Giant Missiles on Secret War Trains—Cool Concept, Tough to Pull Off
A nifty old idea gets an awesome Russian revival, but obstacles abound
In 2013, Lt. Gen. Sergei Karakaev, commander of Russia's Strategic Missile Forces, added a surprising item to the list of weapons being developed as part of Moscow’s $700-billion arms buy.
In addition to the new road-mobile RS-24 and RS-26 ICBMs and a huge new missile based on the iconic SS-18 Satan, Karakaev announced a design study for a supposedly elusive new rail-mobile missile.
That's right—more war trains! From the Civil War to the Cold War, armed and armored trains trundled along the front lines. But in recent decades the idea has fallen out of favor. Now Karakaev’s initiative could change that—although not without first answering a fundamental question.
Namely, could the trains even be kept secret any more?
Current arms treaties limit Russia to around 1,500 strategic nukes, which like America’s are divided between missile, aircraft and submarine forces. Karakaev called for maintaining that number. But he wants new ways of moving, hiding and launching the weapons. Hence the new war trains, which in theory could disappear along countless miles of tracks in Russia’s deep interior.
Emphasis on in theory.
It seems that it’s America’s actions—or perceived actions—that are driving the rush back to fighting trains. Karakaev said the new missile trains would be a direct response to the Pentagon’s pursuit of the Prompt Global Strike concept.
PGS, which is still on the drawing board, envisions adding conventional warheads to intercontinental missiles, resulting in a fast, super-accurate and extremely powerful weapon—one that would have strategic effects even though it’s non-nuclear.
PGS dangerously blurs carefully-honed lines within the U.S.-Russian strategic balance. For that reason the Russians hate the new missile concept. And given the uncertainty the PGS idea has engendered, the Russians are making sure their nuclear deterrent has wheels, and are also beefing up their radars to detect anything new, fast and stealthy coming their way.
It’s likely that the new Russian railway missile will be simply a modification of the RS-24 Yars, a portable and relatively lightweight weapon. It’s not lightweight in punch, however—the RS-24 can deliver four independently-targeted warheads, each delivering up to 400 kilotons of explosive power almost anywhere on Earth.
Unlike the earlier, now-retired RT-23 system, the RS-24 fits inside a standard rail car and likely could be pulled by a standard set of locomotives. The older missile trains were so heavy that Soviet officials worried the CIA would spot the over-locomotived trains and wonder.
The giant old trains caused other problems. “When a missile is fired, pressure on the railroad bed is such that it has to be reinforced. And that was done in the Soviet Union,” says a source familiar with the subject.
By contrast, Russia’s new rail missiles shouldn’t create any structural problems, the source says. But that’s the least of the Kremlin’s worries.
Hide and seek
To be sure, the CIA’s photo-interpreters could have their work cut out for them—finding the missile trains then or now is the world’s biggest shell game. Today there are at least 80,000 miles of track in Russia and almost 800,000 rail cars and locomotives, spread across 11 time zones.
That’s a prodigious search and tracking problem for Cold War style spy systems. Satellites, recon planes and spies on the ground could spend years pursuing phantom missile trains.
Targeting mobile systems is equally tough using traditional measures. During the 1991 Gulf War, coalition air power had a devil of a time knocking out Iraqi Scud missiles, despite the coalition enjoying uncontested control of the skies. Add in potentially extensive collateral damage from attacking rail networks and you can see why arms control wonks are bothered by land-mobile systems.
But a quick historical survey raises a compelling argument—that maybe times truly have changed, and missile trains actually can’t avoid detection anymore. Private railroad ownership and ever-expanding social media could prevent the missile trains from hiding.
There are several reasons why missile trains might not work today. For one, there are lots of private businesses running railroads in modern Russia. Companies might not be willing to host a bunch of atomic rockets on busy freight rails.
And Russian citizens might not be terribly keen on having a bunch of active atomic weapons roll through their backyards. The U.S. briefly had a missile-train plan in the 1980s but grassroots resistance helped scuttle it. Don’t be shocked to see local resistance to Karakaev’s scheme, too.
Plus, the way the world gathers intel has changed, too. Satellites and spies might not be able to pinpoint the trains, but millions of everyday Russians probably could.
Consider the Chelyabinsk meteor that exploded over Russia in February 2013. Westerners were surprised at the large numbers of video clips posted on the Internet. It turns out that due to the ubiquity of insurance fraud in their country, many Russians keep dashboard-cameras running so that video records are available in case of dispute.
So many dash-cams, not to mention countless smartphones, could make it impossible to obscure the movements of missile trains—especially if people dislike the trains. “Concealing movements by the launchers would prove to be a greater challenge than in the past,” according to one Russian insider who asked not to be named.
“We do not live in the Soviet Union anymore,” the insider adds. “This is Russia, and Russia is different.” Given Russia’s evolution, could a missile train really stay hidden today? And if not, why bother reviving the war train at all?