Banned under the previous STARTII treaty, but not excluded in 2011's New START treaty, Russia is pulling from its Soviet strategic playbook and reviving the intercontinental ballistic missile toting, hiding in plain sight, 'Nuke Train' concept.
Sounding more like a set-piece from a James Bond movie, this new and improved Nuke Train will be carrying even more terrifying cargo than its Soviet predecessors. The Combat Railway Missile Complex (as the Russians call it) is somewhat akin to a ground-based nuclear ballistic missile submarine, although it is much less expensive to operate. Its constantly moving nature and 'hiding in plain sight' camouflage represents a survivable, hard to target, land-based nuclear second strike deterrent. The idea is that a portion of the Combat Railway Missile Complex fleet will roam the countryside at any given time, operating among similar looking passenger and cargo trains, thus making continuous satellite tracking by Western powers extremely difficult.
This new railway based missile platform is said to be named 'Barguzin' after the strong eastern wind that blows off Lake Baikal. Russian news site RT reports that like its 12 Soviet-era Nuke Train predecessors, which were removed from service in 1993, Barguzin will also have its cars disguised as standard commercial refrigeration cars, although they will not need heavy steel reinforced wheels like past units. This is due to the fact that the new RS-24 'Yars' ICBM these trains will carry weighs half the weight of the RT-23 'Molodets' ICBM carried on Soviet-era Nuke Trains. Without the tell-tale reinforced running gear, the fact that these ICBM toting train cars will look exactly like normal refrigeration cars will make them nearly impossible to track, even by informants on the ground.
Each of these new Railway Missile Complexes will hold six RS-24s, which are each capable of carrying four Multiple Independently Targeted Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs). This means that each train, of which five are currently planned, could hold 24 thermonuclear warheads, each able to take out a town of its own. That is a lot of apocalyptic firepower roving around the countryside on train tracks.
The RS-24 in particular is not Russia's most powerful ICBM, even the RT-23 'Molodets' that it replaces in the Nuke Train ICBM role carried over double the MIRVs, each with larger explosive yield options. Yet, for what the RS-24 lacks in punch it makes up for in accuracy and survivability. It speeds to its target at over mach 20, making it one of the fastest ICBMs in the world, this means that quicker reaction times are required when dealing with an RS-24 launch. In the end this equates into less enemy assets being dispersed once the RS-24's warheads hit their targets and less time for the enemy, in this case the US, to deploy its ballistic missile defenses.
The RS-24 also has a shorter infrared launch 'footprint,' making it harder to detect and track by space-based infrared early-warning satellites. The Yars also possess Russia's most advanced decoy systems aimed at fooling America's anti-ballistic missile systems and is rumored to be equipped with a highly-maneuverable post-boost vehicle. The RS-24's MIRVs are said to have a circular error probability of just 150 feet after flying some 7,500 miles to their target, making it very accurate ICBM, especially by Russian standards.
Russia's renewed interest in Nuke Trains is said to be a response to America's Conventional Prompt Global Strike project, which looks towards a cocktail of hypersonic air-breathing missiles and aircraft as well as possibly ballistic missiles, and even space-based weaponry, to hit a target within an hour, anywhere on globe. This new requirement, which has produced nothing operational in the 'white world' as of yet, has been deemed a threat to road-mobile transporter-erector-launcher based ICBMs, which have to expose themselves for launch. A Nuke Train masquerading perfectly as a commercial train would be much harder to detect and can literally hide in plain sight, only transforming moments before launch.
Nuke Trains and Russia's reinvigorated focus on developing its nuclear arsenal is just another sign of how chilly the relationship between Russia and the West has become. These capabilities take a lot of money to develop and to sustain and along with Russia's recent investments in long-range aviation, its nuclear submarine force and ground-based nuclear forces, it is a very strong sign that Russia sees there may actually be a need for such a deterrent in the first place.
Seeing as Russia's economy is in free-fall and President Putin's image as the strongman that will lead Russia into a prosperous future is beginning to come under increased doubt, it will be interesting to see if these expensive doomsday weapons investments continue at their current pace. If they do, it will be yet another sign that we are heading toward something like the Cold War of decades ago.
After seeing the Kremlin's absurd denials during the Crimea invasion and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, even a manufactured Cold War-like crisis may be yet another tactic in Putin's playbook aimed at maintaining strong nationalist sentiment and popular support for his fiscally failing policies.
Photos via Wiki-commons, bottom shot via AP.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who edits the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com