Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) are powerful long-range missiles designed for delivering nuclear or conventional payloads over vast distances. They are capable of traveling thousands of kilometers or miles to reach their target and hence a key component of a nation’s strategic deterrent capabilities.
Some of the distinctive features of ICBMs include:
- ICBMs have a minimum range of approximately 5,500 kilometres, which allows them to travel across continents and engage targets on the other side of the planet.
- ICBMs are extremely fast. They travel at hypersonic speeds and can destroy their targets in just a few minutes, making it practically impossible to intercept and respond.
- ICBMs can carry various types of payloads, including nuclear warheads, conventional explosives, or even multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), which allow a single missile to deliver multiple warheads to different targets.
- ICBMs are launched from underground silos, mobile launchers, or ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs).
- ICBMs are equipped with advanced guidance systems that ensure their accuracy over long distances. These systems use inertial navigation, star-sighting, and GPS technology to maintain course and reach their intended targets.
- ICBMs are a critical component of a nation’s nuclear triad, which also includes strategic bombers and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The ability to launch ICBMs provides a credible and survivable second-strike capability, deterring potential adversaries from launching a nuclear attack.
Here’s a list of 10 prominent ICBMs:
RS-28 Sarmat (Satan 2) – Russia:
RS-28 Sarmat is a colossal weapon system in the Russian arsenal. Also known as Satan-II because of its sheer size, speed and killing range. It is liquid-fuelled with a range of 18,000 km, a maximum speed of 25,500 km/h, weight of more than 200 tons, the RS-28 Sarmat enjoys the reputation of being the biggest, heaviest, and fastest ICBM in the world. Estimated to be around 35 meters in length and designed for carrying 10 tonnes of payload, of ten 750 kiloton or 15 lighter MIRV warheads. It is among the largest and most powerful ICBMs ever produced in the world. One of the notable features of the RS-28 Sarmat is its ability to carry multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). Each MIRVs can destroy different targets by a single launch, making it even more challenging for missile defences to intercept all of them. RS-28 Sarmat is a critical component of Russia’s nuclear deterrence strategy. Its capabilities provide Russia with a second-strike capability. In other words, it would provide a devastating counterattack potential in the event of a nuclear attack on Russia. Being liquid-fuelled the missile is to be fuelled prior
to launch which requires additional preparation time for launch.
No wonder while addressing a group of military graduates shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian President Vladimir Putin described the Sarmat missile as a “truly unique weapon” that will make Russia’s enemies “think twice”.
R-36M2 Voyevoda (SS-18 Satan) – Russia:
One of the largest ICBMs ever built, the R-36M2 Voyevoda (nicknamed SS-18 Satan) a liquid-fueled, intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) used to be one of the most dangerous weapons in the world. It was a major component of Russia’s nuclear deterrent and the heaviest ICBM ever deployed. With a launch weight of over 211 tons and a range of 11,000 – 16,000 kilometres, the R-36M2 could carry up to 10 MIRV warheads, each with a yield of up to 750 kilotons.
Once considered one of the most powerful ICBMs in the world, the R-36M2 first deployed by the Soviet Forces in 1988 was 37.2 meters long and had a diameter of 3 meters. The R-36M2 was a three-stage missile, with the first stage powered by two RD-276 liquid-fueled rocket engines and the second and third stages powered by a single RD-274 engine. The R-36M2 could be launched from a silo or from a road-mobile launcher. Capable of carrying multiple warheads, it was equipped with a variety of penetration aids to make it more difficult to intercept. It was designed to carry multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) and was a key component of the Soviet nuclear deterrent. However, with time the RS-36M increasingly became expensive to maintain and hence required to be replaced.
Dongfeng-41 (DF-41) – China:
The Dongfeng-41 (DF-41), also known as the CSS-20, is a Chinese fourth generation solid-fuelled road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) which means it is transported on a mobile launch vehicle and can be quickly moved from one place to another reducing the risk of a preemptive strike. One of the most advanced and powerful ICBMs in China’s nuclear inventory; it is considered one of the most powerful missiles in the world. It has a range of 12,000 to 15,000 kilometres and can carry up to 10 MIRV warheads, each with a yield of up to 1 megaton. It is also believed to be capable of carrying hypersonic glide vehicles.
Since the DF-41 is a solid-fueled missile, which makes it easier to deploy and also more difficult to intercept, as it can fly at speeds of up to Mach 25. The DF-41 can carry multiple nuclear warheads, each capable of striking different targets and is believed to have multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) capabilities. Though the exact number of warheads that it can carry is a closely guarded secret, estimates suggest that the DF-41 can carry up to ten warheads.
One of the major assets in China’s inventory the DF-41 is expected to form the backbone of China’s nuclear deterrent for many years to come. What makes the DF-41 all the more fearsome is its potential to reach and strike all over the USA defying its missile defence systems. All in all, the DF-41 is a powerful weapon that can destabilize the strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific region. The missile is part of China’s second-strike capability, enabling it to retaliate in the event of a nuclear attack.
The development of the DF-41 began in the late 1980s as part of China’s efforts to modernize its nuclear deterrent capabilities.
LGM-30 Minuteman III – United States:
The LGM-30 Minuteman III a land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) has been a key component of the United States Air Force Global Strike Command since the 1970s. It represents the land leg of the U.S. nuclear triad, along with Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and long-range strategic bombers.
Minuteman III is a three-stage, solid-fueled missile with a range of about 13000 km and is capable of carrying multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). MIRVs allow a single missile to carry multiple nuclear warheads each with a yield of up to 300 kilotons, and capable of striking a different target. It is guided by an inertial navigation system and can reach its target with a CEP of 725-925 feet.
The Minuteman III, along with the other weapons in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, plays a crucial role in deterring potential adversaries from launching a nuclear attack on the United States and its allies. It is intended to provide a credible and survivable second-strike capability, which means it can still retaliate even after a nuclear attack on the United States.
Hwasong-15 – North Korea:
The Hwasong-15 is North Korea’s most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). It is the first North Korean ICBM to be capable of reaching all over mainland United States. This is one of the reasons why Hwasong-15 poses a major threat to the United States’ missile defence system. The current United States missile defence system is designed to intercept short- and medium-range missiles but is theoretically unable to detect the Hwasong-15 which has a much longer range.
The Hwasong-15 is a two-stage, liquid-fueled missile capable of being launched from a mobile transporter-erector launcher (TEL). It has a range of about 13,000 kilometres and is reportedly a significant lynchpin in North Korea’s missile program. The missile is equipped with a reentry vehicle capable of surviving the extreme heat and pressure of reentering Earth’s atmosphere – a critical component for delivering a nuclear warhead accurately.
Though similar to the Russian R-36M2 Voyevoda ICBM in terms of design, the Hwasong-15 missile is around 22 meters in length and 2.5 meters in diameter, but much smaller and lighter than the Voyevoda. This makes it more mobile and easier to conceal. The Hwasong-15 is road-mobile, meaning it can be transported and launched from a mobile launcher, making it more difficult to track and target by potential adversaries.
A major step forward in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, it is capable of carrying a large payload over intercontinental distances and thus a reminder of the threat posed to the United States and its allies by North Korea.
RS-24 Yars – Russia:
The RS-24 Yars, also known as the SS-29 or RT-24 Yars, is a prominent ICBM being used by the Russian strategic nuclear forces. The RS-24 Yars is a relatively modern ICBM system which entered service with the Russian Strategic Missile Forces in 2010 to replace older ICBMs such as the RS-12M Topol-M and RS-18 Stiletto. The RS-24 Yars is a critical component of Russia’s nuclear triad and is intended to provide Russia with the ability to retaliate against a nuclear attack, even after a first strike.
The RS-24 Yars has an estimated range of around 11,000 kilometres and is capable of carrying multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). This in other words means that a single missile can carry several nuclear warheads, each capable of targeting different locations. The RS-24 Yars has both road-mobile and rail-mobile versions. The missile is designed to evade and penetrate enemy missile defence systems. This makes it difficult to track and more accurate than its predecessors.
R-29RMU Sineva (SS-N-23 Skiff) – Russia:
The R-29RMU Sineva, also known as SS-N-23 Skiff, is a Russian submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) system. It is a crucial part of Russia’s nuclear triad, which includes land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and strategic bombers.
A liquid-fueled, three-stage submarine-launched ballistic missile, R-29RMU Sineva is a relatively modern SLBM system developed by Russia. It was officially inducted in the Russian Navy in 2007 to replace the ageing R-29RM SLBM (SS-N-18 Stingray).
The R-29RMU Sineva has a reported range of approximately 11,500 kilometres and is capable of carrying multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) with nuclear warheads, each capable of targeting different locations.
The R-29RMU Sineva is deployed on Russian Delta IV-class ballistic missile submarines, which are an integral part of Russia’s sea-based nuclear deterrent strategy. Each Delta IV-class submarine is armed with 16 missiles. To date, there are 96 Sineva missiles deployed on Delta IV submarines.
The mobile and stealthy nature of submarines makes them challenging to detect and target the missile system. The R-29RMU Sineva is intended to ensure that Russia can deliver a retaliatory nuclear strike even in the event of a first-strike attack, thus deterring potential adversaries from launching a nuclear conflict.
UR-100N UTTH (SS-19 Stiletto) – Russia:
The UR-100N UTTH, also known as SS-19 Stiletto, is a Russian intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). It has been a key component of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces and is designed to deliver nuclear warheads to distant targets. The UR-100N UTTH is an upgraded version of the UR-100 (SS-11 Sego) missile system in active service with the Russian Strategic Missile Forces for several decades.
The UR-100N UTTH is road-mobile, which means it can be launched from a mobile launcher and has a maximum range of approximately 10,500 kilometers adding punch to its fist while making it challenging for adversaries to intercept or destroy the missile. It is also designed to carry multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) which allow a single missile to carry multiple nuclear warheads, each capable of targeting different locations.
The UR-100N UTTH has played a significant role in the Soviet and later Russian nuclear deterrence strategy and provided a second-strike capability.
The UR-100N UTTH, along with other Russian ICBM systems, has been subject to arms control agreements to limit the number of nuclear warheads and launchers. Over the past decade, Russia has phased out a number of older ICBMs like the UR-100N UTTH and replaced them with more modern systems. In accordance with arms control agreements, the UR-100N UTTH has been gradually retired from active service, and its launchers have been dismantled.
DF-5 – China:
The DF-5 (Dong Feng-5) is a Chinese two-stage, liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). It is one of China’s earliest ICBMs and has been an integral part of China’s nuclear deterrence capabilities. The missile was officially adopted into the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force (formerly known as the Second Artillery Corps) and played a part in establishing China as a nuclear-armed state. It has played a crucial role in China’s nuclear deterrence strategy and is intended to ensure that China has the capability to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike even in the event of a first-strike attack.
The DF-5 has a maximum range of approximately 12,000 kilometres and is designed to carry a single large nuclear warhead. The missile’s long range allows it to target distant locations, including potential adversaries outside of China.
The DF-5 has the potential to cause widespread destruction and thus reminds us of the threat posed by nuclear weapons. The blast radius of the DF-5 is estimated to be 12 kilometres. This means that a single DF-5 missile could potentially destroy an entire city.
RT-2PM2 Topol-M (SS-27 Sickle B) – Russia:
The RT-2PM2 Topol-M, also known as SS-27 Sickle B is one of Russia’s most modern and advanced intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) designed to replace older ICBMs in the Russian strategic missile forces.
The RT-2PM2 Topol-M entered service in the Russian Strategic Missile Forces in the early 2000s and represents a significant improvement over its predecessor, the RT-2 PM Topol (SS-25 Sickle) in terms of mobility, accuracy, and survivability. The Topol-M has a reported range of 11,000 kilometres and can carry up to 6 independently targetable warheads. Each warhead has a yield of up to 800 kilotons.
The Topol-M can be transported and launched from a mobile launcher which makes it difficult for potential adversaries to track and target the missile system. Some variants of the Topol-M are capable of carrying multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) adding to the missile’s flexibility and effectiveness. The Topol-M can also be deployed in underground silos providing flexibility in strategic planning and operations.
In the overall context, RT-2PM2 Topol-M is a critical component of Russia’s nuclear deterrence strategy and is intended to ensure that Russia can deliver a retaliatory nuclear strike even in the event of a nuclear conflict. It is difficult to intercept and can reach targets anywhere in the world. The biggest advantage of the missile is its advanced guidance systems to ensure precise targeting and a high degree of accuracy.