Some of the largest vehicles ever put into military operation were developed by the Soviet Union during the latter years of the Cold War; the descendants of which remain in service with the modern Russian Army. These highly specialised vehicles were developed for a specific strategic purpose, at immense expense in terms of engineering development and project cost. They were developed to transport and launch the Soviet Union’s ultimate nuclear deterrent -intercontinental rockets armed with multiple nuclear warheads, later generations of which had a strike capability of hitting targets in the US or China from pre-prepared launch sites in the forests of the Soviet Union.
The first Soviet nuclear weapons were aircraft carried bombs, developed from the end of the 1940s, and airlifted by conventional bombers such as the Tupolev Tu-4, the Soviet equivalent of the Unites States B-29 ‘Superfortress’. For a few years land-based long-range tracked artillery was considered an option for nuclear delivery, with tracked self-propelled artillery behemoths such as the 2B1 and 2A3. Rocket technology was the future however, and in the late 1950s the Soviet Union introduced its first generation of land based, strategic rockets, the R-5M, R-7 and R-12, which were launched from unprotected static launch pads. These systems were all developed on the basis of German rocket technology captured at the end of the Second World War, not least the German V-2 rocket, which was further developed in the Soviet Union as the ‘FAU-2’, which formed the basis of most Soviet post-war rocket development. These first generation strategic rockets were technically ‘mobile’ in that they could be moved from prepared launch pad to launch pad, but the process required tens of tracked and wheeled tow vehicles and trailers, cranes and other supporting vehicles for pad assembly, fuelling and launch preparation. In consequence, redeployment was slow and highly vulnerable to strategic retaliation in a hot-war scenario.
At the same time as these first generation land-based strategic rockets were being deployed, the Soviet Union also began to deploy its first generation of mobile Operational-Tactical Rockets (OTRs), or battlefield rockets, intended for local deployment of conventional, chemical or nuclear warheads. The first such mobile rocket to be deployed was the R-11M — a descendant of the German V2 — which was deployed as the 8K11 rocket system, mounted on the tracked obiekt-803 / 9P19 Transporter-Erector-Launcher (TEL) vehicle, and later designated ‘Scud-A’ by the West.
Meantime, from September 1959 the Soviet Union began tests on its first silo-launched strategic missile systems. These rockets, mounted in reinforced concrete silos with heavy overhead steel doors, offered an element of protection against first-strike or retaliation, but it had been clear from the outset that mobile launch systems would be required to better ensure survivability of strategic rocket systems in a nuclear war. Rail mounted systems were considered, and would later be introduced, but the Soviet Union instead concentrated on the development of land-based, vehicle mounted systems capable of rapid deployment over significant distances to complement its airborne and naval based nuclear deterrents.
The main technical obstacle in the development of fully mobile launch systems was the fuel systems used by these rockets, as the liquid fuel used in early rocket systems was inherently unstable and could not be stored within the rocket for long periods of time, and the pre-launch fuelling of liquid propellant was a cumbersome and time-consuming process. At the beginning of the 1950s the Soviet Union began work on the second generation of ‘OS’ (Otdelniy Start -independent launch) rockets, as a result of which, in 1967-68 the liquid fuelled R-36 and UR-100 rockets were taken into service, together with the solid fuel propulsion RT-2 ICBM, the Soviet equivalent to the US ‘Minuteman-1’.
These rockets were significantly different from their predecessors, in that none of them required last minute fuelling before launch, and they were deployed pre-fuelled in ready-to-launch configuration — hence the Soviet OS designation. These rockets had rapid launch capability, albeit still from static silos, with fewer chances of error pre-launch and none of the logistics issues associated with the on-site fuelling of earlier rockets. The technological changes in rocket fuel deployed with solid and partly solid fuel Soviet rockets from the RT-2 onward now gave the Soviet Union the capability to develop fully mobile rocket systems — including ICBMs -capable of operating independently of convoys of associated launch preparation vehicles. Work on developing mobile variants of some of these next-generation rockets, mounted on tracked, wheeled and rail mounted launcher systems progressed in parallel with these rocket fuel developments, resulting in the first fully road mobile self-propelled strategic rocket launch vehicles, developed in 1965-67 for the RT-15 MRBM and the RT-20 ICBM, with the tracked TEL vehicles for both these rocket systems developed by KB-3 at the Leningrad Kirov Zavod (LKZ) the famous heavy tank plant which had developed the KV heavy tank and after the war had built several types of Soviet heavy tank. These systems made their public debut on Moscow’s Red Square in 1965 while they were still in the development stage, and with their public unveiling a new era of Soviet mobile rocket technology — and the threat that posed to the West at the time — had dawned.
The two solid fuel stage medium range RT-15 (8K96) MRBM was developed at OKB-1 in collaboration with the TsKB-7 design bureau (KB Arsenal) under the control of chief designer P.A. Turin, using the 2nd and 3rd stages of the RT-2 (8K97) ICBM. The RT-15 could deliver a 1-1.5Mt nuclear warhead to a range of 400-4500km. After development and 19 test launches conducted between 1965 and 1970, the system was recommended for limited series production for field trials service. The RT-2, from which the RT-15 was derived, was a more powerful ICBM alternative, but its launch weight of around 50-tonnes was too great for any tracked TEL chassis available at the time. For mobility the 1.4m diameter, 12.6m long RT-15 rocket, with a more manageable launch weight of 20 tonnes, was mounted on the Obiekt-815 tracked chassis developed by and built at the LKZ plant on a chassis derived from that used on the T-10 heavy tank. The overall weight of the 15P696 TEL vehicle with fuelled rocket was 55-tonnes.
The RT-20 (8K99) ICBM was developed by the SKB-586 design bureau (KB Yuzhnie) under the control of chief designer M.K. Yankel. It was initially developed as a three-stage solid fuel rocket which could deliver a 1Mt nuclear warhead to a range of 6000km; however the rocket launch weight was greater than could be reliably transported by any known TEL vehicle at the time, and subsequently a new, two-stage variant was developed for land mobile deployment, with a combined fuel system, consisting of a solid fuel first stage and single chamber liquid fuel second stage. The rocket remained of significant proportions, with a diameter of 1.8m, a length of 18m and retaining an impressive 30-tonne launch weight. During development trials conducted 1965-68 eight launches were undertaken, after which further work on the system was curtailed.
To transport the RT-20 rocket, the KB-3 design bureau at the LKZ plant in Leningrad developed and built the 0biekt-820/821 TEL vehicle, the 15P699 TEL vehicle having an overall vehicle weight of 65 tonnes with a fuelled rocket installed.
Neither the RT-15, nor the RT-20 entered operational service with the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces (RVSN), however experience gained in the development of these systems was used in the development of a new mobile rocket for Soviet land forces use, the ‘Temp-2S’ (Temp-S2M), which was developed at what is today designated the MIT institute, which had already developed a solid fuel OTR field rocket, the ‘Temp’ and a land mobile strategic rocket system, the ‘Temp-S’ (NATO: SS-12 Scaleboard), mounted on a wheeled TEL vehicle based on the chassis of the 8×8 MAZ-543, and firing a two stage solid fuel rocket with a range of 900km, which was taken into service in 1968.
Work on the ‘Temp-2S’ began in collaboration with VNII-100 (VNII Transmash), which was charged with developing several variants of TEL vehicle capable of transporting and launching a 37-tonne rocket.
Several alternative TEL vehicle variants were developed for the ‘Temp-2S’; three design variants all mounted on a single tracked chassis, similar to the Obiekt-815 and 0biekt-820 developed at LKZ for the RT-15 & RT-20 rockets; a unique TEL vehicle employing a tandem tracked chassis; and a tracked tractor with a wheeled semi-trailer derived from that normally used with the MAZ-537. Two base variants of the new TEL vehicle were chosen for trials purposes in 1968. Alternative tracked options based on the chassis of the T-10 heavy tank and components of the then next-generation T-80 MBT, both developed at the KB-3 design bureau within the LKZ plant in Leningrad; and a new six-axle wheeled chassis developed by the MAZ design bureau in Minsk, based on a lengthened version of the MAZ-543 series. As a result of extensive trial launches conducted at the Plestesk polygon over the period 1972-75, the ‘Temp-2S’ was ultimately taken into service with the RVSN, mounted on its new MAZ-547A six-axle TEL vehicle. The ‘Temp-2S’ was not however deployed, due to the ongoing SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) negotiations between the USA and USSR from the early 1970s, which ultimately resulted in the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty of 1987.
RSD-10 PIONER (SS-20)
With the ‘Temp-2S’ having been banned from service by bilateral agreements, Soviet rocket engineers at the MIT institute in Moscow began work on developing a new variant that would circumvent the treaty obligations, resulting in the RSD-10 ‘Pioner’ (NATO: SS-20) rocket system developed using the first two stages of the ‘Temp-2S’.
The six-axle MAZ-547A based 15P645 TEL vehicle used for the ‘Pioner’ system was essentially the vehicle originally developed for the cancelled ‘Temp-2S’ ICBM. The ‘Pioner’ mounted on its six-axle TEL vehicle was accepted for service on 11th March 1976 as the first fully independent mobile ICBM to enter service with the RVSN.
According to US Department of Defence data, some 351 ‘Pioner’ TEL vehicles were deployed in May 1983, of which 108 were located east of the Urals mountains. The ‘Pioner’ was originally mounted on the chassis of the MAZ-547A, then the MAZ-547V and latterly the MAZ-7916, which featured a symmetrical twin cab arrangement.
According to NATO records, there were three variants of the RSD-10 ‘Pioner’, with a single 500km range warhead, three individual targetable warheads and a single smaller warhead with an extended range of 7800km.
Ultimately, although the RSD-10 ‘Pioner’ was widely deployed, the rocket was subject to the 1987 US-USSR INF Treaty on the Elimination of Medium & Short range (‘intermediate’) nuclear weapons, and was subsequently eliminated from service. The massive MAZ-547 based TEL vehicles were part of a strategic deployment that included the building of 408 static concrete launch pads with weather protection built for alternative deployment of the system, and 126 MAZ-547 based TZM (transporter-reloader vehicles) for deploying additional rockets.
Destruction of the RSD-10, in conformance with the INF Treaty began in August 1988. The first 72 were destroyed in the Chita Oblast (by launching them without warheads) and later at the Kapustin Yar polygon, by the slightly less impressive method of destroying three rockets simultaneously on a specially prepared destruction pad. The TEL vehicles were then disassembled. The last RSD-10 rocket was destroyed on 12th May 1991. A few rockets and SPU vehicles were retained for display purposes in the USSR, with an RSD-10 ‘Pioner’ rocket even being displayed at the Smithsonian Institute in the USA.
In parallel with work on modernizing the ‘Pioner’ (or rather modifying it for other non-treaty bound purposes), the MIT institute developed the RS-12M ‘Topol’ (NATO: SS-25) three stage solid fuel ICBM; which was taken into service in 1985. The seven axle MAZ-7912 (later MAZ-7917) TEL vehicle for the ‘Topol’ was assembled at the Barrikadny plant in Volgograd on the basis of a specialised seven-axle chassis developed and built by MAZ in Minsk on the basis of the MAZ-543 series.
In accordance with the US-USSR START agreements, the Soviet Union on 1st September 1993 possessed a total of 208 TELs for the ‘Topol’ ICBM, and around 340 in 1993. The ‘Topol’ was organized into rocket regiments with approximately 9 TELs each, with 3-5 regiments configured into a single rocket division. As with the ‘Pioner’ ICBM, the ‘Topol’ though mobile was designed to be stored in metal and concrete hangars and deployed to concrete and steel reinforced bunkers for launch. The ‘Topol’ missile systems were controlled from a MAZ-543M based mobile command vehicle.
At the beginning of the 1970s the ‘Yuzhnoe’ design bureau continued work on developing a universal rocket for deployment in silo, land mobile and rail installations. The result was the RS-22 ICBM, which was the direct Soviet equivalent to the US MX. The RS-22A (NATO: SS-24) was a railroad-launched version, accepted into service in 1989. The RS-22B was silo mounted ‘OS’ stand-alone type, accepted into service in 1990. The most interesting version for the purposes of this article was however the base version RS-22, the ‘Tselina-2’, a land based mobile ICBM. Though the base road-mobile version was not taken into service, two specialised and absolutely massive 140-tonne load capacity TEL vehicles were built for it, the MAZ-7906 and later the MAZ-7907 with engines developing 1200hp and 1500hp respectively. These vehicles were always tested at night, so secret was their development, but ultimately they were not to be taken into service.
With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the Russian Federation and the Ukraine, which had jointly developed the Soviet Union’s strategic rocket arsenal became separate countries.
The Yuzhnie design bureau was now located in independent Ukraine and was no longer involved in future Russian strategic rocket development. In the Russian Federation, only two KBs remained involved in strategic rocket development; the KB ‘Salyut’, working on development of the UR-100, UR-100K and UR-100N, and KB MIT, working on the ‘Temp-2S’, ‘Pioner’ and ‘Topol’, with the only new mobile development being the ‘Topol-M’.
RS-12M2 TOPOL-M (SS-27)
The RS-12M2 ‘Topol-M’ (NATO: SS-27) was developed from the 1980s at MIT under the direction of B. Lagutin as a modernization of the earlier ‘Topol’. Silo and land mobile launch mechanisms were developed for the ‘Topol-M’, the latter by means of a wheeled TEL vehicle. In December 1994, the first test launch of the new ‘Topol-M’ MBR (ICBM) was undertaken from a silo at the Plesetsk polygon.
The RS-12M2 entered service in 1996, as the land mobile ‘Topol-M’ and the silo-launched ‘Topol-M2’, intended to gradually replace the obsolescent UR-100N, UTTKh and R-36M. At the time of writing, the ‘Topol-M’ ICBM and its 16×16 TEL vehicle is the largest all-terrain military vehicle in the World, and by far the most deadly.