Fri, 18 Aug 2000

Russia bares all in new book about nuclear weapons

By Bradley Perrett

LONDON (Reuters): Just 10 or 15 years ago, Western strategic analysts would pore over grainy satellite photographs, guessing dimensions and counting exhaust nozzles, to estimate roughly how a Soviet nuclear missile would perform.

Today they can just order a book on the Internet.

The Russian military has backed the publication of an astonishingly frank book detailing the specifications of its doomsday weapons -- ballistic missiles, bombs, bombers and submarines.

And a lot of them, it seems, are rather more powerful than has been thought.

One example: The 1988-1989 edition of Jane's Weapon Systems, the bible of missilery, gave the standard estimate of an 11,000 kilometers (6,800 mile) range with multiple warheads for a terrifying Soviet missile that NATO code-named SS-18 Satan.

The Western analysts who assembled those estimates -- similar to current figures -- would be mortified to discover that a multiple-warhead version of the SS-18 can actually reach 15,000 km (9,300 miles).

It can hit a lot more cities than they thought, according to the newly published Strategic Nuclear Forces.

Oh, and by the way, the Soviet designation for that variant is RS-20B, author Nikolai Spassky tells us, helpfully offering a cutaway diagram of another version to reveal the innards of a weapon that has captivated Western strategic planners.

"We can say with confidence that this encyclopedia will be of interest to specialists who work in the field of development and production of defense hardware..." Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev writes in a foreword, with some understatement.

Indeed, U.S. distributor Tommax Inc says the Pentagon and U.S. nuclear-weapons laboratories have been the book's keenest buyers.

"This is the first time Russians have published about their own military equipment," Spassky told Reuters. "There are books about Russian equipment, but not written by us."

That makes a difference, because only the Russians really know how these strategic weapons perform.

Russian tactical weapons, such as fighters and tanks, have been sold to many other countries, and their exact details are widely known. Since the thaw of the Cold War, the Russian manufacturers have been happy to publish the figures.

But strategic weapons -- designed to hit targets deep behind the front line -- are not generally operated by other countries.

Moreover, since this equipment embodies Russia's nuclear security, Moscow has always had a strong reason to keep the figures to itself.

The West has relied mostly on estimates about Russian strategic weapons, with some of the guesses supplied to Jane's and other publishers, which mix in their own judgments to produce the best publicly available assessments.

Russia has divulged some figures in arms limitations talks. The West discovered in the early 1990s, for example, that the RS- 22 (or SS-24) ballistic missile was bigger than it thought.

But Spassky has revealed perhaps the most sought-after secret of all for the RS-22: after an intercontinental trip from Russia to, say, the U.S. mid-west, its warhead will come down no more than 500 meters from its target.

The accuracy of any nuclear missile is a crucial statistic, since it determines whether the weapon can land reliably close enough to bust open structures designed to resist it -- such as bunkers or underground silos housing other missiles.

"There are no photographs available of AS-15..." the current Jane's directory, Jane's Strategic Weapon Systems, notes in its entry for the missile that the Russians call Kh-55.

But in Strategic Nuclear Forces we find five very clear photographs, plus two apparently precise line drawings, which show the design of this bomber-launched cruise missile to be rather different to what the West has estimated.

Spassky confirms the Western belief that the missile comes in two versions, but one turns out to be rather lighter and more efficient than Western analysts have assumed. And its range and nuclear charge are both greater than the figures in Jane's.

But some Russian weapons are perhaps less effective than thought, the book reveals.

Jane's credits the Kh-15 bomber-launched missile (called AS-16 by NATO) with a range of 150 km. Spassky says it will go 60 to 150 km, presumably depending on how fast and high the bomber is flying when it launches the weapon.

Since he also specifies high launch speeds of 1,080 to 2,160 km per hour (670 to 1,340 miles per hour), it seems that the weapon can achieve the Western-estimated performance only with a lot of help from the bomber.

Strategic Nuclear Forces, published by Russian-based Arms and Technologies with text in English and Russian, is available on the Internet at