The first official image of the new Russian intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) RS-28 Sarmat – NATO codename Satan 2 – caused a huge media response. With its figures it already hits before being launched. But why does Russia need it?
The characteristics of the new ICBM, reported by delighted Russian media, are typical of military bombast of the old Soviet tradition. Size, power, range, speed, everything is overwhelming. A muscular demonstration, which is summarized in its destructive power: up to 40 megatons, something like 2,600 Hiroshima bombs all in one. Enough to wipe out the face of the earth a big European country. In reality, however, this is not what should worry. Because the RS-28’s predecessor, the R36M Satan that it will replace, already can carry nuclear warheads up to 20 megatons. In other words, Putin is already capable of turning France or Texas to ashes, as many newspapers wrote. The strength of Satan 2, instead, is in its ability to bypass US defenses.
The political sense of the new ICBM can be summarized by the description given by Sputnik news, the armed wing of the Russian propaganda. “The Sarmat missile is Russia’s answer to the threat of missile defense systems designed to undermine the global strategic balance“. Although it is difficult not to smile in front of the oxymoron of a “threat” represented by a “defense system”, the issue is serious. Translated from the logical contortion of Sputnik editors, the reference is to the US missile defense systems, such as the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GDM) and the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System (ABMD), already in operation in Romania and soon in Poland. Sputnik continues by stating that “Sarmat is expected to serve as an effective response to US missile defense deployments near Russia’s borders”. These systems, based on the use of powerful radars and interceptor missiles, can already prevent a nuclear attack with the current Satan R36M, hitting them at different stages of the flight. The new Sarmat will pierce “any missile defense system, present and future”, because it will fly between 7 and 12 times the speed of sound, like a hypersonic missile; it will change its trajectory after launch, it will reach the United States even flying over the South Pole and, before the impact, it will deliver from 10 to 15 independently targetable warheads on the target. It’s impossible to catch it.
The Sarmat is intended for deterrence, then. As the general former head of the Strategic Missile Forces, Viktor Esin, told Izvestia newspaper, “We will never be the first to launch a nuclear strike. The Sarmat is not intended for such a use, it is a weapon of retaliation. We can launch them in response to an attack, while the enemy missiles are still in flight. The enemy knows this, which is why Sarmat guarantees our security like other defense systems”. It is intended, in short, according to Russians, to restore a nuclear balance after the American anti-missile shield had granted the US a superiority which, paradoxically, would make the use of nukes easier. The superiority that was possibly behind the American decision to withdraw from the ABM treaty in 2001.
But there’s still a treaty involving ICBMs. Under the START-3 treaty, both USA and Russia will have only 700 missiles for up to 1,550 warheads each by 2018. Moscow, which now has 526 rockets and 1648warheads, has to get rid of 154Satan missiles, that will not be replaced by the same number of Sarmat, given the higher number of warheads it can carry. Provided that, however, the START-3 will survive the deterioration of relations between Moscow and Washington.