On November 2, a rather staid little story appeared on a ticker powered by Itar-Tass, a Russian News Agency. The tone was decidedly Russian—matter-of-fact and shorn of all hyperbole. It reported the test launch of a ballistic missile called the Topol RS 12 at 8:10 pm Moscow time. After taking off from the Kapustny Yar test range in the Astrakhan region, it hit the intended target at Balkhash in Kazakhstan at 8:34—24 minutes later.
“The target was precisely hit,” said the report, quoting a top-ranking official from the Russian armed forces.
In conclusion, Itar-Tass added some jargon that sounded like regulation copy to most people tracking defense.
“The advanced Topol missile…has three cruise engines and can develop hypersonic speed. The high thrust-to-weight ratio allows the warhead to maneuver on the trajectory and pass through a dense air defense system.”
At that time, not many defense analysts thought much of the report. After all, Kapustny Yar, located on the banks of the Volga River, 75 miles east of Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad), had gone to the dogs and was infrequently used. Whenever the base was lucky to see some action, all it witnessed was small payloads.
But what the mainstream media missed was analyzed in great detail on Internet discussion boards. For starters, something about the time mentioned in the report sounded astounding. For anything to travel from Kapustny to Balkash in 24 minutes, it had to fly at a speed of three miles a second. That’s 180 miles a minute or 10,800 miles an hour. If the reports were indeed true, the Topol RS 12 or the Topol SS 27, as it is known in military circles around the world, had to be the fastest thing man has ever seen. And if you will for a moment excuse the breathlessness, it also represented the pinnacle of modern missile technology. Until this test, the fastest thing known to man was the X43 A. A hypersonic, unmanned plane built by NASA. It flew at 10 times the speed of sound—almost 7,200 miles per hour.
But the Topol isn’t attracting attention for its speed alone. It has got more to do with the sheer viciousness it demonstrates. A conventional intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), once deployed, takes off on the back of a booster. After attaining a certain altitude, it follows a set flight path or trajectory. When it reaches the intended target, it lets loose a set of warheads that home in on the target with devastating accuracy. Given these dynamics, military establishments build defense systems that can intercept an ICBM before it strikes. Very often, the defense works.
With the Topol, these dynamics simply don’t come into play. To start with, the damn thing can be maneuvered mid-flight. This makes it practically impossible for any radar system in the world to figure out what trajectory it will follow. The other thing is the kind of evasion technology built into the missile. That makes it invulnerable to any kind of radiation and electromagnetic and physical interference.
Then there is the question of ground-based nuclear warheads traditionally deployed to stop ICBMs in their path. Until now, any ICBM can be taken down by detonating a nuclear warhead from as far as 10 kilometers. The Topol doesn’t blink an eyelid until the time a nuclear warhead gets as close as 500 meters. But given the Topol’s remarkable speed and maneuverability, getting a warhead that close is practically impossible.
That leaves defense establishments with only two options. Target the missile at its most vulnerable points—either when it is on the ground or when it is just being deployed (also known as the boost phase). Apparently, the Russians have gotten around that problem too. Unlike virtually every ICBM that exists on some military base or the other, the Topol doesn’t have to be on a static base. All it needs is the back of a truck. And trucks can be driven anywhere, anytime. That makes it practically impossible for any country to monitor how many of these missiles have been deployed and where.
Writes Scott Ritter, a former intelligence officer and weapons inspector in the Soviet Union and Iraq in the Christian Science Monitor, “The Bush administration’s dream of a viable NMD has been rendered fantasy by the Russian test of the SS-27 Topol-M…. To counter the SS-27 threat, the US will need to start from scratch.”
But when you’re done marveling at the technology, sit back for a moment and consider this. You thought the cold war was over. You thought wrong. Cold War II has just begun. And the world just became a more dangerous place.
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