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The R-17 missile, better known in the West as Scud, became one of the irreversible legacies of the Cold War, which continued casting shadow on the international politics, long after the US and Russia normalized relationships at the end of the 1980s. The Soviet decision to export the missile turned it into Pandora's box of the Atomic Age. In the last decades of the 20th century, the R-17 served as a starting point for proliferation of missile weapons among some of the most notorious regimes in the world.

R-17 rocket tech dossier:

Number of stages
Flight range

300 kilometers

Length of the vehicle

11.2 meters

0.88 meters
Weight (fueled)
5.8 tons (180) (6.3 tons according to Western estimates, possibly for Scud B version 109)
First launch -
Test site Kapustin Yar
UDMH (TM-185)
Oxidizer Nitrogen Acid (AK-27I)

Isaev (Length: 1,490 mm, diameter: 770 mm); Dry mass: 120 kg


One inseparable

Flight control system


Principle developer

KB Mashinostroenia (SKB-385)


In mid-1950s, the Soviet government was implementing a strategic policy aimed to disperse the country's defense industry away from traditional population centers in the western Russia. Among such moves was the creation of the SKB-385 design bureau and production plant in the town of Zlatoust in the Southern Ural region, deep inside the Russian territory. The new organization took over the development of submarine-launched missiles originated at Korolev's OKB-1 near Moscow. 30-year-old Viktor Makeev, who had previously led the development of a submarine-launched version of the R-11 missile at OKB-1, now took charge of SKB-385.

At the beginning of 1956, the fresh team in Zlatoust completed the development of the submarine-launched R-11 missile and proposed the new missile designated R-17. (192)


The R-17 project became further reincarnation of a short-range R-11 (Scud) missile, the first Soviet rocket system that used storable propellants, thus eliminating the need for super-cold liquid oxygen, which was used in earlier missiles.

The Soviet government approved the development of the R-17 in April 1958. The new short-range tactical missile increased the range and mobility of its predecessor. As in the case with the R-11, Alexei Isaev's KB Khimmmash developed a propulsion system for the R-17. The engine had a thrust of 13,380 kilograms.

The R-17 could be fired from wheeled vehicles or tank-based crawlers. The missile could carry conventional explosives, chemical or nuclear warheads. The latter was developed at Chelyabinsk 70 (VNIITF) nuclear weapons center.

During the 1960s, mass production of the missile was organized at the Votkinsk Plant in Udmurt Region of Ural, which previously produced artillery systems. (75)

After a series of tests in Kapustin Yar, the R-17 was adopted into armaments of the Soviet Army in March 1962. (180) In the 1980s, the R-17s deployed in the Soviet brigades at army and front level were apparently replaced with a new generation of missiles. (181)

Proliferation of Scud

The USSR exported the missile to several Arab countries -- Egypt, Syria, Libya and Iraq.

During the Yom Kippur War between Israel and Arab countries in 1973, Egypt reportedly fired three R-17 missiles against Israeli forces in the Sinai Peninsula. Apparently none of the missiles hit its target.

In November 1975, a Syrian R-17 reportedly covered 250 kilometers during a test flight. (109)


In 1979, the Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan, with the goal of supporting communist government in the country. During a prolonged war that followed, the Soviet Army apparently fired a number of the R-17s from positions inside Afghanistan. According to Dwayne Day, the space analyst and historian at George Washington University, sensors onboard US early-warning satellites detected exhaust plumes from Scuds flying over the country.

North Korea

Apparently, in the 1970s, the R-17 missile made it from the Middle East (Egypt?) to the North Korea, where it became a base for this country's own missile development program. (182)

In mid-1980s, North Korea, with its Stalinist economy heading to an inevitable collapse, started selling the R-17 missiles to Iran, Pakistan and United Arab Emirates. (A deal with Pakistan possibly included exchange of a rocket for Pakistani nuclear technology.) In December 2002, a ship loaded with Scud missiles was intercepted on its way from North Korea to Yemen.


In the secret negotiations with the US and Great Britain, which concluded in December 2003 with Muammar el-Qaddafi's decision to abandon weapons of mass destruction, Libyan officials told Western diplomats that their country had obtained Scud-C missiles with the range of 500 miles from North Korea. However, indications were that an indigenous Libyan rocket development program based on Scud technology went nowhere. Observers noted that during its three decades in power, Qaddafi's regime essentially wiped out the nation's intelligentsia, making it all but impossible the development or maintenance of sophisticated technologies. (191)


Iraq reportedly bought as many as 650 R-17 missiles and 36 movable MAZ launchers. During the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988, Iraq fired as many as 350 ballistic missiles, including R-17s.

Iraq also tried to modify the R-17 with the goal of increasing its range for the expense of accuracy. By stretching the original R-17, Iraq developed two types of missiles -- Al Hussein with the range of 600 - 650 km and AI Abbas, with a range of 750 km to 900 km.

Iraq fired these missiles against targets in Israel and Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War of 1991. At the time, the missile became widely known by its western designation as Scud-B and it was often mistakenly called Scud.

Low accuracy of the stretched R-17 rendered it all but impractical as a weapon, however, Iraq continued relentless missile campaign during the course of the war, apparently realizing its enormous political impact. Firings against Israel, not a participant in the war, served essentially as an invitation for counterattack, which, in turn, could cause the anti-Iraq coalition, which included Israel's enemies in the Middle East, to break up. This bizarre "missile diplomacy" ultimately failed to work, as Israel essentially agreed to the US pressure to exercise restraint.

Only few Iraqi missiles flew during the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. One missile reportedly came close to striking a US command center in the region. Another short-range cruise missile exploded at night in the empty shopping mall in Kuwait City, harming no one.


During 2012, the Syrian government was reportedly using Scud-type missiles against rebel forces during a bloody civil war in the country.


On Aug. 26, 2015, Yemeni army launched a Scud missile reportedly aiming to hit a power station in Jizan, Saudi Arabia, during a rebellion in Yemen supported by Saudi Arabia.

The article and photography by Anatoly Zak

Last update: August 27, 2015

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The R-17 ballistic missile. Copyright © 2002 by Anatoly Zak

Tail section of the R-17 ballistic missile. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

Tank-based launcher for the R-17 missile. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

Western depiction of the R-17 missiles and their launchers, deploying in the firing area. Credit: Smithsonian Institution