The government of Vladimir Putin announced this Friday (1) the commissioning of the world’s most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile armed with nuclear warheads, the RS28 Sarmat, informally called Satan2 in the West. According to Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, the first weapons regiment has been activated, but no information was given on how many silos are equipped. According to Russian military analysts, they must be in the Krasnoyarsk Territory of Siberia.
Such opacity is normal when it comes to nuclear weapons in all states that have such a capability Russia, USA, China, France, UK, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel. But it also serves propaganda purposes given the unprecedented tensions between Moscow and the West due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has already been going on for a year and a half, with no military or diplomatic solution expected in the near future.
In fact, respected nuclear weapons experts such as Hans Kristensen (FAS) are skeptical about whether Russia is capable of putting significant quantities of the missile into operation if at all.
He cites the fact that the second known Sarmat test, conducted in February this year, appeared unable to separate the second of its three phases. Russia has not commented on the incident and so far has only published the first test of the missile in April 2022, which was successful.
The Sarmat, a tribute to the Sarmatians, a warrior people who lived from the 3rd century B.C. Dominating the steppes of southern Russia and Ukraine from the 4th century BC to the 4th century AD, is one of the six “invincible weapons” announced by Putin in 2018 of which hypersonic missiles in Kinjal and Tsirkon are already operational, in addition to that of ballistic missiles carried hypersonic glider Avangard. The “Doomsday Torpedo” and a nuclearpowered cruise missile are still in development.
The program was viewed with suspicion in the West because of its apparent warmongering and menacing nature. However, the fact is that the Kinjal is occasionally used in the Ukrainian War, where it has apparently already been intercepted, and the Tsirkon is in service on a Russian frigate and the Avangard, with at least one active regiment.
The new rocket is the most advanced and powerful in the world. It is a giant: it is 35.5 m long and 3 m in diameter and can carry 10 to 14 independent nuclear warheads weighing between 350 kilotons and 800 kilotons (each 23 to 53 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb), and meanwhile there are several estimated up to 16 weaponcapable hypersonic gliders.
This data was provided by the government at the annual Moscow Military Fair in 2019, but is apparently not independently verified. According to Russian military analysts, there are two other configurations of the missile for the use of a single warhead with an explosive power of up to 20 megatons (1,300 Hiroshima bombs), but there is no confirmation of this.
Sounds suspicious. The use of such powerful weapons, a Cold War trend to instill fear in opponents, has reversed over the years in favor of more versatile and economical options. But there is nothing on the market with this capacity yet: The Chinese DF5 family is even slightly larger, but is a model from the 1970s.
Sarmat’s range, which is also unfathomable until utilized, gives opponents a more concrete cause for concern. With a announced range of up to 18,000 km, it could reach destinations in virtually any area on earth.
For comparison, the US’s only landbased intercontinental ballistic missile, the Minuteman3, is 18.3 m long, 1.7 m in diameter and has a maximum range of 13,000 km. It carries a maximum of three warheads of 350 kilotons each at the moment you have to respect that. Within the limits of the last strategic arms containment treaty suspended by Russia since the beginning of the year, they only carry one bomb.
The New Start Treaty’s current limit of 1,600 strategic warheads for each country was maintained by Moscow despite the suspension. Because analysts assume that there are real difficulties in expanding the Russian arsenal. The Sarmat is intended to replace the current RS36M in the future, known in the West as the SS18 Satã hence the name Satã2 for the new weapon. Satan is Russia’s main silo missile, but the range of these weapons in the country is more diverse than in the United States or other nuclear powers.
While Washington only uses the Minuteman on the ground and the Trident2 on submarines to remain among its main strategic weapons, Moscow has its 13th operational model in the Sarmat, although many are now obsolete, a legacy of the Soviet Union. But the Russians are using something the U.S. doesn’t have: mobile launchers to exploit the vast distances of the world’s largest country, making it difficult for rivals to detect.
In addition, both countries have cruise missiles and bombs that can carry tactical warheads, are lowerpowered, and are theoretically more limited to military targets. The US has an ongoing missile modernization program and is expected to launch a Minuteman next week. The debate over whether Putin would use such a weapon in Ukraine comes up from time to time, but for now it seems more of a propaganda resource, given the natural risks of escalation with neighbors in the western NATO alliance. The Russian, in turn, pulls out the nuclear card from his sleeve whenever he can to remind himself of the risks his country faces.
Russia currently operates the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, closely followed by the United States. According to the FAS source, the powers together have about 90% of the 12,500 warheads on the planet, including operational, in reserve or retired weapons. (IGOR GIELOW/Folhapress)