On June 16, 2017 the Air and Space Defense Forces conducted a successful test of an interceptor of the Moscow missile defense system. The test took place at the Sary-Shagan test site. It was supported by crews of the test site (Strategic Rocket Forces) and industry representatives. According to the official statements, the test was carried out as part of a work on improving Russia's missile defense system.

The "improvement of Russia's missile defense" language is new - in previous tests the goal of the test was stated as "confirmation of technical characteristics of the interceptors" (the most recent test took place in June 2016). This may suggest that this time the interceptor is a bit different. It's quite possible that it is an upgrade of the 53T6/Gazelle missile. A completely new interceptor seems unlikely - the video shows that it uses the same container, so it's probably not that different from the 53T6 (but, of course, we cannot see the missile).

On May 25, 2017 at 09:33:41 MSK (06:33:41 UTC), the Air and Space Forces successfully launched a Soyuz-2.1b launcher from the launch pad No. 4 of the launch complex No. 43 of the Plesetsk site. Press reports quote official statement as saying the launcher carried "a new-generation satellite for the ministry of defense." The satellite is being delivered to the orbit by a Fregat-M booster. (More photos of the launch.)

The satellite is the second "Tundra" spacecraft of the new early-warning system, known as EKS. The system is expected to include satellites in Molniya-type highly-elliptical orbit as well as geostationary satellites. It was designated Cosmos-2518. The first satellite of the system, Cosmos-2510, was launched into an HEO orbit in November 2015. Cosmos-2518 appears to be an HEO satellite as well--it was reported that the industry delivered the first two HEO satellites in October 2015 and that there was a delay with the first GEO spacecraft.

Satellites of the EKS system are the only early-warning satellites that are currently in service. The old US-KS/US-KMO system ended operations in 2014. A working early-warning constellation would probably include about ten satellites on HEO as well as several GEO satellites. The new armament program appears to call for ten new satellite launches by 2020. It is difficult to see, however, how this plan can materialize. It should be noted, though, that Russia does not depend on the space tier of its early-warning system to the extent the United States does, so the lack of coverage by satellite does not necessarily increase the risk of miscalculation.

What exactly was the name of the first Soviet nuclear test? As it turns out, it is not a simple question. In the United States, the test was designated Joe-1, but its actual name was not known for quite a while. As the Soviet Union started opening up the history of its nuclear program, the name of the device tested on 29 August 1949 quickly entered public domain - RDS-1.

The test itself did not in fact have a name - unlike the United States, the Soviet Union did not name its tests, at least not in the early years of the nuclear program. Rather, they were known as tests of a certain device (изделие, izdeliye). Moreover, the first test, being unique, was referred to simply as a "test of the first exemplar of an atomic bomb." No designation, no RDS-1, nothing of the kind. In an interesting footnote, Stalin didn't actually approve the decision to go ahead with the test. The decision was made by the Special Committee at its meeting on 26 August 1949, three days before the test. Stalin apparently was not among those present. The Committee approved the draft decision of the Council of Ministers prepared by Kurchatov and forwarded it to Stalin for signature. But he never signed it (see document notes here and here).

Even though the test did not have a designation, the "first exemplar of an atomic bomb" that was tested did have a name - RDS-1. But even the participants of the Soviet atomic project could not agree on the meaning of that acronym. One version that is cited probably most often is that RDS stands for "Reaktivnyy Dvigatel Stalina" or "Stalin's Rocket Engine." A variation of that is "Reaktivnyy Dvigatel Spetsialnyy" ("Special Rocket Engine"). Some suggested "Rossiya Delayet Sama" or "Russia Does It Herself" (which would have been rather ironic name for what was essentially a copy of the U.S. Trinity device).

Documents, however, tell a slightly different story. It was indeed a "reaktivnyy dvigatel" - this is how the bomb was referred to in the early documents of the atomic project. The earliest I can find is the decision to establish the KB-11 design bureau (Soviet counterpart to Los Alamos), dated April 9, 1946. KB-11 was established with a specific purpose of designing and manufacturing of "experimental specimen of rocket engines" ("опытных образцов реактивных двигателей"). At the time the Soviet program was still considering a possibility of pursuing uranium as well as plutonium path to the bomb. At its May 18, 1946 meeting the Special Committee discussed two "rocket engine" variants. A month later, on 21 June 1946, the Council of Ministers approves a plan of work for KB-11 that explicitly says that the design bureau will build a "Rocket Engine S (RDS for short) in two variants - with heavy fuel (S-1) and light fuel (S-2)." Here is the paragraph:


From this point forward, "rocket engine," which clearly stands for "atomic bomb," almost disappears from the documents as it is replaced first by "S-1 and S-2 variants of RDS" and almost immediately after that - by RDS-1 and RDS-2. (To make things a bit more complicated, the RDS-2 in 1946--a uranium gun-type bomb--is not the RDS-2 that was tested in the second Soviet test in 1951. The uranium bomb project was terminated in 1948. Here is a very good guide to the evolution of early bomb designations.)

Now, we cannot be certain that S in "Rocket Engine S" does not stand for "Stalin" or for "special." So, in the end, RDS-1 may have been a "Stalin's rocket engine." But it is more likely that it was a fairly random choice of a letter that would specify that it is not some rocket engine, but a very specific one (the atomic bomb) and that this "engine" exists in two versions - S-1 and S-2. At least that is the way I read it.

What is certain is that RDS was never meant to be "Russia does it herself." Another name that didn't exist is "First Lightning" ("Первая молния"). This is the name that many sources claim the Soviet Union gave to its first nuclear test. It has made its way to Wikipedia and from there -- to numerous popular and academic works. The only problem is that you never see that name in the documents of the time or in memoirs of the participants of the Soviet nuclear project. It did appear, however, in some U.S. publications back in the 1980s. The origin of that was a bit of a puzzle until Vitaly Fedchenko, a colleague from SIPRI, found what appears to be a perfectly reasonable explanation. "First lightning" was the title of one of the chapters in the biography of Kurchatov published in the Soviet Union in 1968. The chapter about the fission bomb was called "First lightning," the one about the thermonuclear device - "Second lightning." These were very short chapters - not much can be said about the program back then. And, of course, the name of the device was off-limits, so the author just created a metaphor for that. It clearly caught on, but that name was never used in the nuclear project and should not be used to describe the first Soviet nuclear test.

It is probably time for a quick update on the status of the Russian strategic bomber modernization program. Russia seems to have quite a big plan. Two years ago, in May 2015, the air force announced that it wants to buy as many 50 new Tu-160 aircraft. This is apparently still very much the plan - in an interview last month the head of the United Aircraft Corporation said that the industry expects to produce from 30 to 50 new aircraft, which are now known as Tu-160M2. Production is expected to begin in 2021. [UPDATE: The first test Tu-160M2 aircraft is expected to be ready in 2019.]

Meanwhile, all 16 "old" Tu-160 bombers that are currently in service will be completely refurbished. Initially, the idea was to complete the overhaul by 2019, but in the most recent announcement, made by Yuri Borisov, the deputy minister of defense last month, the date was left uncertain - it's only that the old Tu-160 will remain in force until the arrival of the new Tu-160M2. Some Tu-160 bomber are already undergoing modernization, but it is difficult to say whether it is a "new" modernization or the "old" one - see the discussion in this post.

According to Borisov, Tu-95MS should be able to stay in service as long as it is necessary to be eventually replaced by the new PAK-DA. The original plan for PAK-DA was that it will make its first flight in 2019 and begin service in 2023. The work on PAK-DA is said to be underway since 2011. The contract was awarded to Tupolev design bureau in 2014.

It's hard to say how realistic (or indeed reasonable) is the plan to have all these modernization and new design and construction programs at the same time. The industry has its share of problems, so it should not surprise anyone if all dates will begin to "move to the right."

The U.S. State Department released aggregate New START numbers from the 1 March 2017 data exchange. Russia declared 1765 deployed warheads, 523 deployed launchers, and 816 total launchers. In September 2016 the numbers were 1796, 508, and 847 respectively.

The U.S. numbers in March 2017 were 1411 warheads, 673 deployed and 820 total launchers (1367, 681, and 848 in September 2016).

One of the three remaining Project 667BDR submarines, Ryazan, has returned to its base in Vilyuchinsk after an overhaul at the Zvezda plant in Vladivostok.

The submarine was transferred to the Pacific from the Northern Fleet in 2008. It began its overhaul in 2012 and its return to service was delayed a number of times.

Ryazan is an old submarine - it began service in 1982. It is not clear what is the reason submarines of this class are kept in service, but they seem to be doing reasonably well. Each submarine carries 16 R-29R missiles with three warheads, so the return of Ryazan will increase the New START warhead count.

The on-and-off rail-mobile ICBM program seems to be going forward after all, although rather slowly. Although it was said to be suspended in April 2016, it showed signs of life that culminated in what is said to be an ejection test in November 2016. Now a source in the industry telling the Russian press that the flight tests of the missile will begin in 2019.

The Sarmat program that is expected to produce a new "heavy" ICBM, appears to have hit some kind of a bump. Of course, it's hard to know it for certain--these things don't get a lot of coverage--but there are a few signs that may suggest that the program is in some kind of trouble.

The first sign was the delay with be first ejection tests--they were moved from 2015
to the end of 2016 and now to 2017 (for all we know, this may be the end of 2017). The delay was sort of explained by a problem with the test silo, but that explanation never sounded very convincing.

Another sign is something Shoygu said when he visited Krasmash earlier this month [UPDATE: There was no visit in January 2017]. He promised that the ministry of defense will demand weekly reports on the progress with development of "prospective strategic missile systems" that are built at Krasmash. The idea, he said, is to check that the project meets the milestones that were set at the end of 2016, when these milestones were adjusted. That's pretty harsh and looks like an extraordinary measure to me.

This is all circumstantial, but it does appear that the tests of Sarmat were supposed to begin at the end of 2016, but had to be moved to 2017 for reasons that have nothing to do with the test silo. Something may not be working at Krasmash.

UPDATE 02/01/2017: Shoygu again confirmed that Krasmash is behind the schedule with some projects.

UPDATE 04/01/2017: The ejection test is unlikely to happen before June 2017.

UPDATE 06/08/2017: Shoygu visited Krasmash on 06/06/17, apparently to check on Sarmat. Reports are that the test will happen in June 2017.

On January 16, 2017, the Strategic Rocket Forces carried out a successful flight test of a silo-based Topol-M (SS-27) missile. The missile was launched from a silo at the Plesetsk test site, the warhead was said to have reached its target at the Kura site in Kamchatka. According to the official statement, the purpose of the launch was "to confirm stability of flight and technical characteristics of ICBMs of this type."

This is the first of "about ten launches" that the Strategic Rocket Forces plan to conduct this year.

It has been a while since a Topol-M missile was tested from a silo. The previous test was in November 2014.

UPDATE: Zvezda TV has a video of the launch posted an old video of Topol-M/Yars launch from Plesetsk.

According to the Russian defense minister, three new early-warning radars will begin combat operations in 2017 - Orsk, Barnaul, and Yeniseisk. In addition, three radars--Baranovichi, Murmansk, and Pechora--have been "upgraded."

The radar in Orsk is of the Voronezh-M type. Barnaul and Yeniseisk are Voronezh-DM. The radar in Baranovichi (which is in Belarus) is an old one-of-a-kind Volga radar.

The Daryal radar in Pechora is even older - it's one of the two original Daryal radars built in the 1970s. It will be eventually replaced by the new radar in Vorkuta (it appears that two radars are being built there - Voronezh-SM/77Ya-SM/77Я6-СМ and Voronezh-VP/77Ya-VP/77Я6-ВП).

What Shoygu called the Murmansk radar is the old Dnepr/Daugava pair in Olenegorsk. Construction of new radar, probably of the Voronezh-VP kind, began there earlier this year.

As we can see, the upgrade of the early-warning radar network has been a very successful program. The space segment of the early-warning system, in contrast, appears to be behind the schedule. The old US-KS/US-KMO system ended operations in 2014. The first and only satellite of the new EKS system, Tundra, was launched in November 2015. It appears to be undergoing tests. The new armament program calls for deployment of ten satellites of the EKS system by 2020, but this plan does not seem particularly realistic. It should be noted, however, that for Russia the space-based segment of the early-warning system is not as as critical as for the United States, since it could never really rely on the "dual phenomenology" approach adopted by the United States. This is illustrated on this figure from my old article:

It shows that in some scenarios (SLBMs launched from the Atlantic), satellites don't add much to the warning time. And in any event, since Russia doesn't have forward-deployed radars, the radar warning comes to late to provide a useful check of the satellite information. To deal with the situation, the Soviet Union developed a different mechanism that allowed it to wait for signs of the actual attack (such as nuclear explosions) before launching its missiles. The arrangement is often referred to as the Dead Hand, since it does involve a certain predelegation of authority as well as the mechanism that ensures that decapitation does not prevent retaliation. The system, however, is not automatic (that idea was nixed in the 1980s) and requires humans to be involved in the decision to launch.