peacekeeper - would not start until the second half of the decade. In the early 1980s, the strategic global deterrence was already a terribly vulnerable concept, due to the extremely high - and apparently unexpected - destructive capacity of the last Soviet missiles. These formidable weapons introduced many new improvements, at the lead of which was the denominated "cold launching", which means that the ignition of the first phase of the rocket of the missile happens above the surface. This would allow to use a same silo several times. The contrast between the Unites States - where the new intercontinental ballistic missiles had existed only on the papers since 1963 - and the growing leadership of the Soviet Union, whid had not stopped their program of deployment of new missiles, turned the situation in the 1980s in something far from balance and equanimity.

A very expensive weapon

This is an issue which is measured not only in terms of quantity, but above all in parameters of quality. The most important is not that a country has a higher or lesser number of nuclear warheads, but the capability of those warheads to reach with precision the enemy intercontinental ballistic missiles and destroy them. The terms in which the policies of development and manufacture of nuclear weapons were posed were often terrifying because of this. The discussions on the Soviet command were not known, due to restrictions to freedom of information in the Communist dictatorships, but they should not be very different to those taking place in United States and other western countries. United States was discussing, since time ago, not so much the number of missiles as the convenience of an effective deployment to guarantee that they would not be destroyed by an eventual Soviet surprise attack. The problem was that those deployments would be expensive.

During the presidential term of Carter (1977-81) it was thought to install the new MX missiles in vehicles which would circulate on rails on underground areas with multitude of emplacements, which would prevent the Soviet from knowing their exact location. The high cost of that option led President Reagan to decide to install the missiles in armored silos, hoping that in the event of a Soviet attack at least half of the hundred which were expected to be deployed survived and thus were in condition to retaliate against the Soviet Union. Those same reasons led both the Soviet and the North American, in the early 1970s, to prohibit the deployment of anti-ballistic missiles (the only feasible mean to stop an intercontinental ballistic missile is to launch another similar artifact to intercept it and cause its explosion before reaching the ground). Only those which were already deployed around Moscow were kept. This allowed to avoid a missile-against-missile arms race similar to the cannon-against-armor one, whose cost would have been extremely high.

strategic_missiles_01.jpg


Missile Warhead Weight (kilograms) Explosive Charge (megatons) Range (kilometers) Circular Error Probable (meters) Single-Shot Kill Probability (percentage) Production (number and dates)
A4 975 kg 0,000001 mt 300 km 8000 m 0 % 6000, 1944-45
Redstone 1500 kg 0,04 mt 400 km 1000 m 0 % 1000, 1958-63
SS-4 1270 kg 1 mt 1800 km 1000 m 0 % 500, 1959
SS-5 3000 kg 1 mt 3700 km 2000 m 0 % 100, 1962


Circular Error Probable refers to the radius of the circle in which, statistically, half of the missiles fall.

Single-Shot Kill Probability refers to the possibility of destroying, with a single impact, an armored target capable of withstanding an overpressure of 70 kilograms per square centimeter.

Provided data is just approximate.




strategic_missiles_02.jpg


Missile Warhead Weight (kilograms) Explosive Charge (megatons) Range (kilometers) Circular Error Probable (meters) Single-Shot Kill Probability (percentage) Production (number and dates)
SS-6 6800 kg 5 mt 8000 km 2000 m 8 % A few, 1957
Thor 1800 kg 3 mt 3180 km 2000 m 4 % 60, 1959-65
Atlas D 1800 kg 3 mt 10100 km 2000 m 4 % 30 (and 32 E), 1960-65
Atlas F 1800 kg 4 mt 14500 km 2000 m 6 % 80, 1962-65


Circular Error Probable refers to the radius of the circle in which, statistically, half of the missiles fall.

Single-Shot Kill Probability refers to the possibility of destroying, with a single impact, an armored target capable of withstanding an overpressure of 70 kilograms per square centimeter.

Provided data is just approximate.




strategic_missiles_03.jpg


Missile Warhead Weight (kilograms) Explosive Charge (megatons) Range (kilometers) Circular Error Probable (meters) Single-Shot Kill Probability (percentage) Production (number and dates)
SS-7 3630 kg 8 mt 11000 km 2500 m 9 % A few, 1957
SS-N-4 680 kg 1 mt 600 km 5000 m 0 % 114, 1959-69
SS-8 1360 kg 5 mt 10000 km 2500 m 5 % A few, 1963
Polaris A-1 635 kg 0.5 mt 2221 km 2000 m 0 % 80, 1960-62
Blue Streak 1800 kg 2 mt 4635 km 2000 m 0.2 % Cancelled
SS-16 900 kg 1 mt 9650 km 500 m 30 % Many, 1976-
SS-17, mod 1 1000 kg 4 x 02 mt 10500 km 550 m 22 % Up to 70, 1975-


Circular Error Probable refers to the radius of the circle in which, statistically, half of the missiles fall.

Single-Shot Kill Probability refers to the possibility of destroying, with a single impact, an armored target capable of withstanding an overpressure of 70 kilograms per square centimeter.

Provided data is just approximate.




strategic_missiles_04.jpg


Missile Warhead Weight (kilograms) Explosive Charge (megatons) Range (kilometers) Circular Error Probable (meters) Single-Shot Kill Probability (percentage) Production (number and dates)
Titan I 1800 kg 4 mt 12000 km 2000 m 6 % 62, 1962-65
Titan II 3400 kg 10 mt 15000 km 1500 m 25 % 54, 1963
SS-9, mod 1 and 2 5450 kg 25 mt 12000 km 1300 m 40 % 238 of every model, 1965-
SS-9, mod 4 5450 kg 3 x 5 mt 12000 km 650 m 58 % 238 of every model, 1965-
Trident D-4 1135 kg 8 x 0.1 mt 7000 km 800 m 0.1 % 10, in 1981
SS-N-8 1800 kg N/A 9200 km 400 m High Up to 200
SS-18, mod 1 6800 kg 25 mt 12000 km 550 m 98 % Up to 150 of every model, 1974-
SS-18, mod 2 6800 kg 10 x 2 mt 9250 km 300 m 65 % Up to 150 of every model, 1974-
SS-19 3175 kg 6 x 0.34 mt 13000 km 350 m 25 % Up to 240, 1974-


Circular Error Probable refers to the radius of the circle in which, statistically, half of the missiles fall.

Single-Shot Kill Probability refers to the possibility of destroying, with a single impact, an armored target capable of withstanding an overpressure of 70 kilograms per square centimeter.

Provided data is just approximate.




strategic_missiles_05.jpg


Missile Warhead Weight (kilograms) Explosive Charge (megatons) Range (kilometers) Circular Error Probable (meters) Single-Shot Kill Probability (percentage) Production (number and dates)
Minuteman I 635 kg 1 mt 12000 km 1000 m 15 % 800, 1962-69
SS-11, mod 1 and 2 680 kg 2 mt 10500 km 900 m 24 % 1018, 1968-
SS-13 545 kg 1 mt 8000 km N/A N/A A few, 1968-
Minuteman III 680 kg 3 x 0.17 mt 13000 km 370 m 24 % 550, 1970-
Poseidon 680 kg 10 x 0.05 mt 4600 km 800 m Low 496, 1971-
SS-N-6 900 kg 2 mt 3000 km 800 m 30 % 544, 1967-
SSBS S2 680 kg 0,15 mt 2750 km 1000 m 0.1 % 18, 1971-
MSBS M20 680 kg 1 mt 3000 km 1000 m 12 % 16, 1976 (and 48 of the first model, 1971-)


Circular Error Probable refers to the radius of the circle in which, statistically, half of the missiles fall.

Single-Shot Kill Probability refers to the possibility of destroying, with a single impact, an armored target capable of withstanding an overpressure of 70 kilograms per square centimeter.

Provided data is just approximate.




Categories: Missiles - Cold War - 20th Century - [General] - [General]

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Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2015-01-04

Article updated: 2020-08-17


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