At 01:07 MSK on August 17, 2017 (22:06 on August 16, 2017 UTC) the Space and Air Defense Forces conducted a successful launch of a Proton-M launcher from Baykonur. The satellite was successfully delivered into orbit by the Briz-M booster stage. After that it received the official designation Cosmos-2520.

Cosmos-2520 is apparently the "heavy communication satellite" also known as Blagovest. It is the first in a series of at least four satellites of this type that are produced at the Reshetnev ISS enterprise in Zheleznogorsk.

Russian press quotes Sergey Boyev, the chief designer of the early-warning system, as saying that Russia may consider building a new early-warning radar in Crimea, most likely at the site where the Soviet Union deployed a Dnepr radar. The new radar was referred to as Voronezh-SM, where SM stands for "centimeter-range." A shorter-wavelength radar can provide a better tracking accuracy, albeit at shorter ranges.

According to Boyev, the radar that is being built in Vorkuta is also a centimeter-range Voronezh-SM. (This confirms the earlier find, which suggests that there are two radars under construction there.)

Although most of the discussion about the INF treaty is about the ground-launched cruise missile that Russia is allegedly deploying, the RS-26 ICBM also gets a honorary mention. Both the House and the Senate want the administration to submit a report that should include

(1) a determination whether the RS-26 Ballistic Missile is covered under the New START Treaty or is a violation of the INF Treaty because it has been flight-tested to ranges covered by the INF treaty in more than one warhead configuration; and

(2) if it is determined that the RS-26 is covered under the New START Treaty, a determination whether the Russian Federation

(A) has agreed through the Bilateral Consultative Commission that such a system is limited under the New START central limits; and

(B) has agreed to an exhibition of such a system.

The RS-26 missile, sometimes referred to as Rubezh, is, of course, the missile that appears to be an intermediate-range missile based on the first two stages of RS-24 Yars. It was tested from Plesetsk to Kamchatka in May 2012 and then -- from Kapustin Yar to Sary-Shagan in October 2012, June 2013, and apparently in June 2015 as well.

After that last test the missile was said to be ready for deployment. There was even a plan to begin deployment with the missile division in Irkutsk in 2015. Apparently in anticipation of the upcoming deployment, Russia conduct an exhibition of the missile as it is required by New START. It was supposed to happen at the Votkinsk plant in November 2015.

Then something happened. First, the exhibition was cancelled (in November 2015, probably a few days before it was supposed to happen). At the time it was said that it is moved to 2016, but there were no mention of the exhibition since. Then, deployment of the missile was postponed as well - first to 2016 and then to 2017. Apparently the Rocket Forces planned to conduct a test of RS-26 in 2016. But the test never took place. The plan to deploy two RS-26 regiments (alongside two RS-24 Yars regiments) in Irkutsk appears to remain in place, but there is not much activity there that would suggest that it is going forward.

At first glance, it appears that the question of whether RS-26 is accountable under New START is not particularly controversial. After all, it was tested at 5800 km, which is an ICBM range - Hans Kristensen has a very good discussion of the tests. But it may not be that simple when we turn to the legal status of the missile under New START.

The key word here is "prototype". In New START, a prototype is a missile that has not been tested more than 20 times and that has not been deployed:

The term "prototype" means, for ICBMs or SLBMs, an ICBM or SLBM of a new type, no more than 20 missiles of which have been launched, and no launchers of missiles of which have been deployed.

It is most likely that for the purposes of the treaty RS-26 was declared as prototype of a new ICBM. And as long as a missile is a prototype, it does not really have any characteristics. As long as missile is under development, everything can be in flux - the diameter, length, the number of warheads (or the number of stages, for that matter). These became fixed in the treaty data exchange only when the missile is officially declared to be a new type of ICBM. Until that moment these characteristics do not exist for the purposes of the treaty. This is how Russia was able to test RS-24 Yars, which is very much a MIRVed Topol-M, in 2007, while START was still in force, even though the START Treaty prohibited MIRVing existing single-warhead missiles.

Does this apply to the demonstrated range? This is an intriguing possibility. New START does not seem to say this directly, but one can make a good argument that as long as a missile is a prototype, its demonstrated range should not count. Which means that as far as the New START is concerned, RS-26 may not be an ICBM. In fact, it may not be a missile at all - Russia could simply notify the United States that it cancels development of this prototype. Is is an INF-range missile then? Not necessarily, since Russia can argue that it was tested to a range of more than 5500 km. Unless RS-26 loses its prototype status, we cannot really say anything definitive about the missile. It's almost like a Schrödinger missile - unless you open the box it is neither ICBM nor IRBM.

So, the question asked by Congress is not as silly as it may seem - it appears to be possible that Russia can claim that RS-26 is not covered under the New START treaty. It would be interesting to read that report. Among other things, it would be good to know what was the formal status of that exhibition that Russia planned to hold in November 2015. Did it amount to an admission of the ICBM status of RS-26? I hope someone who knows details can help clarify this. My guess is that since the Obama administration did not include RS-26 in the compliance report, there is at least an understanding with Russia that RS-26 is an ICBM. But who knows...

Legal issues aside, the main reason Congress is agitated about RS-26 is that does appear to be an intermediate-range missile in the guise of an ICBM. According to that argument, since it was tested mostly at 2000 km range, it is an intermediate-range missile that violates the INF treaty. Well, it all depends on whether RS-26 is covered under New START as an ICBM. If it is, it will count against the New START limits, so there is no violation there. In fact, most Russian ICBMs can be launched at INF range. Alexandr Stukalin kindly shared with me this very interesting table that he compiled some time ago:

Minimum range, km
Maximum range, km
more than 8,000
up to 12,000-13,000

The table clearly shows that virtually all ICBMs have minimum ranges well below the 5,500 km INF limit. I doubt it occurred to anyone to suspect that SS-19 is a violation of the INF Treaty. Yes, it is true that SS-19 has not been tested at 1,000 km. But other missiles have - as Alexander noted, nobody is concerned that SS-25/Topol is regularly launched from Kapustin Yar to Sary-Shagan, just as RS-26 -- see, for example, the launch in December 2015.

It well may be that RS-26 will be formally declared as ICBM and will become just another missile in this category of "intermediate-range ICBMs." Ot it may turn out differently. I wouldn't say I am particularly optimistic at this point, but we will see.

We seem to have an answer to the question that I asked a few months ago - Is Sarmat program in trouble? Yes, it is. Kommersant reports today that ejection tests of the missile have been postponed until at least the fourth quarter of 2017.

Theoretically, it is still possible that the missile will be ready by 2020 as the Rocket Forces planned. But that timeline assumed that the first missile would be delivered some time in 2015.


The situation with the INF Treaty is getting worse pretty rapidly. U.S. Congress is moving to include what is known as "INF Treaty Preservation Act" in the National Defense Authorization bill. Judging by the language of the bill, its authors believe that the best way to preserve the INF Treaty is to join Russia in killing it (and to kill the New START extension for good measure). The current version of the bill would establish a U.S. program to develop an INF-range ground-launched cruise missile development program. Other proposals have been circulating as well - the Senate version of the INF Preservation Act mentions active defenses, counterforce capabilities, or things like "facilitating the transfer to allied countries of missile systems with [INF] ranges" (I am told that the plan is that the missiles would come from Israel). And it's not just Congress -- the Pentagon has already developed a set of five or so options that would address the INF violation (Israeli missiles is reportedly one of them).

In short, the process that would lead to destruction of the INF Treaty has been set in motion and at this point fewer and fewer people mention the option of resolving the issue through a discussion with Russia. In fact, a lot of people do not particularly care about the details of the alleged violation or its real military significance. For them, it is very convenient to start with a "blatant treaty violation" and move on to their favorite cause, be that missile defense, dismantlement of New START, or something else.

This is very unfortunate, to say the least. I remember the time when the administration officials were struggling to come with a plan that could be presented to the Congress as a tough response to the alleged violation, but that would not go much beyond business as usual. Apparently, the judgement was that the violation would not make much difference in terms of a military threat. But that was a couple of years ago. Since then the "blatant violation" narrative took hold and the discussion is driven by those who want to "preserve" the INF treaty by killing it together with much of the arms control process.

A good case can be made that the Obama administration mishandled the case. Yes, it was under serious pressure from the Republicans to do something about the suspected violation. Given the circumstances, it did not have much of a choice but to confront Russia and file a formal accusation in the 2014 Compliance Report. But it was wrong to withhold the details for that long after that. The current administration may still release some data, but it may be too late - this snowball can easily destroy the INF treaty and take the New START with it. If this happens, part of the blame will be on the Obama administration.

I believe that it is still possible to resolve the issue without wrecking the arms control process. If the United States is serious about preserving the INF and New START treaties, it should take steps to preserve them. And these steps do not include development of its own INF-range missiles not to mention deploying such missiles in Europe. I can see why people hope that something like the "dual track" decision of the SS-20 days would work this time around, but I am not sure it will. Besides, imagine getting allies to support the dual track decision without telling them anything about SS-20.

This is exactly the problem at this point--the United State so far has failed to make a convincing case that the violation is serious. Russia, of course, strenuously denies any wrongdoing, but that is something you would expect it to do in a situation like this. But even U.S. NATO allies do not seem to be fully on board with the United States. I don't remember any European leader making a strong statement about Russia's alleged violation. The United States has briefed its NATO allies, of course, but people that were at these briefings tell me that they didn't get an impression that there is much there there.

The bits and pieces that are publicly known suggest an outline of a case, but they also leave enough questions unanswered to give Russia plenty of room for maneuver. And Russia seems to be perfectly fine with that.

So, what do we know about the violation? Here is my attempt to collect various bits of the puzzle and see if this can help better understand the situation. At this point I have to admit that it is probably not a "technicality," although it is still a case of dealing with some subtle technical points of the INF treaty. Comments and suggestions would be very much appreciated.

There is a general agreement that the INF culprit, known as SSC-8, is somehow related to the Kalibr sea-launched cruise missile, which we know has the INF range. (SSC-8 is often referred to as 9M729, but I'm not sure it's been established that these are the same missile, so I'll use SSC-8 to identify the missile in question.) Kalibr itself is a member of the 3M14 family of cruise missiles that includes missiles of all kinds, including an MTCR-compliant 3M14E/Club with reported range of 300 km. The Kalibr-NK version (NK stands for "surface ship" here) was said to have range capability of up to 2600 km. Another long-range version of the missile that was also mentioned earlier is 3M14S, where S may stand for "strategic." The SSC-7/R-500 missile of the Iskander-M system also appears to be a member of the 3M14 family.

One problem here is that the 3M14 family is big enough, so the fact that SSC-8 belongs there doesn't tell us much about it. One significant parameter is the length of a missile. While shorter-range 3M14E and SSC-7/R-500 are about six meter long, Kalibr-NK is a bit over eight meters. It is reasonable to assume that SSC-8, which is believed to have a range of about 2000 km, is also an eight-meter long missile. But the available evidence is not conclusive - I don't think we can rule out a possibility that SSC-8 is a short six-meter long missile. More about it later.

What we know is that the missile that became SSC-8 was undergoing flight tests since about 2008 and that until the end of 2011 the program looked like a SLCM development program. The INF Treaty does not prohibit development or testing of long-range SLCMs (or ALCMs) as long as they are tested in a certain way (Article VII.11):

A cruise missile which is not a missile to be used in a ground-based mode shall not be considered to be a GLCM if it is test-launched at a test site from a fixed land-based launcher which is used solely for test purposes and which is distinguishable from GLCM launchers.

However, in the end of 2011 the United States "had indications that this missile was a missile of concern." About the only way a test program would trigger a concern was to begin tests from a "mobile land-based transporter-erector-launcher." Strictly speaking the launcher doesn't have to be mobile (see Article II.4) but in this case it definitely was (since it has a "chassis designator"). The tests would mean that the missile is a GLCM and not a SLCM in development. Being a GLCM is not enough, though. To become "a missile of concern" this GLCM would have to have an INF range (which is between 500 and 5000 km).

Now, the tricky part is that there are a number of ways to determine if a test involves a cruise missile with an INF range. The INF Treaty does not, in fact, require a GLCM to demonstrate its range in a test. Here is what Article VII.4 says:

The range capability of a GLCM [...] shall be considered to be the maximum distance which can be covered by the missile in its standard design mode flying until fuel exhaustion, determined by projecting its flight path onto the earths sphere from the point of launch to the point of impact.

Of course, if a test demonstrates that the missile can actually cover more than 500 km, the case would be clear. But it appears that SSC-8 has not been tested at full range (from a ground-mobile launcher).

The evidence of that is circumstantial, but the 2017 Compliance Report says that (emphasis added) "the violating GLCM has a range capability between 500 and 5,500 kilometers." Also, the only SSC-X-8 test described in open sources, the one in September 2015, was a test within the treaty limits. That story said that (emphasis added) "intelligence analysts reported that the missile's assessed range is between 300 miles and 3,400 miles." My guess is that had the missile demonstrated 500+ km range in one of the GLCM-mode tests (i.e. from a ground-mobile launcher) the language would have been different.

Absent a full-range test, one can estimate the range capability based on the missile outlook, but that is not a particularly reliable route (it didn't work very well with the Backfire bomber back in the day). It would work, however, if the missile tested from the mobile launcher is (almost) identical to the one that was tested at an INF range from a fixed launcher.

This seems to be exactly what happened. I was told that the information that the Unites States gave to Russia at the early stages of the dispute included a description of two tests--first, the missile was tested from a treaty-compliant launcher (fixed land-based used for SLCM tests) and then, a a few days later, it was tested again, from a noncompliant one (land-based mobile).

This kind of evidence eventually led the United States to conclude that the missile that was tested from a mobile launcher, which is now known as SSC-8, has the range capability between 500 and 5,000 km and therefore is a violation of the INF treaty.

Presented like this, this evidence does not seem to leave Russia much room for maneuver. But it still insists that it is in full compliance with the INF Treaty. And, strictly speaking, there might be a way for Russia to claim innocence. If there was no full-range tests from a land-based mobile launcher, which as discussed earlier appears to be the case, Russia can plausibly claim that the missile that it tested from a mobile launcher, SSC-8, is in fact different from Kalibr (or whatever missile was tested at full range as a SLCM).

This is probably what Russia is counting on. The 2017 Compliance Report list this item in the list of information that the United States gave to Russia (emphasis added):

Information on the violating GLCM's test history, including coordinates of the tests and Russia's attempts to obfuscate the nature of the program;

The "attempts to obfuscate" might be a small modification of the missile, different designation, or something like that. Apparently Russia believes that these attempts have been successful.

General_Dynamics_BGM-109G_GLCM_MG_8913_a_56e60d1a6c5aad873b8b6813e3dd4e4b.jpgUnfortunately, the INF treaty does not say much about how one can tell one cruise missile from another. The general approach is that different missiles should be distinguishable from each other (this is used for launchers in Article VII.11). There must be a way, though--back in the 1980s the United States and the Soviet Union did distinguish between sea-launched and ground-launched versions of the Tomahawk cruise missile, even though they are essentially the same missile.

The U.S.-Russian discussion, however, does not seem to get to the point of discussing differences between missiles. Most likely Russia just states that it is in full compliance with the treaty and there is nothing to discuss here. Ironically, this is more or less how the United States treats Russian concerns about the Mk-41 launcher deployed as part of the AEGIS Ashore. As I discussed earlier, the deployment of AEGIS Ashore is probably not a violation of the treaty. However, it is not unreasonable to ask the United States to demonstrate that these launchers are distinguishable from those that are used to launch SLCMs or (back in the day) GLCMs. As I understand, the reason the United States balks at that request is that the difference, while exists, is not particularly large and one would have to get inside the launcher and/or its control equipment to demonstrate it. So, the United States just says that there is no problem there and we should trust it that the AEGIS Ashore Mk-41 launchers cannot launch cruise missiles. That's not that different from the position taken by Russia.

So, we appear to be stuck here, with both sides claiming full compliance and with no mechanism in the treaty to unblock the stalemate. About the only thing that could help at this point is an open discussion of the alleged violation. If the Unites States believes its has convincing evidence, it should show it. U.S. reluctance to go public with detailed description of its accusations is only adding to the suspicion that its case is not particularly strong.

We know that at this point it is not about protecting methods and sources -- the United States already gave Russia quite a bit:

  • Information pertaining to the missile and the launcher, including Russia's internal designator for the mobile launcher chassis and the names of the companies involved in developing and producing the missile and launcher;
  • Information on the violating GLCM's test history, including coordinates of the tests and Russia's attempts to obfuscate the nature of the program;

Since Russia already has all this information, what's the harm in releasing it publicly?

Information about the launcher would be particularly helpful. It appears that SSC-8 has a launcher that is different from a standard Iskander-M TEL. The question is, how different? It would depend on whether SSC-8 is a six-meter or eight-meter long missile. If it's a "long" TEL, capable of carrying an eight-meter long missile, SSC-8 is probably closer to Kalibr-NK, which means that it is more likely to be an INF-range missile.

It is also possible that we are dealing with a "short" TEL, which would suggest a missile that is closer to SSC-7/R-500. In this case it would be a bit more difficult to make a case that the missile has the range prohibited by the INF treaty. But probably not impossible.

So far, there is no strong evidence one way or the other. We have a New York Times story from February 2017 that says that the launcher "closely resembles the mobile launcher used for the Iskander" seemingly attributing this statement to Gen. Breedlove, who is also quoted as saying that "This will make location and verification really tough." But "closely resembles" may mean different things in different contexts.

There is also some evidence that "The SSC-8 launcher is longer [than Iskander] and has a hump." Hans Kristensen's sources are usually reliable, but here it is not clear how long is "longer." And the hump could be there just because the launcher carries more than two missiles, like this one:

maks2007d1287.jpgRight now, there are a number of theories about the TEL. One suspect is the TEL known as 9P701 - this designation appeared in the Titan-Barrikady Design Bureau's acquisition plan for 2016. Titan placed an order of eight MZKT 7930-200 chassis to produce four 9P701 TELs and four 9T256 supply vehicles (it also ordered 48 chassis for regular Iskander-M 9P78-1 TELs and 9T250 supply vehicles). A standard Iskander missile brigade includes 12 TELs, but a basic unit, a battalion, has exactly four launchers. It is theoretically possible that these four 9P701 TELs were then used to equip the 119th missile brigade when it received its new equipment in November 2016 at Kapustin Yar (see the image on top of the post).

This would also be largely in agreement with the same New York Times story, which quoted administration officials as saying that

the Russians now have two battalions of the prohibited cruise missile. One is still located at Russia's missile test site at Kapustin Yar in southern Russia near Volgograd. The other was shifted in December from that test site to an operational base elsewhere in the country [...]

The battalion at Kapustin Yar would be that in the 119th missile brigade, the other one would be in the 20th missile brigade, based in Spassk-Dalniy, Primorsky krai, which received its missiles in June 2016. The 119th brigade was transferred to its permanent base in Yelanskiy, Sverdlovsk oblast in April 2017 - the video account does not show any TELs that would be different from others, but we don't see all the vehicles.

The 9P701 story seems to suggest that there is an upgrade of Iskander's SSC-7/R-500 cruise missile that uses a new TEL. Dmitry Kornev of MilitaryRussia.ru noted a 2015 story about a new missile for Iskander developed by NovatorKBM. The story doesn't say much, but this might be just the missile that uses the 9P701 TEL. What is not clear is whether it has anything to do with SSC-8. But it might. In this case we are probably dealing with a six-meter long missile. (UPDATE 07/02/2017: It turns out that that particular missile is a ballistic missile. Besides, it's not Novator. It is still possible that there is an upgrade of the cruise missile as well, but it is not related to that KBM story.)

BASTION_SEVASTOPOL_160223_06.JPGThere is another theory as well, although it is not supported by much in terms of evidence. Frankly, it's just a guess that should be treated as such. It is possible that SSC-8 TEL does not look like that of Iskander at all and in fact is closer to the Bastion launcher, which is large enough to accommodate an eight-meter long missile. This is where "names of companies involved" would help identify the launcher - unlike Iskander TEL, these launchers are not produced at Titan-Barrikady in Volgograd.

So, the first order of business should be to release information about the alleged violation that the United States has already shared with Russia--"internal designator of the chassis," "names of companies involved," and of course, the history of tests and obfuscation efforts. This should be enough to get a much better sense of what is the nature of the violation, how serious it is, and what can and should be done about it.

The next step should probably involve an invitation to discuss "distinguishable characteristics" of various missiles and launchers. This would require the United States to indicate its readiness to talk about the differences between the AEGIS Ashore Mk-41 launchers and those that are used to launch SLCMs. This would not mean admitting that Russia's counter-accusations have merit; it could, however, help initiate a technical discussion that might bring some clarity to the issue. Again, I remember time when U.S. administration officials were saying that they would be okay if Russia just admits the problem.

It may well be that it is too late to save the INF treaty. But we should also be clear that the real threat to the treaty does not come from two battalions of long-range GLCMs. Russia is busy deploying its Kalibr cruise missiles on all kind of ships and submarines. In terms of numbers and range capability these would be a much more significant factor in any potential conflict in Europe, especially since these missiles are clearly nuclear capable. Note also, that Russia never formally agreed that long-range sea-based cruise missiles are tactical weapons, so they are not covered by the unilateral pledges of the early 1990s or any arms control agreement. One can argue that GLCMs are less vulnerable than submarines and especially surface ships, but I don't think it is a very convincing argument.

This is not to say that a suspected violation of a major arms control treaty is something to be taken lightly. But the dispute about INF treaty provisions should not distract from the fact that even though GLCMs are problematic they are far from the biggest threat to security and stability in in Europe. Or maybe it is. But if that's the case, we should be able to see the evidence and discuss it publicly. I hope it is not too late yet to have an informed discussion of the issue.

On 26 June 2017 the Yuri Dolgorukiy submarine of the Project 955 class performed a successful launch of a Bulava missile. The missile was launched from a submerged submarine deployed in the Barents Sea. The warheads successfully reached their targets at the Kura test range in Kamchatka.

This is the 28th launch of Bulava missile. Previous launch took place in September 2016 - it was a two-missile salvo launch from Yuri Dolgorukiy.

On June 23, 2017, at 21:04 MSK (18:04 UTC) the Air and Space Forces successfully launched a Soyuz-2.1v launcher from the pad No. 4 of the site No. 43 of the Plesetsk launch site. The military satellite that the launcher and the Volga upper stage delivered into orbit was designated Cosmos-2519. A ministry of defense representative was quoted as saying that the satellite is a platform that carries Earth observation equipment and the equipment that will be used to photograph various space objects.

According to Russianspaceweb.com, the launch may be the first of the 14F150 Napryazhenie geodetic satellites that are developed as part of a Nivelir-ZU program. The spacecraft was registered as object 42798 by NORAD. It received international designation 2017-037A. The satellite was deployed on a near-circular polar orbit with altitude of approximately 660 km.

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.