The Air and Space Forces conducted a successful test launch of a "new modernized interceptor of the Russian missile defense system" at the Sary-Shagan test site. According to a VKS spokesman, the new interceptor has better accuracy and range and extended service life.

The test probably took place on February 11, 2018. It is either a second or a third test of the "new modernized interceptor." The first may have taken place in June 2017 and the other one in November 2017. The interceptor appears to be an upgrade of the 53T6/Gazelle missile that is currently deployed with the Moscow missile defense.

[The post is updated to reflect the fact that the June 2017 launch may have been a test of the old interceptor.]

February 5, 2018 is the date Russia and the United States are supposed to complete the New START reductions, so their nuclear forces have no more than 1550 deployed warheads, 700 deployed launchers, and 800 total deployed and non-deployed launchers. The treaty entered into force on February 5, 2011.

Both states issued statements marking the date. The U.S. statement provided some statistics about the treaty implementation - more than 14,600 notifications, 14 data exchanges, 252 on-site inspections, 14 exhibitions, and 14 meetings of the Bilateral Consultative Commission. The United States did not provide updated numbers, referring instead to the September 2017 data released in the most recent data exchange - 1393 warheads, 660 deployed and 800 total launchers.

[UPDATE 02/23/18: The United States released the numbers - as of 5 February 2018 it had 1350 deployed warheads, 652 deployed launchers, and 800 total launchers.]

Russia apparently felt it has to update the numbers - in September it was a bit over the limit with 1561 deployed warheads. So, the statement released by the Foreign Ministry (and the Russian-language original) provides an update - 1444 warheads, 527 deployed and 779 total launchers. (I would note in parenthesis that a couple of years ago quite a few people in the U.S. seriously started questioning Russia's intent of meeting its New START obligations. Let me just say that these questions always struck me as odd, to say the least. I guess you have to have very weird ideas about how Russia works and/or belong to the "cheating is in their blood" school of thought to make this argument seriously. Alas, plenty of people do.)

With all this seemingly positive vibe about meeting the obligations, the Russian statement contained a poison pill. It said that the United States reached the limit in part "by reconfiguring a certain number of Trident II SLBM launchers and В-52Н heavy bombers" in a way that does not render them "incapable of employing ICBMs, SLBMs, or nuclear armaments" (see paragraph I.3 in Part Three of the Protocol - it's on p. 90). The statement also accused the United States of "arbitrary converting underground missile launch facilities designated for training into 'training launch facilities,' a category not specified by the Treaty."

The latter accusation is very strange. First, there is this issue of inadequate translation. The terms used for "underground missile launch facilities" and "training launch facilities" in the Russian text are "шахтные пусковые установки" and "учебные шахты" respectively. The proper treaty term for the former is "silo launcher of ICBM"/"шахтная пусковая установка МБР" (see entries 65 and 87 in English and Russian texts). As for "учебная шахта," indeed there is no such thing in the Protocol. There is, however, "silo training launcher"/"шахтная пусковая установка, предназначенная для обучения" (entries 66/87). But it's a legitimate treaty concept and the United States reported these silos as such. I cannot find any instances of "silo training launchers" disappearing and some "training silos" appearing in their stead. In fact, every time "training" appears in U.S. data exchange documents, it does so as part of "silo training launchers," "training facilities," or "training models" of missiles. All these are reporting categories explicitly included in the data exchange template included in the Protocol. I really wish the Foreign Ministry were clearer in describing what it is it believes is a problem.

The conversion business seems different. The treaty gives parties great latitude in designing launcher conversion procedures - that's the paragraph I.3 in Part Three of the Protocol that is referred to in the Russian statement. However, it also allows parties to challenge the procedure - that is in the following paragraph, I.4. Should a party decide that the conversion procedures are "ambiguous or do not achieve [its] goals," it can request a demonstration. As it turns out, Russia did communicate it concerns about some conversion procedures developed by the United States, presumably of Trident II launchers and B-52H bombers, and these concerns did result in a demonstration. It is not clear whether Russia was satisfied with the result - the current statement suggests that it wasn't - but in this case it probably would have said so after the demonstration. There are no signs of Russia's doing that. Since none of this was made public at the time, it is difficult to say exactly what happened and how serious the concern were.

While the seventh anniversary of New START is an important moment in arms control, it has been somewhat clouded by these accusations. There is still time, of course, to resolve all these issues, but it may take a while and a new controversy is not exactly what U.S.-Russian relations need today.

The first Tu-160M2 aircraft (serial number 08-04, Pyotr Deynekin) was demonstrated publicly during president's visit to the Gorbunov Aviation Plant in Kazan. The aircraft reportedly conducted its maiden flight in late December 2017. Also during the visit the ministry of defense and PAO Tupolev signed a contract to build ten Tu-160M2 aircraft. The cost of the ten-year contract is said to be 160 billion rubles (about $3 billion).

It is not clear if Pyotr Deynekin is included in the initial order of ten planes. It appears to have been assembled from an unfinished plane left over from the Soviet days. However, it may be considered Tu-160M2 if it is eventually equipped with new avionics. It seems that the Tu-160M2 project is largely a plan to re-start the production of Tu-160 bombers "from scratch."

UPDATE: Things may be a bit more complicated - Pyotr Deynekin is a Tu-160M, not M2 (h/t DS). Which seems reasonable - it is very much an old Tu-160 design. It gets an "M" when it gets some new avionics. The contract signed in Kazan also appears to cover the construction of Tu-160M, but at some point after 2020 these planes will be converted to Tu-160M2 (and presumably new ones would be built as M2). Other sources say that Tu-160M is a "deep modernization" of Tu-160, which means that these are not new planes. This would mean that the contract would cover only modernization and not a new construction. In this case, production of Tu-160M2 would be covered by a different contract.

UPDATE: It appears that the new aircraft will be built as Tu-160M2 after all. At least, in tenders announced by Aviastar (here and here, h/t AS) the new plane is referred to as "izdeliye 70M2".

The other strategic-bomber project - PAK-DA - may take its first flight "in mid-2020s." No significant changes there compared to the earlier plan.

YeniseyskRadar.png In December 2017 the Air and Space Forces started combat operations at three early-warning radars - in Barnaul, Yeniseysk (on the photo), and Orsk.

The radars in Barnaul and Yeniseysk are Voronezh-DM, the Orsk one is Voronezh-M. Construction of the radars started in 2013-2014 - Barnaul, Yeniseysk, and Orsk. The radars started initial operations in December 2016, allowing the defense minister to announce that all gaps in the early-warning coverage have been closed.

It's possible that this maybe the location of the new radar that is built to replace/augment Olenegorsk:

But it's too early to tell and some details don't quite add up - in a recent interview commander of the Space Forces said that the radar is being built "at a mountain with the height of 400 m." Google Earth doesn't show any mountains at this location.

This is the Google Earth file with radar coordinates and their fans. Russian early warning radars Jan 2018.kmz

Bryansk submarine of the Project 667BDRM/Delta IV class, arrived to Zevezdochka for another overhaul on 30 December 2017, replacing Tula, which left Zvezdochka earlier that month.

Bryansk completed its most recent overhaul in 2008, although it was seen in dry dock in 2012.

Sources in the military or defense industry tell Russian press that the first ejection test of the Sarmat missile did take place in Plesetsk. Normally, MK is not the most reliable source, but this time the information appears to be correct - sources on the other side also say that the test did happen.

The MK report leaves the impression that the test took place in the last few days of this year, but the test apparently took place in early December. Which is interesting - a few days ago Rogozin had a chance to comment on the progress of the Sarmat program and he refused to say anything. In any event, the program is clearly behind the schedule and my take is that the chances of Sarmat being deployed in 2020 are extremely slim.

One detail in the MK report caught eye of a few observers - the missile reportedly flew "several tens of kilometers" before landing "within the test site." This is a bit too far for an ejection test. It's quite possible that the reporter mixed up meters and kilometers. Or the launch involved a limited test of the first stage engines. A mix-up seems a safer bet, but a test of the engines is possible as well.

The bmpd blog of the CAST Center says that the test did not involve the first stage engine. According to their information, two more ejection tests will take place in the first half of 2018.

Tula submarine of the Project 667BDRM/Delta IV completed overhaul at the Zvezdochka Plant in Severodvinsk. According to a Zvezdochka report, the submarine completed the test program on December 21, 2017.

The submarine arrived to Zvezdochka in December 2014. Normally, its place would be taken by another submarine of the Project 667BDRM class, but this time no submarine is reported to enter overhaul.

UPDATE: In fact, there was a report about Bryansk waiting to enter overhaul in 2018 - probably in March. Bryansk completed its most recent overhaul in 2008, although it was seen in dry dock in 2012.

The Strategic Rocket Forces continue the tradition of conducting about half of the launches they say they plan to conduct. According to the last year statement, the 2017 plan included "more than ten" missile launches. The actual number is six - in a traditional end of the year interview, Sergey Karakayev said the his service had conducted five launches and planning to have one more by the end of the year. That last launch - Topol from Kapustin Yar - has just taken place, apparently concluding the 2017 launch program.

The 2017 launches were supposed to include "development" launches, life extension, and combat training. Indeed, there was a bit of everything. The first launch was that of a silo-based Topol-M from Plesetsk in January 2017. A launch of silo-based Yars from Plesetsk to Kura on September 12, 2017 was used to test "parallel deployment of warheads." There were two more launches in September -- a training launch of road-mobile Yars from Plesetsk on 20 September 2017 and a Topol launch from Kapustin Yar to Sary Shagan on 26 September 2017. A month later, on 26 October 2017 a Topol missile was launched from Plesetsk during an annual exercise of strategic forces.

In the interview, Karakayev promised 12 launches in 2018. It's a safe bet the actual number will be closer to six.

DRykt06XkAAVZ6v.jpg

On December 26, 2017 the Strategic Rocket Forces conducted a successful launch of a Topol/SS-25 missile from the Kapustin Yar test site. The test was used "to collect experimental data that will be used to develop advanced missile defense countermeasures."

Previous Topol launch from Kapustin Yar to Sary-Shagan took place in September 2017.

The word is that U.S. administration has finally identified the cruise missile that it suspects to violate the INF Treaty. In his remarks at the Wilson Center, Christopher Ford of the National Security Council said that the missile is known in Russia as 9M729. This was the first time the Russian name of the missile, designated in the United States as SSC-8, was announced officially. But, of course, someone leaked it to Jeffrey Lewis back in 2015, so it's not really news. I had my doubts about the 9M729 theory, but if that's what the U.S. administration builds its claim on, I am not in a position to argue.

The disclosure may seem like a big deal, but it probably isn't. The problem is that the designation alone doesn't really tell us anything, since there is not much that we know about the missile. To say more about the alleged violation we need other information that the United States gave to Russia:

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

This is where it gets interesting. In my earlier post, I described a number of scenarios that would lead the United States to conclude that the missile - SSC-8/9M729 - violates the treaty. I suspected that the missile in question has not been tested to the INF range from a mobile ground-based launcher and I can now say with some certainty that that I was right - it wasn't. This means that the evidence of a violation is indirect. Of course, this does not automatically gets Russia off the hook - the INF Treaty does not require a cruise missile to demonstrate its range in an actual test. Just having a capability is enough (Article VII.4):

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.

Given that the United States seems to be very confident in its conclusion about the range capability of the 9M729 missile, we should assume that it has good information about it. Who knows, maybe U.S. intelligence has detailed blueprints of the missile and all its technical characteristics. Maybe the documentation shows that extending the range of the 9M728 Iskander-M is just a matter of filling the fuel tank full. As a Russian colleague quipped, "Сколько топлива нальем, тому договору и будет соответствовать," which could be (very) roughly translated as "How much fuel we add is the treaty it will comply with."

More likely, though, is another scenario that I described in my previous post - the 9M729 missile is almost identical to a missile that was tested at the INF range, probably to the sea-launched Kalibr. As I understand, the United States observed a test of a missile from a compliant launcher (that would be an SLCM test) followed by a test (of presumably the same or a very similar missile) from a non-compliant one. Russia can still insist that these missiles were sufficiently different and that it is therefore in full compliance. But proving that would be quite difficult, especially if 9M729 is indeed capable of exceeding the 500 km threshold of the INF Treaty.

Another interesting detail that emerged from various discussions is that the United States appears to believe that the 9M729 missile uses the same Iskander-M launcher. If that is indeed the case, return to INF Treaty compliance would have to involve elimination of all Iskander-M launchers and missiles. That's a pretty high bar and it is extremely difficult to imagine that Russia would agree to this. But not all is lost. If the 9M729 launchers have what is known as "functionally related observable differences" or FRODs, then it might be possible to limit the damage and only those launchers that are capable of launching 9M729 would have to be eliminated (assuming that the missile is indeed non-compliant). [UPDATE: Or maybe not. If 9M729 was tested from an Iskander launcher even once, all these launchers will have to be eliminated. And that seems to be the case.]

The bottom line is that we still need more information to say anything conclusive about the alleged violation or chart a way out of this situation.