The Scud Missile Still Gives The World Nightmares

Kyle Mizokami

Key point: The Scud became the weapon of choice for rogue states, and has been the precursor for more dangerous missiles.

One of the most infamous missiles of the modern era, the Scud short-range ballistic missile was developed as a nuclear asset for Soviet commanders during the Cold War. Today, more than six decades later, the Scud’s DNA has been scattered worldwide, found in ballistic missiles from North Korea to Iran. The lumbering Scud is more visible than ever, with dozens fired in the ongoing Yemeni civil war.

The Scud missile is a direct product of captured wartime German missile technology. Soviet experiments with the Nazi-developed V-2 missile led to a ten-year development effort that culminated in the R-11M missile paraded through Red Square in November 1957. The R-11M was a liquid-fueled missile that rode on a tracked transporter erector launcher not dissimilar to North Korea’s Pukkuksong-2 tracked launcher. The R-11M could launch a conventional high-explosive warhead up to 167 miles and a heavier nuclear warhead up to ninety-three miles. The R-11M was eventually nicknamed “Scud” by NATO, and as subsequent versions emerged became known as Scud-A.

The Scud-A’s short range made it a tactical nuclear delivery system. The missile had poor accuracy, with a circular error probable—or the distance within which half of a missile’s warheads will fall—of 1.8 miles. This, and the primitive state of early nuclear-weapons development, meant that the Scud, despite being a tactical system, was still equipped with large warheads with a yield of twenty to a hundred kilotons.

The basic Scud design was updated several times during the Cold War. The R-17, also known as the Scud-B, was introduced in 1965. Scud-B moved to an 8×8 wheeled tracked erector launcher and a nuclear-payload range increase to from ninety-three to 167 miles. A new inertial guidance system shrank the -B model’s accuracy down to .6 miles, and while the new missile was by no means a “precision-guided weapon,” it was still exponentially more accurate.

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