ICBMs, or Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, were the weapon of choice for cold war posturing between the Soviet Union and the United States. These towering missiles were designed to travel great distances and unleash devastation upon their targets of a magnitude greater than twenty-seven times that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
Today’s American ICBM arsenal consists of four hundred and fifty Minuteman III missiles, located in strategic locations across the globe. Each sixty-foot tall missile carries one of three warheads, each designed with a specific purpose; the most modern of which has a yield equal to three hundred tons of TNT.
Our stockpile of tower sized nuclear missiles might seem like a holdover from another time, a time before the fall of the Soviet Union, back when mutually assured destruction seemed to be our only avenue for prolonged peace. This sentiment was echoed by President Barrack Obama in his first term when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in large part, due to his stance on reducing America’s, and the world’s, nuclear arsenals. Obama was intent on de-emphasizing the role of nuclear weapons in America’s national security policy. That is, until recently.
Earlier this year, President Obama called for $19 billion to be devoted to the overhaul of America’s aging nuclear infrastructure. The plan, in total, is projected to cost the American taxpayers $320 billion over the span of a decade and nearly a trillion dollars over a thirty-year span.
In February of this year, the United States test fired two ICBMs from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Traveling at speeds up to 15,000 miles per hour, it took thirty minutes for one of these missiles to reach its intended test target over four thousand miles away, in the Marshall Islands of the South Pacific. These types of tests, according to Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, are intended to send a message to national rivals like Russia, China and North Korea that the United States possesses a functioning and effective nuclear arsenal.
“We and the Russians and the Chinese routinely do test shots to prove that the operational missiles that we have are reliable. And that is a signal … that we are prepared to use nuclear weapons in defense of our country if necessary,” said Work.
President Obama’s change of heart regarding ICBMs, and nuclear weapons in general, likely has a great deal to do with Russia’s continued emphasis on their own nuclear weapons program, most notably, the recently unveiling RS-28 Sarmat, or Satan II, as it has been nicknamed. In late October, a Russian missile design firm released the first images of the RS-28 with accompanying claims that the new ICBM “is capable of wiping out parts of the Earth the size of Texas or France.”
The new missile is expected to have a range of nearly seven thousand miles and was “designed to provide strategic Russian forces with a guaranteed and effective fulfillment of nuclear deterrence tasks.” The weapon is being developed in direct cooperation with the Russian military and is rumored to be equipped with a number of state of the art countermeasures for existing anti-missile defense systems in place throughout the world. In August of this year, Russia successfully tested the RS-28’s first stage engine, but the first image of the completed, hundred-ton nuclear missile was not declassified until last month.
The RS-28 Sarmat or “Satan II”
This unveiling came on the heels of an announcement made by the Russian government earlier that month that they would be withdrawing from the arms reduction agreement they had made with the United States in 2010. This agreement promised that each nation would dispose of thirty-four tons of plutonium; enough of the material to build thousands of nuclear warheads. Russia cited the U.S.’s “unfriendly actions” toward them as the inciting cause. Soon thereafter, Washington announced that the U.S. would be “suspending its participation in bilateral channels with Russia,” regarding continued tensions in Syria.
These developments have been in the making for some time, but the recent deployment of hundreds of NATO troops to bolster the organization’s presence along the Russian border as well as ongoing conflict in Syria and the Russian annexation of portions of the Ukraine in 2014, makes the announcement of this new missile, the Satan II, just a bit more unsettling. Despite public claims by both NATO officials and Vladimir Putin himself that neither party wants to enter into a “new cold war,” it would seem this new cold war may have already begun.
Image courtesy of Wired and the Makeyev Rocket Design Bureau