Rail and Awe: Missile Might on the Move!

In 1980’s both the US and the Soviet began to explore alternative means of deploying their intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). One innovative solution that emerged was the development of Rail-Mobile ICBM (R-ICBMeet SHERP-ATOR N1200: India’s All New BeastM) systems. These systems involved the adaptation of existing railway infrastructure to serve as mobile platforms for launching nuclear missiles. By utilizing the extensive railway networks already in place, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union could achieve a level of mobility and unpredictability that was nearly impossible to attain with traditional fixed launch sites. The adaptability of rail systems allowed for the constant movement of launch platforms, making it challenging for adversaries to track and target the missiles effectively.

RT-23 Modolets

The Soviet Union developed a rail-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system known as the RT-23 Molodets, also designated as SS-24 Scalpel by NATO. This mobile ICBM system was designed to enhance the survivability and flexibility of the Soviet nuclear forces by allowing the missiles to be launched from railcars, making them less predictable targets.

Origins Of The Project

During the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a strategic arms race, each seeking to gain an advantage in nuclear capabilities. The development of advanced reconnaissance systems, such as the SR-71 Blackbird and U-2 Dragon Lady aircraft, by the United States, heightened the fear among Soviet leaders about the vulnerability of their nuclear missile sites. These reconnaissance aircraft were capable of flying at high altitudes and speeds, allowing them to gather intelligence deep within Soviet territory, including locations of missile silos.

The fear of a potential U.S. preemptive strike aimed at destroying Soviet nuclear launch sites, known as a “first strike,” prompted the Soviet leadership to explore alternative and more survivable methods for deploying their intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The concept of railcar-launched ICBMs emerged as a response to this concern, and it aimed to enhance the survivability of the Soviet nuclear arsenal by introducing mobility and strategic ambiguity.

Picture Credit: The Drive

Key features of the RT-23 Molodets system:

The rail launch system was created by modifying the M62 locomotive. The civilian locomotive 62 was adapted to serve as the driving force for the mobile missile launcher. The system was Comprised of three launch wagons supported by two auxiliary wagons for each launch unit, along with additional wagons for logistical support and crew accommodations, the system presented itself as an ordinary train to avoid detection. Operating at speeds between 80-120 km/h, it could cover considerable distances—up to 1000 km in a day. The autonomy of the system was noteworthy, capable of operating independently for 28 days, and it even could short-circuit electric lines for additional power. This strategic autonomy ensured that the system could launch its missiles even if command communication from Moscow was lost. Additionally, the system exhibited a rapid launch capability, with the ability to initiate a missile launch in under 3 minutes.

The missile that was developed to fire from this system was RT-23 Molodets. Developed and manufactured by the Yuzhnoye Design Bureau, it was a three-stage, solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile employing a cold-launch mechanism. This missile is equipped with 10 Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) warheads, each carrying a 550-kiloton yield. To launch the missile from these platforms the Soviets developed a new kind of launch system called the “Cold Launch System”.

What is a Cold Launch System?

Before understanding this we need to know how conventionally missiles were fired from the silos. Conventionally missiles are fired using a Hot launch system.

Hot Launch System:

  • In a hot launch system, the missile’s rocket motor ignites while it is still within the launch tube or container.
  • The missile is expelled from the launch tube using a gas generator or similar mechanism, and as soon as it is clear of the launch system, the main rocket motor ignites.
  • Hot launch systems are often associated with land-based missile launchers and some ship-based systems. They allow for rapid response times and are suitable for situations where the missile can be launched directly from its storage container without the need for a separate ejection mechanism.
*Image for representation purpose only

Cold Launch System:

  • In a cold launch system, the missile is ejected from its launch tube or container using gas pressure or another mechanism before the rocket motor ignites.
  • The missile is expelled from the launch tube without firing its main propulsion system. Once it has cleared the launch tube or container, the rocket motor ignites, and the missile accelerates towards its target.
  • Cold launch systems are often used in confined spaces, such as within submarines or vertical launch systems (VLS) on ships. It reduces the risk of damage to the launch platform by allowing the missile to move away from it before the main propulsion is engaged.

A similar project was initiated by the US in counter to the development of the Soviets and the project was known as “The Peacekeeper”.

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The Peacekeeper

The Peacekeeper Rail Garrison is designed to bolster the versatility of the Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Among these, two wagons served as launchers, each capable of holding a single missile. A launch control wagon facilitated the coordination and execution of missile launches, ensuring precision and responsiveness. A maintenance wagon played a vital role in supporting the ongoing functionality of the system. The inclusion of a fuel wagon ensured sustained operations, providing the necessary resources for the missiles. Additionally, two wagons were dedicated to crew accommodation within the mobile launch system.

The train was equipped with machine guns and featured armored protection, enhancing its survivability and the ability to thwart potential attacks. This defensive capability aimed to safeguard the mobile missile system during transit.

The missile that was fired from this system is The LGM-118 Peacekeeper. It was designed to carry multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), providing it with the capability to deliver multiple warheads to different targets. The Peacekeeper had a range of approximately 9,000 miles (14,500 kilometers). It was deployed with a range of warhead configurations, with each missile capable of carrying up to ten MIRVs.

*Image for representation purpose only


Ultimately with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the railcar-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) underwent dismantlement in accordance with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). As part of these disarmament efforts, the missiles that remained in service in Russia were decommissioned by the year 2005. The U.S. also ultimately phased out the Peacekeeper missile, with the last missile being taken out of service in 2005 as part of arms reduction efforts under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).

Thus with the retirement of rail-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) like the RT-23 Molodets and Peacekeeper has led to a notable transition in nuclear deterrence strategies. The role of stealth launch capabilities, once fulfilled by land-based systems, has now been largely assumed by nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). Major nations are increasingly relying on these submarines for the deployment of nuclear missiles, representing a shift towards enhanced stealth and survivability.


Bheemanagouda M Patil

Hi, I'm Bheemanagouda Patil, currently I'm pursuing Mechanical Engineering (3rd year) from Dayanand Sagar College Of Engineering. I write on topics related defence and geopolitics.

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