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A Trident missile clears the water after launch from a US Navy submarine in 1984

A submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) is a ballistic missile capable of being launched from submarines. Modern variants usually deliver multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) each of which carries a nuclear warhead and allows a single launched missile to strike several targets. Submarine-launched ballistic missiles operate in a different way from submarine-launched cruise missiles.

Modern submarine-launched ballistic missiles are closely related to intercontinental ballistic missiles, and in many cases SLBMs and ICBMs may be part of the same family of weapons.


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, but 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 20 October 1961,[4] just ten days before the gigantic 50 Mt Tsar Bomba's detonation in the same general area.

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 non-optimal ballistic trajectory which trades off reduced throw-weight for a faster and lower path, effectively reducing the time between launch and impact), 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:

United States United States of America (also known as Fleet Ballistic Missiles)
Soviet Union/Russia Soviet Union / Russian Federation
  • 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
  • R-27K, NATO name SS-NX-13 – designed for anti-ship use, never operational[6]
  • RSM-45 R-31 NATO name SS-N-17 "Snipe"[5] – Decommissioned
  • RSM-50[5] R-29R "Vysota", NATO name SS-N-18 "Stingray" – Operational
  • 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")[7]
  • RSM-54 R-29RMU "Sineva", NATO name SS-N-23 "Skiff" – Operational
  • RSM-54 R-29RMU2 "Layner" – Operational
  • RSM-56 R-30 "Bulava", SS-NX-32[8] – Operational
United Kingdom United Kingdom
France France
  • M1 – Decommissioned
  • M2 – Decommissioned
  • M20 – Decommissioned
  • M4 – Decommissioned
  • M45 – Operational
  • M51 – Operational
China People's Liberation Army Navy
India India

Non-military use

Some former Russian SLBMs have been converted into Volna and Shtil' launch vehicles to launch satellites – either from a submarine or from a launch site on land.

See also


  1. "Missiles 1963". 7 November 1963. p. 752. 
  2. Wade, Mark. "R-11". Encyclopedia Astronautica. Retrieved 23 April 2011. 
  3. Dygalo, V.A.. "Start razreshaju (in Russian)". Nauka i Zhizn'. Retrieved 23 April 2011. 
  4. Polmar, Norman; White, Michael (2010). Project Azorian: The CIA and the Raising of the K-129. Naval Institute Press. p. 21. ISBN 978-1-59114-690-2. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Korabli VMF SSSR, Vol. 1, Part 1, Yu. Apalkov, Sankt Peterburg, 2003, ISBN 5-8172-0069-4
  6. SS-NX-13 SLBM System (U), Defense Intelligence Agency, D5T-1020S-4l7-75, 1 October 1975
  7. "SSBN K-51 Verkhoturye arrived to Zvezdochka for repairs today". 23 August 2010. Retrieved 8 October 2010. 
  8. NASIC-1031-0985-09
  9. "JL-1 [CSS-N-3] – China Nuclear Forces". Retrieved 10 February 2012. 
  11. 'INS Arihant' to sail on deterrent patrol after commissioning[dead link]

External links

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