What's a Scud?
The Scud missiles causing so much anxiety in the world today are Soviet designs that originated in a weapon developed by the Nazis.
- By Bruce Berkowitz
- Air & Space magazine, May 2003
THE SCUD MISSILES CAUSING SO MUCH ANXIETY IN THE WORLD TODAY are Soviet designs that originated in a weapon developed by the Nazis.
“Scud” is a Western term. The names of Soviet weapons we’re familiar with came from the Air Standards Coordinating Committee, a military group founded in 1948 by the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The committee gave surface-to-surface missiles names starting with “S”—Shyster, Sandal, Skean, etc. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization later adopted the naming conventions, as did the Soviets, who were so secretive that they would often use the Western terms rather than utter the forbidden Russian names.
During the cold war, NATO used “Scud” to refer to a specific missile, the R-11, a Soviet theater-range weapon intended to strike targets in Western Europe. Scuds were manufactured by the Votkinsk Machine Building Plant from 1959 to 1984. Today, however, “Scud” is like “Kleenex” and “Xerox,” brand names that are used to refer, generically, to all similar products. In this case, the product is any single-stage, storable-propellant military rocket with a range of between 186 and 372 miles.
Scuds are often described as Soviet modernizations of the V-2, a surface-to-surface rocket that the Germans built during World War II. In fact, the Scud family was derived from a relative of the V-2, the Wasserfall, a radio-directed anti-aircraft missile that rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun and his team first tested in the German town of Peenemünde in 1944. Olaf Przybilski of the Technical University of Dresden discovered this link a few years ago when he interviewed German rocket engineers that the Soviets had conscripted to work for them after the war.
What distinguished the Wasserfall from similar weapons was its oxidizer: nitric acid. Unlike liquid oxygen, the oxidizer used by the V-2, nitric acid can be stored at normal temperatures inside a rocket for long periods—essential for an anti-aircraft missile, which needs to be ready to fire on a moment’s notice. In the late 1940s, the Soviet air defense force cloned the Wasserfall and called its version the R-101. The Soviet army soon realized storable propellants offered the same benefit, shorter prep time for launch, for surface-to-surface missiles. Soon engineers drew on the R-101 to design the R-11 ballistic missile—the Scud. The die was cast.
A few years later, the Soviets designed a successor to the R-11, the R-17. With a more powerful motor and more potent propellants, it had more than twice the range (186 miles versus 80). Western military services did not know the R-17 was really a new design so they called it the Scud-B. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Soviets exported Scud-Bs, which were often an inexpensive substitute for an air force, to their Warsaw Pact allies and to clients in the developing world. South Yemen was one example. The Scud-B’s extended range gave South Yemen the ability to hit Sanaa, capital of North Yemen, its perennial rival.
The R-17 not only became the most proliferated ballistic missile in history, it also inspired more derivative designs than any other. But even today, Wasserfall DNA appears in the Scud and in all of its progeny: They all have the same 35-inch diameter as the original.
The event that spread Scud technology around the world was the 1973 Israel-Egypt Yom Kippur War. As a sign of socialist solidarity, North Korea sent a few pilots to Egypt. After the war, Egyptian officials hoped its new Korean friends would get into the business of manufacturing replacement parts for the Egyptian army. (Egypt was equipped mainly with weapons from the Soviet Union, but relations between the two governments had soured.) So in 1976, Egypt shipped a few Scud-Bs to North Korea. The North Koreans reverse-engineered the missiles, and by the 1980s they were ready to build their own. It was largely this Egyptian-Korean connection that spawned the many Scud variants we see today.