Country of origin
Dimensions and weight
nuclear, single warhead with 1 MT yield
Range of fire
5 000 km
Maximum road speed
~ 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
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.
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.
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
The launch platform of the RSD-10 Pioner was an MAZ-547 TEL
vehicle. Made in today's Belarus and based on the
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-547 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.
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.
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
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
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. For many years the US and Russia officially
acted in accordance by this treaty. But in recent years both sided frequently accused one
another of violating it. In 2007 Russia declared that the treaty no
longer serves its interests and began development of new ballistic
and cruise missiles with nuclear warheads, including the
RS-26 Rubezh and
that apparently violate the treaty. Eventually in 2019 the US withdrew from the treaty. Thus, while the Pioner will
never see service again, a spiritual successor may yet surface in
the near future.
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
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.
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.
publish your own articles? Visit our
guidelines for more information.