According to the press department of the defense ministry, the Strategic Rocket Forces conducted five ICBM launches in 2019 - three from Plesetsk and two from Kapustin Yar. In 2020 the Rocket Forces are planning to conduct six ICBM launches, five of them from Plesetsk.

The two launches from Kapustin Yar are the Topol-E launches on 26 July 2019 and on 28 November 2019. The three launches from Plesetsk are the Yars launch from a mobile TEL in February 2019, the launch of a Topol-M from a silo in September 2019, and the launch of a mobile Yars in October 2019, during the Grom-2019 exercise.

According to a source in the defense industry, Knyaz Vladimir, the fourth Borey-class submarine and the first ship of the Project 955A class, will join the fleet "in the fist half of the year 2020." The submarine was undergoing sea trials, that included a launch of a Bulava missile in October 2019. It was expected to join the Northern Fleet at the end of 2019.

Construction of Knyaz Vladimir started in 2012.

The fist two Avangard systems officially began combat duty at 10:00 MSK on December 27, 2019. The two silos used to deploy these missiles are at 51.1925 59.635278 and 51.151034 59.597282 - satellite images taken on 3 December 2019 show exactly the activity one would expect to see at a site where a missile is loaded into a silo.

AvangardSiloOne.png AvangardSiloTwo.png

About a month earlier, Russia showed the missile to U.S. inspectors during a New START demonstration. It is not entirely clear what the inspectors could see, but at the very least they saw the shroud that covers the actual glider. The NK forum has a photo of the process of installing the payload on a missile (it may not be Avangard, but it's quite close) - this is probably what was shown to U.S. inspectors.

AvangardDemonstration.jpg

It's been a long road for the glider - the program began more than 30 years ago, in the late 1980s. It was known as Albatros at the time. The first flight test of the system took place in February 1990 (although it was certainly an early development prototype). The program was revived in the early 2000s and made the first public appearance in February 2004. I actually have a blog entry that described that test. The first signs of something is afoot at Dombarovskiy appeared around 2013 - at the time the program was known as Project 4202.

Avangard didn't have a very smooth ride as the project was almost cancelled at some point and the number of successful tests is not particularly impressive (I counted three). But this is all in the past now and the first two missiles are now operational. The plan is to deploy twelve systems of this type at Dombarovskiy by 2027.

The Air and Space Forces performed a successful launch of a Soyuz-2.1b rocket from the launch pad No. 3 of the launch complex No. 43 of the Plesetsk space launch site (it was the first launch from the launch pad No. 3 since 2002). The launch took place at 11:54 MSK (08:54 UTC) on December 11, 2019. The satellite that the rocket and its Fregat boost stage delivered into orbit is a Glonass-M navigation satellite. The satellite has been designated Cosmos-2544. It received international designation 2019-088A and was registered by NORAD as object No. 44850.

Previous Glonass launch took place in May 2019.

On 28 November 2019 the Strategic Rocket Forces conducted a successful launch of a Topol ICBM from the test site in Kapustin Yar toward the Sary-Shagan test site in Kazakhstan. According to the official statement, all objectives of the launch have been met and the warhead reached its target with the required accuracy.

Previous launch of a Topol missile from Kapustin Yar took place in July 2019.

We still don't know whether the United States will extend the New START Treaty. Just the other week I was told that the internal debate in the US administration is very much underway and at this point nobody can tell which way it will go. As I understand it, one the key issues on the US side is the so-called "new systems." Whether this issue is brought up in good faith is not entirely clear - nobody would be surprised if the treaty opponents would use it to sink the agreement. For them, it helps that it looks like a reasonable concern (unlike the complaints about China's not being part of the agreement).

Russia's position on the new systems is that two of them are accountable - Sarmat, which is just an ICBM, and the Avangard glider because it uses the existing and treaty-accountable UR-100NUTTH/SS-19 ICBM as a booster. As for others, Russia said it is open to a discussion under Article V of the treaty:

When a party believes that a new kind of strategic offensive arm is emerging, that Party shall have the right to raise the question of such a strategic offensive arm for consideration in the Bilateral Consultative Commission.

Russia argued, quite convincingly in my view, that the treaty in its current form covers a very specific set of systems - ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers - so including anything else would require amending the treaty, with new ratification and all that.

Russia's public assurances about Sarmat and Avangard, however, didn't seem to fully convince the United States. As I understand it, the reason was that even though Russia has been saying that these systems are covered, it hasn't formally declared them to the United States through the formal treaty channels. Until this week, that is - Russia just showed Avangard to US inspectors "in order to maintain the viability of the New START treaty."

Avangard

It's about time - it was reported earlier that the first two Adangards are about to begin combat duty in the next few weeks. As planned, the systems will be deployed at the Dombarovskiy missile division. Indeed, there was quite a bit of activity at two silos there - 51.1925 59.635278 and 51.151034 59.597282. Looks like these two are the first Avangard silos (the silo used for tests is at 51.030849 59.690144).

An interesting question is why the formal demonstration took that long. My take is that technically Russia, in fact, had no obligation to show Avangard for precisely the same reason the system is treaty-accountable. As far as the treaty is concerned, the whole thing is just a treaty-accountable UR-100NUTTH/RS-18/SS-19 ICBM with a different payload. But the treaty doesn't deal with payloads, other than confirming that the number of warheads on a missile corresponds to a declaration (there is an issue there, but more about it later). As far as I can tell, the only way Avangard would be reflected in the New START data exchange is by moving its silos from the RS-20/SS-18 column to the RS-18/SS-19 one. We don't have the Russian MOU, but I would guess that's exactly what was done with that test silo ("test launcher" in the treaty) and with these two newly converted ones.

If my reading of the treaty is correct, the Avangard demonstration was largely a gesture of goodwill designed "to maintain the viability" of the treaty. Which is a good news - Russia clearly shows that it is ready to go an extra mile to get New START extended.

UPDATE: Or maybe not. It appears that Russia declared Avangard (or at least the Avangard silo) a variant of the SS-19 missile/silo. In this case it has to hold an exhibition. Here is Part Five, Section VIII, paragraph 2 of the Protocol:

Each Party shall conduct exhibitions ... in order to demonstrate the distinguishing features and to confirm technical characteristics of each new type, variant, or version of an ICBM, SLBM, heavy bomber equipped for nuclear armaments ...

The Avangard cover

The Avangard story, however, doesn't seem to end here. We don't know the details of the demonstration, but it probably went in accordance with the established treaty procedure described in Section II of the Annex on Inspections. This is what the Annex says about the step that involves counting warheads (Paragraph 10):

The inspected Party shall have the right to cover reentry vehicles and other equipment, including the mounting platform, with individual covers, in such a manner that the covers shall not hamper inspectors in ascertaining that the front section contains a number of reentry vehicles equal to the number of reentry vehicles declared for such a deployed ICBM or deployed SLBM.

As I understand it, an RS-18/SS-19 missile with the glider would be declared as a ICBM with a single warhead. It is reasonably safe to assume that Russia covered the glider during the demonstration, probably with a soft cover of some kind. Yes, U.S. inspectors could see one object on top of the missile, but the glider seems to be pretty big, so there is no way to tell if it's the glider or a shroud that covers several regular warheads. I don't think a shroud of this size could cover all six, but there could definitely more than one.

AvangardAssembly.png

This situation is a result of two things - the way New START counts warheads and the implicit assumptions that were made during negotiations. It wouldn't be a problem in the original START as any RS-18/SS-19 missile would be counted as carrying six warheads, big glider/shroud or not. Indeed, Russia had 30 single-warhead R-36MUTTH/RS-20B/SS-18 missiles that nevertheless counted as carrying ten warheads each. Even then, there were questions about hard covers, though - in 1995 Russia was about to formally file a complain about the hard covers used by the U.S. Navy. New START, unlike its predecessor, counts the actual number of deployed warheads. The implicit assumption, of course, was that a warhead is a conical object of a certain size. For example, the cover used during a demonstration should have "individual conically-shaped elements that cover each reentry vehicle." That doesn't quite work if the reentry vehicle is one big element, not necessarily conically shaped.

Theoretically, it should be possible to use radiation detection to confirm that there is no more than one warhead inside of that cover. But it would only work if the warheads are assumed to be nuclear (which is explicitly not the assumption made in New START - it treats nuclear and non-nuclear warheads equally). More importantly, though, there is no procedure of this kind in the treaty. Yes, radiation detection equipment can be used, but only "to demonstrate to inspectors that the objects located on the front section of an ICBM or SLBM and declared ... as non-nuclear objects, are, in fact, non-nuclear (Section II, paragraph 13 of the Annex on Inspections). The INF Treaty, in fact, had a procedure that would confirm that a missile does not carry more than one warhead. Here is an excerpt from Joseph Harahan's very detailed account (p. 145):

RDEinINFTreaty.png

I don't think this procedure could be applied to the Avangard situation directly as it involves taking benchmark measurements. And, of course, it's not in New START. However, it wasn't in the original INF Treaty either - it was added in 1989, after the treaty entered into force. That was a different time, though - the chances of agreeing on something similar today are rather slim. I wouldn't completely discount them, though - from the technical point of view this all seems doable.

Sarmat

Now that Russia showed Avangard, I guess the question is, Where is Sarmat? Assuming, of course, that U.S. complaints are indeed based on the fact that Russia has not declared it through the formal treaty channels.

There are a couple of possible explanations here. Most likely, Sarmat has not yet reached the stage when it would have to be reported. Throughout the development stage the missile will probably be considered a prototype of a new type. The treaty requires its parties to provide notification "no later than five days after the arrival at a declared facility, of the first prototype ICBM or prototype SLBM of a new type" (Protocol, Part Four, Section II, paragraph 4). So far, Russia conducted three ejection tests of the missile, the first one - in December 2017. Plesetsk test site would be the "declared facility" there. But it is not entirely clear if the missile that was used in those tests could be considered an ICBM as defined in the treaty. It was not an actual ICBM, after all, but a model used in ejection tests (even though it is said to have flown "several tens of kilometers"). I don't know the answer, but it might be possible that Russia did not consider it a prototype yet, so it believed it does not have to provide the notification. On the other hand, it definitely looks like an ICBM.

Sarmat2ndTest.png

Another possibility, somewhat less likely, is that Sarmat will not be declared an ICBM of new type. If its length and diameter are within three percent of those of RS-20/SS-18, the treaty, in fact, will not consider it to be a missile of a new type. The "new type" concept was inherited from START (in somewhat modified form), but it doesn't really make much sense in New START, since the key limitation - a ban on increasing the number of warheads associated with a certain type - is now gone. But it appears that the notification requirements for a variant are different and the first time it would have to be reported is probably when it is considered a deployed or non-deployed missile.

In any event, it is possible that until the first fully-functional missile is delivered to the Plesetsk test site some time in 2020 for an actual flight test, Sarmat ICBM does not really exist for the purposes of the treaty. Or I am wrong and Russia has already provided notification about Sarmat after that December 2017 test. In which case I don't quite understand where do U.S. complaints about Sarmat come from.

Other new systems

It appears that the U.S. response to this kind of reasoning is, "Well, that's two out of five." My guess is that the number five comes from adding three other systems to the equation - Kinzhal, Burevestnik, and Poseidon. I don't have much to add to the discussion around those other than to say that Kinzhal seems to be outside of any treaty definition, while Burevestnik and Poseidon are probably too far from deployment. In any event, Russia said that it is willing to discuss any new systems and New START seems to provide a good forum for that.

Just one additional note - going through the New START notification protocol I found that there is a special notification format for new arms (Section II, paragraph 7):

NewArmNotification.png

I hope the United States and Russia are sending some of these back and forth.

Russia's concerns

As I wrote some time ago, not everything depends on the United States. Russia has its own concerns about the treaty, mostly about the conversion procedures. In addition, my Moscow colleagues tell me that the official position is that to extend the treaty the Duma would have to pass a separate law. This will definitely complicate things, but none of this seems unsurmountable. Russia signaled its strong interest in extending New START, for a shorter period if that's what the United States wants. My guess is that if the United States agrees to extend, Russia will find a solution, maybe not dropping its concerns entirely, but agreeing to keep the discussion in the Bilateral Commission. It would certainly not want to be the party responsible for the treaty demise.

On 25 November 2019, at 20:52 MSK (17:52 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 Volga booster successfully delivered into orbit a satellite that received the designation Cosmos-2542. According to the ministry of defense statement, the satellite could monitor the status of other Russian satellites and provide imagery of the Earth's surface.

UPDATE: On December 6, 2019, Cosmos-2542 satellite (44797) released what appears to be an inspector satellite, object No. 44835. The inspector satellite is most likely Cosmos-2543. (See also TASS story.)

NOTAM watchers noticed that Russia closed a number of areas that suggest a flight test of the Nudol interceptor from Plesetsk on 15 November 2019. There is no official (or otherwise) word about the test, though.

If it was a test, it would be the second Nudol test in 2019 - the previous one was apparently conducted in June 2019. The entire system appears to be what is known as 14Ts033 (14Ц033), with the 14А042 missile.

According to Vedomosti, full-scale flight tests of Sarmat ICBM will begin in 2020. The test program will begin with two tests from Plesetsk to Kura and will eventually include at least five test flights. Unusually, at the final stage of tests, the missile is could be launched from the deployment area in Uzhur missile division, where the first two missiles are expected to be deployed in 2021. The Vedomosti source again confirmed 2021 as the target date for deployment.

So far, the industry conducted three ejection tests of the missile between December 2017 and May 2018.

On 29 October 2019, the Knyaz Vladimir submarine of the Project 955A/Borey-A class conducted its first launch of the Bulava SLBM. The launch was conducted from a submerged submarine deployed in the White Sea. The launch took place at 17:57 MSK.

The launch is part of the process of transferring the submarine to the navy. Knyaz Vladimir is the first submarine of the Project 955A Borey-A class. Although its construction formally started in July 2012 Sevmash reportedly began work on the hull back in 2010. It was moved out of the dry dock in November 2017. According to the initial plan, it was supposed to join the Pacific Fleet, but later it was announced that it will stay with the Northern Fleet.

For Bulava, it was the 33rd test launch.