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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Failed Missile Test Sets Back Nuclear Forces' Plans

In a setback for Russia's struggling strategic nuclear forces, a test last week of the new Topol-M single-warhead intercontinental ballistic missile failed, with the rocket exploding after launch, sources disclosed. The mishap casts doubt on plans for deployment this year.

The modernized Topol-M is the centerpiece of Russia's hopes for preserving its nuclear shield in the years ahead, when many of its older rockets, airplanes and submarines will become obsolete. Already, Russia's strategic forces have shrunk to a fraction of those fielded by the Soviet Union at the peak of the Cold War, and they are plagued by accidents, failing equipment and restive troops suffering from lack of food and long months without pay.

In July, President Boris Yeltsin approved a new strategic plan that reportedly scrapped plans to build other new missiles, but preserved the Topol-M, which is under the control of the Strategic Rocket Forces. The missile is designed to replace the older, so-called "heavy" missiles with multiple warheads that were outlawed by the START II strategic arms treaty.

Some Russian officials have been arguing that if the Topol-M is delayed, there should be prolonged deployment of the older multiple-warhead missiles. Critics say this could be dangerous because it would increase the risk of an accident from such things as deteriorating materials. The START II treaty that outlawed them has not been ratified by the State Duma, parliament's lower house.

The sources said the fifth planned test launch of the Topol-M took place Thursday from the Plesetsk launching pad in Russia's far northwest. The missile unexpectedly exploded during the first stage of the launch and fell in the Arkhangelsk region. The missile was intended to fly across northern Russia and hit a target on the Kamchatka Peninsula.

It was not clear why the rocket blew up but one source said Friday that a system for emergencies f in which the rocket "liquidates" itself f was apparently activated. The missile is designed to carry nuclear warheads, but not in testing.

General Vladimir Yakovlev, head of the rocket forces, said on state-owned television in an interview broadcast Friday night that "this was the fifth and a very difficult launch." However, Yakovlev was not asked, and did not say, that the rocket exploded. Rather, he said "for the first time, a new trajectory of the rocket was envisaged ? that was giving a possibility to resolve the most complicated tasks during flight." Yakovlev repeated his statement, made dozens of times in recent months, that the Topol-M is "a missile of the 21st century."

Viktor Litovkin, a correspondent for Izvestia, reported that helicopter pilots are searching for "what is left" of the failed missile in the Arctic tundra.

A source said Yakovlev was trying to mask the test failure because it could severely crimp his plans and prestige. Yakovlev, a protege of Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, himself a former chief of the rocket forces, has promised that 10 of the new missiles will be deployed by year's end at the 104th rocket forces' regiment at Tatishchevo, in the Saratov region southeast of Moscow. So far, only two of the rockets have been put on "test" duty there. Izvestia said five more rockets are in various stages of readiness.

The economic crisis has called into question whether Yakovlev's goal of building 35 to 40 of the new Topol-M missiles annually after the turn of the century can be met. Nevertheless, Deputy Prime Minister Yury Maslyukov has insisted Russia will deploy this number despite its economic problems.