Arms Race
Against America with the "Storm"

The Cold War enormously accelerated the development of missile technology. How effective the soviets started but failed in the end, explained by MATTHIAS UHL

Translated by Carola Leyendecker and Christine Crawford.

In 1957, Soviet party leader Nikita Chruschtschow gained global success with political propaganda surrounding the birth of Sputnik. However, it took three more years to further develop "Wostok" (Sputnik's carrier rocket) for the intercontinental missile R-7 (SS-6 Sapwood). Scientists and engineers struggled to find a way of landing the warhead accurately, and also to find a way of combating the potentially lethal forces present on re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere, which could cause it to self-destruct. After it had undergone major changes, Sergej Koroljow succeeded in developing the R-7. In January 1960, the R-7 was officially incorporated into the USSR's weaponry, as the first ever Soviet intercontinental missile.

Effective propaganda weapon
In contrast to Stalin, Chruschtschow did not rely on balanced strategic forces, as he almost entirely favoured missile weapons, heavily influenced by the technocrats of the arms industry. The new Soviet head of state and party leader believed heavy bombers were expensive and lacked prospects. He much preferred guided missiles as a cheaper and particularly promising alternative. Chruschtschow and his military officers had also recognised that with the assistance of nuclear missiles, it was possible to extend their little-known military might over very long distances. The existence and threat of operational nuclear weapons should make it possible to enforce political demands and create better bargaining positions.

Until the end of the 1950s, the Kremlin leader let the world believe that the Soviet Union had powerful nuclear weapons with intercontinental range. Missiles didn't actually exist in the arsenals of the Soviet Army – in 1960 they only had four R-7 launching platforms. Nevertheless, the first Soviet intercontinental missile proved itself as one of the most effective Cold War propaganda weapons, despite being completely unsuitable for operational missions. Thanks to the success of R-7 as a launch vehicle, Chruschtschow hinted to the world that the Soviet Union had numerous intercontinental weapons, ready at anytime.

However, military officers and Chruschtschow identified the R-7's severe weaknesses and pushed for it to be improved. Chuschtschow wanted to focus on how to reach the US with the help of nuclear power. Modifying the rocket to match the R-7 type by increasing its range from 8,300 kms to 12,000+ kms, would reach more than 90% of their desired US targets.1

It was a widely held belief that this would be sufficient to successfully destroy agglomeration.During the mid 50s, Soviet scientists and engineers began working on projects called "Buran" (snowstorm) and "Burja" (storm), as the Soviet party leader wanted to play it safe. These projects were aimed at enabling the Soviet Army to reach the US with nuclear weapons.

Both schemes involved the development of enormous cruise missiles, designed to produce two and a half to five tonne nukes. Each had a blasting power of up to three megatons in a directed aerodynamic flight, and a range of 8,000 kms. After initial support from drop rocket boosters, the cruise missile first rose to its maximum flight level of 24+ kms, in under 90 seconds.

Scientists and engineers hoped to achieve a target accuracy of more or less than 10 kms using this ambitious technology.

Using astronavigation it raced to their desired target, exceeding Mach 32 over a distance of up to 8,000 kms. When the nuclear warhead was approaching its target it automatically separated from the rest of the weapon, at a pre-set time. After separation the nuclear warhead dashed towards its target. Scientists and engineers hoped to achieve a target accuracy of more or less than 10 kms using this ambitious technology. They believed this would be sufficient to successfully destroy agglomeration.3

The target: America
Two special project sites were assigned with the mission of hitting their alleged target – America. However, it quickly became apparent that both ambitious projects were far too expensive and involved numerous-near impossible technical difficulties. Therefore, in September 1957, the Central Committee decided to stop work on "Buran" and concentrate solely on "Burja".

After all, "Buran" had failed its first test flight that year on August 1st. Two further test flights failed to produce any major successes, due to the out of control storey collapsing shortly after leaving the launch pad.4 This was caused by complex faults with the steering system. Further tests were carried out over the next two years, however there were no major breakthroughs until the fourteenth test on December 2nd 1959. On this day, the Wladimirowka storey near Astrachan turned 180 degrees by itself, along the designated line to Balachaschsee in Kasachstan, about 1,800 kms away.5

It came down close to its starting point after travelling more than 4100 kms. A launch pad was now in place for the attack. There were plans to build another two launch pads, each on a different site. Each launch pad was estimated to cost 200 million roubles. At the same time, they started developing a mobile launch pad. "Burja" was unable to solve the major problems that the Soviet Military were experiencing with their intercontinental range of nuclear weapon projects. There was at least a 24 hour wait time to launch the R-7 and a further 25 hours if it had to be restarted. However, it was possible to reduce its launch time to 30 minutes, because the missile could rest at its highest point of alert-for more than a year.6

Chruschtschow lost interest in his intercontinental range missile project, due to massive monetary investment (1.4 billion roubles alone for "Burja" in 1960) and relatively poor results.7 The head of the Central Committee finally called a halt to "Burja" on October 3rd 1960, despite construction worker's demonstrations.8

Overly high costs
High costs added to the project's demise, but military officers also feared that the missiles may be easily identifiable by US air defence, despite their ability to reach speeds over Mach 3. Furthermore, the R-16 (SS 7 Saddler) created by Michail Jangel offered a ballistic intercontinental missile capable of reaching US territory – in stark contrast to "Burja" – without any major difficulties.

However, the R-7 and R-16 were only suitable for the first strike, due to their extensive launch times. Nevertheless, they did not guarantee improvements to the Soviet Union's safety, because unmarked and deployed rockets only executed surprise attacks, and didn't provide defence solutions.

During the spring of 1960, Soviet leadership deployed the R-16 type in subterranean silos to further protect their strategic weapons. In 1957, the US built bunkers for their intercontinental missiles. The first subterranean R-16 was launched in July 1963.9

By this time, the Soviet Union's strategic position had diminished dramatically. Chruschtschow originally thought it was possible to contain the US with between 150 and 200 intercontinental missiles, however this was just not possible. American intelligence flights-and later recon satellites in 1960, discovered the location of secret Soviet launch pads, which were vulnerable to surprise attacks. Eventually, the US began to deploy masses of relatively cheap, agile and safer nuclear missiles, powered by a powder-based fuel.

The Minuteman Program
The reason for the Soviet Union's "missile lack', was the introduction of Kennedy's Minuteman Program. It was designed to enable the US to rival Soviet intercontinental missile development and close the so called "missile gap". Thanks to their extreme precision the Minuteman missiles could withstand the few unprotected Soviet launch pads, with a single strike. The Soviet Union now faced their own "missile lack".

The proportion of Soviet and American missiles able to reach the other state's territory had decreased from 1:3 in 1960 to 1:5.5 in 1964. The USSR needed a missile that could fulfill their military demands and be cheaply mass-produced, to escape the potential threat of a nuclear decapitation strike. Following Chruschtschow's subversion at the end of 1964, it was the unenviable task of his successor Leonid Breschnew to reach a strategic balance with the US.

Both projects – "Buran" and "Burja" – are proof of Chruschtschow's desperate attempt to create nuclear weapons capable of successfully targeting America. Unfortunately, neither project reached the innovative technological level required to unsettle the US. Therefore, the Soviet Government and their party leader called upon military officers to examine unsurpassable technological projects.

The Soviet officer suggested building artificial launch pads in the west Atlantic, similar to the well known drilling rigs. The military was supposed to effectively deploy the Soviet's numerous middle range missiles in the fight against the US.

It is well documented that the Chief of General Stuff Wassilij Sokolowskij informed Chruschtschow that this mission was unworthy of military attention.10 Chruschtschow could not let the project go, so three years later he deployed missiles to a sugar drilling rig near the US, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

[1] Cf. RGAE, 298/1/78, sheets 49-52, Order of the GKOT No. 256-ov, 16.7.1961.
The Mach no. describes the proportion of current and acoustic velocity; 1 Mach = 340,29 m/s.
Cf. RGAE, 57/1/148, sheets 1-174, Modellkommission meeting minutes for the Buran Project, 1955; ibd., 57/1/149, sheets 1-94, Modellkommission meeting minutes for the Burja Project, 1955.
Cf. RGAE, 29/1/22, sheet 200f., Notes from Dementjew to the KPdSU Central Committee, 1.3.1958.
Cf.  RGAE, 29/1/602, sheet 19f., Notes from Dementjew to Chruschtschow, 9.12.1959.
Cf. RGAR, 29/1/616, sheets 324-328, decision on the development of flight missiles, 1.12.1959.
RGAE, 29/1/1213, Notes from Sudez to Ustinow, 27.7.1960.
RGAE, 29/1/1199, Notes from the Central Committee to Dementjew, 12.11.1960.
Cf. RGAE, 298/1/1432, sheets 66-70, Order No.261/60 for the Governmental Committee for the USSR’s defence techniques, 14.6.1960.
Cf. Russian National History Archives, 5/30/311, sheets 91-113, Notes from Ingenieur-Major Irošnikov to Chruščev, 13.5.1959; ibd., sheet 114f., Sokolovskij's survey of the project, 1.7.1959.


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