The Soviet Union’s Cold War-era Molodets intercontinental ballistic missile was unique for being fielded on a train, rather than in silos or on mobile launchers. But its novelty didn’t stop there — this weapon, known to NATO as the SS-24 Scalpel, also featured a bizarre inflatable nosecone.
What seems to be the only video available of the missile’s nosecone in action was brought to our attention by Twitter user Chase, whose feed is worth a follow for those interested in nuclear weapons and security, including some of its more unusual aspects. The same clip can be found within a longer video on YouTube, at around the 1:05 mark. That entire video is also posted later on in this article.
The decision to incorporate an inflatable nosecone seems to have been driven by the very specific requirements of railway launch. Since the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) itself was longer than a standard railroad car, this was a solution to accommodate it within the length restrictions of the launcher and retain aerodynamic properties once launched.
It seems the nosecone inflated soon after launch and it used a pressure accumulator to increase internal pressure, which in turn deployed a corrugated metal internal structure, forming the conical nose shape. This solution is used to reduce the overall length of the missile and its placement in the car. Meanwhile, inflatables continue to be used in spaceflight, if not missile technology, to this day.
The story of the SS-24 itself is an interesting one, part of a wider Soviet effort to make its land-based ICBMs more survivable. By the late 1960s, it was clear that the increasing accuracy of U.S. missiles would likely be enough to ensure the destruction of any Soviet ICBM silos, no matter how hardened. The Soviet response followed a two-pronged approach to enhance survivability: road-mobile missiles on tracked or wheeled launchers, and rail-mobile systems.
With 99,000 miles of railway lines able to accommodate disguised missile launchers, rail-mobile missiles would be almost impossible to find and consistently track. At the same time, it promised to allow heavier ICBMs to be fielded: Soviet road-mobile systems, at this point, were limited to missiles weighing around 40 tons. In addition, being tracked, the early road-mobile systems imparted potentially damaging vibrations on the missile itself.
In early 1969, two design bureaus, Chelomey and Yangel were tasked with developing rail-mobile ICBMs. The Chelomey offering was quickly abandoned since it used liquid-fuel propulsion that was too sensitive to the vibrations of the train and could potentially cause a catastrophic propellant leak.
In the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, Yangel continued work on its design, based on the RT-23 missile for the Molodets system (translated to English, the name means something like ‘good boy’ or ‘well done’). However, this progressed only very slowly, and it wasn’t until 1980 that design work was finalized. As well as the formidable technical challenges involved in fielding a missile on a train, the Soviets were still perfecting solid-fuel rocket technology, and there was also lingering official resistance to mobile systems in general, on grounds of cost and complexity, as well as contravening arms treaty negotiations. There were also concerns about training crews to operate the systems and about the command-and-control issues surrounding a widely dispersed mobile ICBM force.