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RSD-10 Pioner

Intermediate-range ballistic missile

RSD-10 Pioner (SS-20 Saber) missile

The Pioner was one of the most feared and influential nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles ever fielded

 
 
Country of origin Soviet Union
Entered service 1976
Basing Road-mobile
Dimensions and weight
Weight 40.2 t
Length 16.8 m
Width 3.2 m
Height 2.9 m
Missile
Missile length 16.5 m
Missile diameter 1.79 m
Missile weight 37.1 t
Warhead weight 1.6 t
Warhead type nuclear, single warhead with 1 Mt yield
Range of fire 5 000 km
CEP 500 m
Mobility
Engine D12A-525 diesel
Engine power 525 hp
Maximum road speed 60 km/h
Range ~ 650 km

 

   Code-named SS-20 Saber by the West, the RSD-10 Pioner (pioneer) was a mobile Soviet Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) first fielded in the mid-1970s. This missile was one of the most visible and controversial nuclear weapon systems of the late Cold War era, and the deployment of the RSD-10 into Eastern Europe triggered a crisis between East and West that ultimately ended in a treaty banning IRBMs.

   The RSD-10 Pioner was the product of rapidly shifting Soviet nuclear policy during the 1960s. Soviet Defense Minister Marshal Andrei Grechko strongly advocated a pre-emptive strike capability over a second strike capability, so that overwhelming nuclear superiority could be achieved in the early stages of a war with NATO, rather than giving NATO a chance to make the first move. Grechko insisted that the military have total control over weapon development. This strategy was slowly becoming unfavorable with the rest of the military and the civilian government however, who preferred an emphasis on a second strike capability in order to discourage an immediate nuclear retaliation from the US military. Though as with his immediate predecessor (Marshal Rodion Malinovsky), Marshal Grechko died in office, and his policies died with him. Marshal Dmitriy Ustinov, the new Soviet Defense Minister, was more favorable to the second strike philosophy, and in part because of his long-standing ties with the design bureaus, he allowed them more "creative control" in the design and development of new weapon systems. One of these was the RSD-10 Pioner.

   Development of what would become the RSD-10 was initiated by the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology in 1968, under a team led by Alexander Nadiradze, who was also in charge of the development of the RT-21 Temp 2S (the first road-mobile ICBM, code-named SS-16 Sinner by the West). relatively little information has been published on what transpired during the Pioner's development, save that its flight testing didn't begin until 1974, suggesting that Marshal Grechko may have hindered the program. It was finally ready for production by 1976; this was the year Marshal Ustinov took office, and he was quick to approve it for military service. Initial operational capacity was achieved on March 11th of that year, and deliveries to frontline units began in the following August.

   There were three models of the RSD-10 missile; the Pioner (introduced in 1976), Pioner-UTTH (also introduced in 1976), and the Pioner-3 (introduced in 1980). These were respectively designated SS-20 Mod 1, SS-20 Mod 2, and SS-20 Mod 3 by NATO, though some publications have referred to the Pioner-3 as the SS-28 Saber 2. The Pioner-UTTH differs little from the original missile, apart from replacing the single warhead with a new warhead with three Independently targeted Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs). The Pioner 3 has several improvements, the most significant of which are an increased range, and a more capable guidance system that increased the accuracy of the Reentry Vehicles (RVs). There is some speculation over how accurate the guidance of the Pioner-3 is, with various claimed figures of 150 m to 450 m; only the Soviet military (later the Russian military) knew for sure, and they never declassified this information.

   The missile was stored inside a weatherproof container-launcher atop a 12x12 Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) vehicle. The aft end of the container has a venturi similar in appearance to a protruding thrust nozzle on a large rocket, which allows exhaust gasses to escape from the container until the missile lifts-off, while the front end has a dome-like cover which is jettisoned when the missile is ready to launch.

   The missile itself is also somewhat unremarkable in appearance, with a cylindrical body, no fins, and a flat-tipped nose cone. The RSD-10 is smaller than its US counterparts, and unlike these other missiles, it has no fins. There is a slight bottleneck at the base of the second stage (the rest of which is narrower than the first stage), and a much sharper bottleneck at the base of the RV. Both the launch tube and the TEL vehicle are identical for all three versions, and the exterior appearance of each missile was almost unchanged as well.

   The RSD-10 Pioner was powered by a two-stage solid fuel rocket motor system. This not only eliminated the extremely dangerous, time-consuming, and conspicuous activity of having to fuel the missile prior to launch, but it also allowed immediate ignition once the launcher was in position, only seconds after which the missile sprang into the air. The first stage carried the missile into the upper atmosphere during the boost phase of the mission, after which it was jettisoned, and the second stage ignited. The second stage motor powered the missile through the intermediate phase as it entered space, and was jettisoned shortly before the missile reached atmosphere. This leaved the RV to continue toward the target unpowered, like a giant artillery shell, which oriented itself into a position that pointed its nose toward the target, just before entering the terminal phase. This last phase was the shortest, lasting only a couple of minutes, and was completed when the RV reached its programmed target co-ordinates. The flight speed of the RSD-10 Pioner has never been published, but if its US rival is any indication (the MGM-31C Pershing 2), the Pioner probably reached its maximum range after a flight time of only 15 minutes.

   Like most older ballistic missiles, the RSD-10 Pioner is guided using only via an Inertial Navigation System (INS). It is one of the simplest guidance methods, and consequently gave the missile rather poor accuracy. However, it usually dropped the RV close enough to the aimpoint to effectively destroy all intended targets, and since INS used no sensor systems, it was unaffected by any electronic counter-measures, such as radio jamming.

   Two different warheads were used in the RSD-10 Pioner. The first model was armed with a single 1 Megaton hydrogen bomb, while its follow-ups were armed instead with a MIRV warhead, allowing them to attack three target locations simultaneously. Both munitions were decidedly heavy-handed for a tactical weapon system, but their exceptional yield helped offset the missile's relatively poor accuracy.

   The launch platform of the RSD-10 Pioner was an MAZ-547 TEL vehicle. Made in today's Belarus and based on the MAZ-543M series of 8x8 trucks, this huge 12x12 vehicle enabled the Pioner to rapidly displace between bases and launch sites over roads, and its suspension and tires allowed for some cross-country mobility as well. Its 38.9-liter V12 diesel engine developed 525 hp. This engine was originally designed for use in medium tanks and provided tremendous torque. It allowed road speeds of up to 60 km/h. When not in the field, the MAZ-457 and its RSD-10 missile were stored in hardened concrete shelters. The missile container was elevated to a 90-degree angle and braced prior to launch, and brackets on the vehicle were dropped to the ground in order to stabilize it.

   The first Pioner missiles were deployed in August of 1976, and by the end of that year, 18 missiles were operational. The fleet further expanded to 225 missile by 1980, over 300 missiles by the end of 1983, and by 1986, a grand total of 405 missiles were deployed at 48 launch sites. The appearance of the RSD-10 Pioner in Eastern Europe caused considerable alarm in the West, as every NATO installation in Europe was within range of these missiles, and if launched, they would likely arrive at their targets within 15 minutes. Western leaders were torn on whether to respond with increased intermediate range nuclear forces of their own, or pursue a diplomatic solution.

   The West ended up trying to take the "Good Cop, Bad Cop" approach with both deployment of new intermediate-range nuclear weapons *and* diplomacy (as both the good cop and the bad cop). Namely, the US military fielded the MGM-31C Pershing 2 IRBM and the BGM-109G Gryphon cruise missile system in response to the Pioner, while the US government initiated a series of negotiations with the USSR called the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) talks. The results were predictable; the Soviet leadership accused the West of going back on their word in 1983, abandoned negotiations, and the production and deployment of RSD-10 Pioners continued unabated.

   The situation remained static until March of 1985, when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher managed to convince US and Soviet officials to return to the negotiations table. The Soviet Army withdrew three of its nine Pioner formations from Eastern Europe a few months later; promoters of the Pershing 2 and Gryphon cautioned US leaders that this was some sort of ruse, but negotiations continued, and in 1987, the INF Treaty was finally agreed-upon by both parties. Withdrawal and elimination of all Pershing 1, Pershing 2, Gryphon, and Pioner missiles (along with a host of both obsolete and new Soviet ballistic missiles of similar range) soon followed, and was completed in 1991, by which time the last examples of any of these missiles was disabled or destroyed.

   Today, only a handful of RSD-10 Pioners remain in existence, all of which are inoperable display pieces. It is notable that one may be found at the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Kiev, while another is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.; displayed alongside them at both locations is also a Pershing 2 missile.

   While no functional RSD-10 Pioners remain, their legacy lives-on in the INF Treaty. Though while the US and Russia still officially abide by this treaty, both have frequently accused one another in recent years of violating it. Thus, while the Pioner will never see service again, a spiritual successor may yet surface in the foreseeable future.

 

Variants

 

   RSD-10 Pioner (SS-20 Saber): Carried a single fission warhead.

   RSD-10 Pioner-UTTH (SS-20 Saber): MIRV version of the Pioner, with three variable-yield fission warheads. These could be configured for a yield of 5 to 55 kT each. Range of fire was up to 5 500 km and CEP was 550 meters. This improved version of the Pioner was fielded since 1981.

   RSD-10 Pioner-3 (SS-20 Mod.3 Saber or SS-X-28 Saber): Second-generation RSD-10 Pioner, with improved range and accuracy due to new engine and increased onboard fuel. Maximum range was 7 500 km. It delivered the same three warheads as the Pioner-UTTH. The missile was designed to overcome the latest US Patriot air defense system, that was fielded in Europe. It had new control systems and was more accurate. The CEP was around 150-450 meters. The Pioner-3 also had improved TEL vehicle with two cabs. This missile was successfully trialed in 1986, when the INF talks were underway. However it was never fielded due to ratification of the INF treaty in 1987.

 

Similar weapons

 

   MGM-31A/B Pershing 1/1A: This short-range ballistic missile had a shorter range than the Pioner, but was initially the most comparable weapon the US Army had to offer. It was also road-mobile and employed a 2-stage solid fuel rocket engine, but lacked a MIRV capability. The Pershing 1 was also used by the West German military, though the warheads were stored by the US Army short of a crisis, for "safe keeping". As with the Pioner, all Pershing 1s were disabled or destroyed in accordance with the INF Treaty.

   MGM-31C Pershing 2: The newer Pershing 2 missile carried a weaker warhead than the Pershing 1, but had an increased range in the same class as the RSD-10 Pioner. Although this missile carried the same name and designation as the US Army's previous tactical ballistic missile system, it was in fact a new weapon with no commonality of parts, and a completely different guidance system. This weapon was also a casualty of the INF Treaty.

   BGM-109G Gryphon: This was a cruise missile rather than ballistic missile, but it was in the same range and firepower categories as the RSD-10 Pioner, and was developed to counter that missile. Also called the Ground Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM), the Gryphon was the USAF's response to the Pioner, and was essentially just a trailer-launched version of the more widely-known BGM-109A Tomahawk. Although the Tomahawk remains in service (sea-launched intermediate-range weapons were not banned), all Gryphons were disabled in accordance with the INF Treaty.

   S3: This French IRBM is a silo-launched version of their M5 submarine-launched ballistic missile, and was comparable in propulsion, range, guidance, and firepower to the RSD-10 Pioner. It was not subject to the INF Treaty, as it was a vital deterrence for France itself, and thus remained in service into the mid-1990s.

   DF-3A: This Chinese IRBM has similar range and firepower to the RSD-10 Pioner, but it is a very different weapon; the DF-3A uses a single-stage liquid fuel rocket motor, it is carried exposed atop a very simple trailer, it uses small stabilizer fins and has no fuselage bottlenecks, and its accuracy is said to be awful. Curiously, 50 of them were exported to Saudi Arabia, and were only recently revealed to the public. A small number remain in service with the PLA, as China is not an INF signatory.

   DF-25: A much newer Chinese IRBM, the DF-25 used a 2-stage solid fuel rocket motor, and was designed with both single-warhead and MIRV versions, but it was deemed inadequate in development and never entered service.

   DF-26: Another Chinese IRBM, the DF-26 also employs a 2-stage solid fuel rocket motor, and while its range falls short of the RSD-10 Pioner, it is claimed to be much more accurate. It is also carried directly atop a TEL vehicle similar to the MAZ-547, but is loaded onto a rail rather than being containerized. Both nuclear and conventional versions have been reported, and while the DF-26 has been in development since at least the mid-2000s, it has only just recently entered service.

   Agni IV: An IRBM of Indian origin, the Agni IV is similar in form and function to the RSD-10 Pioner, though its range is slightly less. The guidance system of the Agni IV is much more complex, and both conventional and nuclear warheads have been developed for it, and while it is similar in shape to the Pioner, it is also significantly larger. It was first tested in 2014, but remains in development as of Summer 2017. As with France and China, India isn't an INF signatory.

 

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RSD-10 Pioner missile

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RSD-10 Pioner-3 (SS-20 Mod.3 Saber or SS-X-28 Saber) missile

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RSD-10 Pioner (SS-20 Saber)

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