On August 6th, 1945 the first nuclear weapon was detonated over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later, the city of Nagasaki was subjected to the second, and currently last, nuclear attack in human history. The bombings are credited with helping to bring an end to the war with Japan and preventing the further loss of millions of lives. Combined, the two bombs killed approximately 240,000 people and ushered in a new era – the nuclear age.
From 1945 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the world endured the Cold War and the constant specter of a possible nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. During this time, both sides built thousands of nuclear weapons which ranged from small bombs and cruise missiles to massive Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) and Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM). Britain, France and China added to this stockpile of weaponry with their own nuclear arsenals.
Today, the fear of nuclear annihilation is considerably less than it was in the 1970s or 1980s, yet several nations still possess a large arsenal of these destructive weapons. Furthermore, despite treaties aimed at limiting the number of weapons a nation can possess, nuclear powers continue to develop and improve their stockpiles and delivery methods. A resurgence in anti-ballistic missile development has caused some nations to step up development of new and more effective ICBMs and SLBMs. This has created a fear that a new arms race could open up between the world superpowers as each tries to produce technologies superior to the others.
The following list looks at ten of the most destructive or ‘effective’ nuclear missile systems currently in service in the world. Accuracy, range, number of warheads, warhead power and mobility are factors which make these systems so destructive and dangerous. This list is presented in no particular order because these nuclear missiles don’t always share the same task or objective. One missile may be developed to destroy a city while another type may be designed to destroy enemy missile silos. In addition, this list does not include missiles currently being tested or not officially deployed. Thus, missile systems like India’s Agni-V and China’s JL-2, both in stages of testing and to be officially operational this year, are not included. Israel’s Jericho III is also left out as there remains significant gaps in knowledge about the missile and doubt about whether it is an Intermediate range missile or a full ICBM.
Note: It is important to keep in mind when reading the following that the size of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were equivalent to 16 kilotons (x1000) and 21 kilotons of TNT respectively.
10 M51 - SLBM (France)
Behind the United States and Russia, France deploys the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world. In addition to nuclear bombs and cruise-missiles, France relies on its SLBMs to provide its primary nuclear deterrent. Of this force, the M51 is the most modern component. The M51 entered service in 2010 and is currently installed on the Triomphant class of ballistic missile submarines. The missile has a range of around 10,000 km and is reportedly capable of carrying 6 to 10 100kt warheads per missile. The missile’s Circular-Error-Probability (CEP) is reportedly between 150 and 200 meters - meaning that the warhead has a 50% probability of striking within 150-200m of its target. In addition to decoys released during flight, terminal velocity is reported to be Mach 25, making any attempts to intercept incoming warheads very difficult.
9 DF-31/31A – ICBM (China)
The Dong Feng 31 is a road-mobile and silo based series of ICBMs deployed by China since 2006. The original model of this missile carried a large 1 megaton warhead and had a range of 8,000 km. The missile’s CEP is reportedly 300m. The improved 31A has three 150kt warheads and is capable of landing those warheads on a target over 11,000km away with a reported CEP of around 150m. The added fact that these missiles can be moved around and fired from a mobile launch vehicle makes them worthy of being on this list.
8 RT-2UTTKh Topol-M – ICBM (Russia)
Known as the SS-27 by NATO, the Topol-M entered Russian service in 1997. The missile is based in silos and a small number are road-mobile. Currently the missile is armed with a single 800kt warhead but can be equipped with up to six warheads and decoys. With a top speed of 7.3km per second, a relatively flat flight trajectory and a CEP of around 200m, the Topol-M is a very effective nuclear missile which is difficult to stop once in flight. The added difficulty of tracking the mobile units only makes it a more effective weapons system to possess.
7 RS-24 Yars – ICBM (Russia)
The Bush-administration’s plans to develop a missile defence network in Eastern Europe did not go over well with the leaders in the Kremlin. Despite stated intentions that the missile shield was meant to prevent attack by rogue nation missiles, Russian leaders saw the move as a threat to their own ballistic missile security. The result was the development of the Yars. This missile is loosely related to the Topol-M but carries four 150-300kt warheads and has a CEP reportedly of around 50m. Possessing many of the flight characteristics of the Topol-M, the Yars can also change direction in flight and carries decoys, all to make interception by a missile-defence system extremely difficult.
6 LGM-30G Minuteman III – ICBM (USA)
This is the only land-based ICBM deployed by the US. First deployed in 1970, the Minuteman III was supposed to be replaced by the MX Peacekeeper ICBM. That program was cancelled and the Pentagon, instead, put $7 billion into updating and upgrading the existing 450 Minutemen over the past decade. With a speed of nearly 8 km/s and CEP of under 200 m (the precise number is highly guarded) the old Minuteman remains a formidable nuclear weapon. Originally this missile carried three small yield warheads. Today, a single 300-475kt warhead from the cancelled MX program arms each missile.
5 RSM-56 Bulava – SLBM (Russia)
In terms of SLBMs, the Soviet Union and Russia had somewhat fallen behind the United States in overall performance and capability. The Bulava is a more recent addition to the Russian submarine arsenal. Designated the SS-N-32 by NATO, the missile was designed for the new Borei-class submarine. Plagued by numerous failures during the testing phase, Russia accepted the missile into service in 2013. The Bulava is currently armed with six 150kt warheads, although reports say it can carry as many as 10. As with most ballistic missiles, it also carries a number of decoys to aid its survivability in the face of a missile defence system. Range is approximately 8,000 km fully loaded and the CEP is a relatively high 300-350 meters.
4 R29RMU2 Layner – SLBM (Russia)
The newest SLBM in Russian service, the Layner became operational in 2014. The missile is effectively a highly updated version of a previous Russian SLBM (the R-29RMU Sineva) and was developed partly to make up for the problems occurring with the development of the Bulava. The Layner has a range of 11,000 km and can carry a maximum of twelve low yield nuclear warheads – likely 100kt each. Warhead load can be reduced and replaced with decoys to improve survivability. The warhead CEP is guarded but likely equal to or slightly better than the Bulava’s 350m.
3 UGM-133 Trident II – SLBM (USA/UK)
The current SLBM of the US and UK submarine force is the Trident II. The missile became operational in 1990 and has been updated and upgraded since. Fully armed, the Trident can carry 14 warheads. Various treaties have seen this number reduced and the missile currently carries 4-5 475kt warheads. Maximum range is dictated by its load of warheads and varies between 7800 and 11,000km. The US Navy required a CEP of 120m or less for the missile to be accepted into service. Numerous defense reports and military journals often state that the Trident’s CEP exceeded that requirement by a large margin.
2 DF-5/5A – ICBM (China)
In comparison with the other missiles on this list, the Dong Feng 5 can be considered the minivan of ICBMs. It’s not pretty, fancy or sophisticated but it is more than capable of getting the job done. The DF-5 entered service in 1981 and sent the message out to any would-be enemies that China planned no preemptive strikes but would make sure ti would punish anyone who attacked it. This ICBM can carry a huge 5mt warhead and has a range of over 12,000km. The DF-5 has a CEP of around 1 km which means it has one purpose – to flatten cities. The warhead size, CEP and fact it can take an hour to fuel and prepare for launch all mean this is a retaliatory weapon meant to punish any potential attackers. The 5A had a range increase, 300m CEP improvement and reported ability to carry multiple warheads.
1 R-36M2 – ICBM (Soviet Union/Russia)
There is a reason why the NATO designated this missile the SS-18 Satan. First deployed in 1974, the R-36 has gone through a number of changes which even at one time included carrying a 20-25mt warhead. The last development of this missile, the R-36M2 has ten 750kt warheads and a range of approximately 11,000 km. With a top speed of nearly 8 km/s and a CEP of 220m, the Satan is a weapon which caused a lot of concern for American military planners. It could have been even worse if Soviet planners had been given the green light to deploy one version of this missile which was to have 38 250kt warheads. Russia plans to retire all of these missiles by 2019.