Submarine-launched ballistic missile

Submarine-launched ballistic missile
A Trident II D5 nuclear missile. It is capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads up to 8,000 km. They are carried by 14 US Navy Ohio class submarines and 4 Royal Navy Vanguard class submarines

A submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) is a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead that can be launched from submarines. Modern variants usually deliver multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) each of which carries a warhead and allows a single launched missile to strike several targets. Submarine-launched ballistic missiles should not be confused with submarine-launched cruise missiles, which operate in a different way.



The first practical design of a submarine-based launch platform was developed by the Germans near the end of World War II involving a launch tube which contained a ballistic missile and was towed behind a submarine. The war ended before it could be tested, but the engineers who had worked on it went on to work for the USA and USSR on their SLBM programs. These and other early SLBM systems required vessels to be surfaced when they fired missiles, launch systems eventually were adapted to allow underwater launching in the 1950-1960s. The United States made the first successful underwater launch of a Polaris A1 on 20 July 1960.[1] Forty days later, the Soviet Union made its first successful underwater launch of a submarine ballistic missile in the White Sea on 10 September 1960 from the same converted Project 611 (Zulu Class) submarine that first launched the R-11FM (SS-N-1 Scud-A, naval modification of SS-1 Scud) on 16 September 1955.[2][3] However, the Soviet Union was able to beat the U.S. in launching and testing the first armed SLBM, an R-13 that detonated in the Novaya Zemlya Test Range in the Arctic Ocean, doing so on October 20, 1961.[4]

French M45 SLBM and M51 SLBM

Ballistic missile submarines have been of great strategic importance for the USA and Russia and other nuclear powers since the start of the Cold War, as they can hide from reconnaissance satellites and fire their nuclear weapons with virtual impunity. This makes them immune to a first strike directed against nuclear forces, allowing each side to maintain the capability to launch a devastating retaliatory strike, even if all land-based missiles have been destroyed. This relieves each side of the necessity to adopt a launch on warning posture, with its grave attendant risk of accidental nuclear war. Additionally, the deployment of highly accurate missiles on ultra-quiet submarines allows an attacker to sneak up close to the enemy coast and launch a missile on a depressed trajectory - a very close range attack which will hit its target in a matter of minutes, thus opening the possibility of a decapitation strike.[citation needed]

Types of SLBMs

Montage of the launch of a Trident C4 SLBM and the paths of its reentry vehicles.

Specific types of SLBMs (current, past and under development) include:

  • Soviet Union Russia Soviet Union / Russia
    • R-13 NATO name SS-N-4 - decommissioned
    • R-21 NATO name SS-N-5 - decommissioned
    • RSM-25 [5] R-27 NATO name SS-N-6 - decommissioned
    • RSM-40 [5] R-29 "Vysota", NATO name SS-N-8 "Sawfly" - decommissioned
    • RSM-45 R-31 NATO name SS-N-17 "Snipe" [5] - decommissioned
    • RSM-50 [5] R-29R "Vysota", NATO name SS-N-18 "Stingray" - active
    • RSM-52 [5] R-39 "Rif", NATO name SS-N-20 "Sturgeon" - decommissioned
    • RSM-54 R-29RM "Shtil", NATO name SS-N-23 "Skiff" - decommissioned (last ship is now under rebuild to R-29RMU "Sineva") [6]
    • RSM-54 R-29RMU "Sineva", NATO name SS-N-23 "Skiff" - active
    • RSM-56 R-30 "Bulava", NATO name SS-NX-32 - under development

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