In the late 1960s, the Soviet Union jumped ahead of the United States’ first strike capability in a big way. The latest version of the R-36 intercontinental ballistic missile (called SS-18 by NATO) could hit anywhere in the U.S. with at least 10 18-25 megaton nuclear warheads.
The new missile could destroy the Americans’ LGM-30 Minuteman III missiles before they ever left their silos. As time went on, more advanced designs only increased its nuclear payload. Eventually, it carried more power than anything in the U.S. arsenal. From the moment its existence was uncovered, NATO forces nicknamed the weapon the “Satan” missile.
The R-36 is a family of missiles. The original, designated SS-9 by NATO, was the USSR’s second intercontinental ballistic missile. Its 1966 design allowed it to be shot into space and stay in orbit around the Earth for an indefinite period of time. This development led to Article IV of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits nuclear missiles and other weapons of mass destruction from remaining in Earth’s orbit.
Although the Outer Space Treaty’s stipulations calmed some of the panic around the R-36 missile, the USSR’s second version of the weapon wasn’t going to make anyone feel better for long. The first model featured only one 20-megaton warhead. The second version, the R-36M, featured multiple reentry vehicles (the actual nuclear warheads), which could hit more than one target with one missile launch.
By the mid-1970s, Multiple Independently-targetable Reentry Vehicles, or MIRV, became the standard for ICBMs. MIRV systems could not only hit multiple targets, but required the defender to fire three to 10 defensive missiles in response. On top of overwhelming missile defenses, it provided greater first strike firepower.
This was the age of mutually assured destruction, the military doctrine that both sides of a nuclear war would be destroyed in a nuclear exchange. If a nuclear war broke out, both sides would fire all their missiles. MIRV technology allowed for more targets and increased the odds of a first strike effectively wiping out the other side before it could retaliate.
The United States first developed MIRV-based missiles with the three-warhead Minuteman III in 1968, but the SS-18 “Satan” could carry eight to 10 more powerful warheads, with the explosive power to destroy American missiles inside protected silos. When the “Satan” system became fully operational in 1975, the U.S. worried it would no longer survive a Soviet first strike and began working on missiles with more and more warheads.
Inside the USSR, Soviet engineers and scientists kept making modifications for future iterations of the “Satan” ICBM. By the time the Soviet Union fell, it had gone through six different versions, each more powerful than the last. The sixth version of the SS-18 missile would be the most powerful nuclear weapon ever fielded by the Soviet Union.
By the time the USSR fell in 1991, Soviet-built SS-18 missiles could strike anywhere in the world.
It wasn’t until the development of ballistic missile submarines that the United States could reasonably guarantee it would be able to retaliate in the event of a Soviet first strike. This third part of the nuclear triad — the others are land-based ICBMs and nuclear-equipped bomber aircraft — continues today. American ballistic missile submarines can carry up to 24 Trident II missiles, each with 14 reentry vehicles.
Land-based MIRV missiles like the Satan missile were banned by the 1993 United States-Russia START II agreement, but Russia withdrew from that accord in 2002 after President George W. Bush’s administration withdrew the U.S. from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which limited the number of defensive missiles each country could maintain.
As of March 2022, Russia still fields 46 SS-18 missiles, each with 10 warheads, on top of its other deployed ICBMs, an estimated 320 in all, according to the Arms Control Association. While it plans to dismantle its Satan missile stockpile under the terms of the 2012 New START agreement, it is still building new ICBM technology.
Russia’s newest weapon is the RS-28 Sarmat “Satan-2” missile, with 10 heavy reentry vehicles, each with enough payload to wipe out an area the size of Texas or France. It also features hypersonic glide vehicles to make it less detectable by U.S. or space-based sensor systems and could be immune to American missile defense systems.
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