The Air and Space Defense Forces conducted a successful test of the new interceptor of the Moscow missile defense system at the Sary-Shagan test site. According to a VKS representative, "the series of tests fully confirmed technical characteristics of the interceptor." The date of the test was not reported, but it is likely that it took place on August 29 of August 30.

This appears to be the fifth test of the new interceptor, usually referred to as 53T6M. The previous test was conducted in July 2018.

The Air and Space Defense Forces conducted a successful test of a "modernized" interceptor of the Moscow missile defense system at the Sary-Shagan test site. The date of the test was not disclosed, although it was said that it took place in July (UPDATE: Around 15-18 July I'm told).

The report mentions that the interceptor has the speed of 4 km/s. It is also said that in this test the intercept point was "at the maximum distance from the protected object."

The new interceptor is sometimes referred to as 53T6M. It appears that this is the fourth test of the interceptor; the most recent previous one was conducted in April 2018.

I do not think many people believe that the upcoming U.S.-Russian summit in Helsinki will get to the point of a serious discussion of arms control. However, it might provide an opportunity to address some outstanding issues. The dispute about the INF Treaty is definitely one of those.

We are now in the fifth year of the controversy and, unfortunately, we are not getting closer to finding a way out of this situation. One idea, however, keeps being mentioned in various discussions and policy papers - one-time inspections that would demonstrate that neither the Russian 9M729 cruise missile nor the U.S. Mk-41 launchers deployed in Romania violate the treaty terms. Something along the lines of "You show me your observable differences and I will show you mine."

It's a perfectly fine idea and it is understandable that it has support of the arms control community. Unfortunately, the inspections, even if they can be arranged, are unlikely to solve the issue. In fact, they would complicate the situation even further. To see why this is the case, we need to step back and look at what we know about the alleged violations.

Even though the United States still refuses to reveal any specifics about its accusation on non-compliance, there are some things that we can say with fairly high certainty. We know the designation of the missile, of course - it's 9M729. It is also a reasonable assumption that the missile is some version of the Kalibr sea-launched cruise missile, which, being an SLCM, is perfectly treaty-compliant despite having the range of more than 500 km.

Now to the 9M729 itself. I had a number of posts about the missile - the two more recent ones were in July 2017 and in December 2018. What follows is essentially a summary, although I can say a few things with higher confidence now.

Most importantly, there was no "smoking gun" - the 9M729 missile itself has not been tested to the INF range (which is between 500 km and 5,500 km). This is probably the reason why Russia is so puzzled by the U.S. accusations - this was never intended to be a violation and Russia apparently genuinely believes that it is in full compliance with the treaty.

Now, we know that the fact that the missile was not tested to the INF range doesn't mean much. It is the "range capability" that matters. Here is where the parties diverge - the United States believes it has non-refutable evidence of 9M729 having the INF range capability, while Russia appears to deny that the missile is capable of flying farther than 500 km.

So, imagine that Russia agrees to conduct an inspection and shows the missile to U.S. inspectors. The most likely outcome of that demonstration is that the United States will say that their analysis was correct that 9M729 does have the INF range capability. Given that U.S. experts have already reached that conclusion without seeing the actual missile, I don't see how they would reverse that judgement once they have a chance to inspect 9M729 up close. Russia, of course, would insist that the missile does not have the range, but since "range capability" is not a very well defined concept it would be really difficult to win this argument on technical grounds. At best, the parties will go back to square one, each insisting on its interpretation of the data. More likely, though, instead of showing that the missile is treaty-compliant, Russia would give the United States hard evidence to prove its case.

Another problem is that Russia cannot really afford to admit that the 9M729 has compliance issues. One would think that since only two or so 9M729 battalions have been deployed so far, Russia could offer to destroy those and put the issue to rest. That, however, does not seem to be an option, since Russia apparently tested the missile from a standard Iskander-M launcher. Even though the actual 9M729 launcher is different - it is said to be larger - from the point of view of the treaty Iskander-M launchers are "tainted" and a true return to compliance would require eliminating all of them. This is not something that Russia would want to consider.

So, not only an inspection is unlikely to resolve anything, for Russia it would be an extremely risky move. As would be anything that might look like admitting the violation.

By all indications, Russia has never intended to violate the INF Treaty or circumvent it by covertly deploying a missile with prohibited range. As far as I know, nobody made a conscious decision to do anything that would not be treaty-compliant. Russia stumbled into this crisis largely through poor oversight of its defense industry and a bit of overconfidence in its ability to convincingly defend its case. U.S. politics played an important role too - it is clear to me that had it not been for the pressure on the Obama administration from the Republicans things would have been done differently. Also, in my view the Obama people made a serious mistake by dealing with the problem the way they did - not telling Russia what it is accused of and demanding that Russia must own up to the violation before any discussion can begin.

The Trump administration has fully subscribed to that approach and, according to Russian officials, insists that Russia must repent before anything can happen. Things are further complicated by the fact that there are people in the United States who would not mind using this situation to get out of the INF Treaty (as long as Russia gets the blame). INF compliance is also a convenient issue for those who oppose bilateral arms control. So, things are not looking bright for the INF Treaty.

At the same time, both Russia and the United States maintain that they remain committed to the treaty and want to preserve it. If that commitment is genuine, which it appears to be, it could provide a very small window of opportunity. About the only way the inspections might work is if the parties agree in advance that they will put the matter to rest - Russia will produce the missile and the United States will agree that it is satisfied with what they see and declare the issue closed. This, however, would require a level of trust that does not seem to exist today. And it would mean that the United States will effectively admit that its assessment of non-compliance was wrong. I don't really see this happening.

If Russia really wants to get out of this corner, it could offer to admit the violation and agree to eliminate the disputed missiles and launchers. Not exactly something that I would expect it to do, but theoretically this might be an option. There is the issue of the Iskander launchers, of course, but here an agreement might be possible as well - Russia could demonstrate that the launcher that was used in those 9M729 tests is different from a standard Iskander launcher. The differences do not have to be "functionally related" - there is a precedent in the START Treaty when a red box attached to a launcher was the only thing that distinguished an RS-24 launcher from that of Topol-M. This kind of solution, however, would also require a certain degree of trust between the parties.

My guess is that the best that can come out of the Helsinki summit is a joint statement to the effect that the United States and Russia confirm their commitment to the INF Treaty and agree to work to resolve the differences. But even that would be difficult to expect these days.

Russian press quotes a source in the industry as saying that the Bulava SLBM has been finally accepted for service. That was a long wait.

The work on the Bulava program started almost exactly 20 years ago. It was included in the plan that was approved in 1998, when Russia was struggling to find the way to maintain its strategic forces not much below the START II levels of 3500 warheads - at that point it was expected that START II will come into force. It wasn't an easy process and the MITT emerged with two projects in its portfolio - the Topol-M (which will later become Yars) ICBM and the Bulava SLBM. The R-39UTTH Bark SLBM project - a follow-up to R-39/SS-N-20 - was cancelled after three failed flight tests. Part of MITT's argument was that Bulava will use Topol-M technologies and therefore will be cheaper to produce.

At the time, there were plenty of skeptics who doubted that MITT can successfully build a sea-launched missile. To a certain extent the skeptics were right - as we can see it took 20 years for get the missile accepted for service. All in all, it took 32 flight tests to get to this point. I wouldn't be surprised if the navy still have their doubts about the missile. They seem to have insisted on an unprecedented* four-missile salvo launch, since Bulava didn't quite pass the test in (two-missile) salvo launches in 2015 and in 2016.

  • As it turns out, it's not unprecedented - in the R-39 missile test program, the Soviet Union conducted four four-missile salvo launches and a few two- and three-missile ones.

NOTAM20180619.pngOn June 15, 2018 Russia posted a NOTAM notification that suggested that it is going to conduct a missile launch from Plesetsk to Kura between June 19 and June 23. It was suggested that it was a preparation to a test launch of a Yars missile. However, as the dates have passed, no official announcement about the test have been made. The word is that the test did take place, but nobody seems to be able to get a firm confirmation.

Previous Yars launches from Plesetsk took place in September 2017 - the one on September 12, 2017 from a silo was said to involve "parallel deployment" of warheads, and the launch of a mobile Yars on September 20, 2017 was a training launch.

On June 16, 2018 UTC (June 17 Moscow time), the Air and Space Forces performed a successful launch of a Soyuz-2.1b rocket from the launch pad No. 4 of the launch complex No. 43 of the Plesetsk space launch site. The launch took place at 00:46 MSK (21:46 on 16 June 2018 UTC). The satellite that the rocket and its Fregat boost stage delivered into orbit is a Glonass-M navigation satellite. The satellite is likely to be designated Cosmos-2527. The satellite received international designation 2018-053A and was registered by NORAD as object 43508.

Normally, Glonass satellites as well as other military satellites receive Cosmos designation when the ground command center establishes control over the satellite. On 21 June 2018 the Air and Space Forces reported that the control was established. However, the designation has not been announced yet. [UPDATE: According to NK it is indeed Cosmos-2527.]

Previous Glonass launch took place in September 2017.

It appears that Russia conducted a third ejection test of the Sarmat missile, presumably at the Plesetsk test range on May 26, 2018 or a day or so earlier. There is no official confirmation and there is only one report at one of the NK forums, but the report appears to be reliable. I'll keep the question mark in the post title, though.

The first two ejection tests were conducted in December 2017 and in March 2018.

Sarmat20180511.png

UPDATE: Colleagues from Monterey took a closer look at the satellite imagery of the site. There was indeed some activity at the site a couple of weeks before the test. One can see it better on the planet.com site - that shadow may be the missile being loaded into the silo or being prepared for that. The Monterey folks were careful not to say anything definitively - the resolution is too poor for that - but these images certainly support the earlier information about the test.

UPDATE 07/18/18: Kommersant confirmed that the third ejection test took place in May 2018.

On 22 May 2018 the Yuri Dolgorukiy submarine of the Project 955 class performed a successful salvo launch of four Bulava missiles. The missiles were launched from a submerged submarine deployed in the White Sea. According to the navy, the warheads successfully reached their targets at the Kura test range in Kamchatka.

A four-missile launch is rather unusual. It is the first launch of this kind for Bulava (although there were three two-missile salvos in the past). These launches became 29 to 32 in the history of Bulava tests. Previous launch took place in June 2017 - it was a single launch from Yuri Dolgorukiy.

Russian press quotes a source in the defense industry as saying that the Borey-B project that was considered for some time was not included in the 2018-2027 State Armament Program. Instead, Sevmash is expected to build six more Project 955A/Borey-A strategic submarines.

The original Project 955 order included eight submarines - three Project 955/Borey are already in service and five more are at various stages of construction. The lead submarine of the Project 955A, Knyaz Vladimir, was moved out of the dry dock in November 2017.

At 01:12 MSK on April 19, 2018 (22:12 on April 18, 2018 UTC) the Space and Air Defense Forces conducted a successful launch of a Proton-M launcher from Baykonur. The satellite that was successfully delivered into orbit by the Briz-M booster stage, received the official designation Cosmos-2526.

Cosmos-2526 is the Blagovest communication satellite (No. 12) produced at the Reshetnev ISS enterprise in Zheleznogorsk.

Previous launch of a satellite of this type, Cosmos-2520, took place in August 2017.