On June 23, 2015 at 19:44 MSK (16:44 UTC) Space and Air Defense Forces successfully launched a Soyuz-2.1b launcher from the launch pad No. 4 of the launch complex No. 43 of the Plesetsk test site. The satellite delivered into orbit was designated Cosmos-2506. It is believed to be a new Persona optical reconnaissance satellite.

The satellite was registered by NORAD as an object 40699 and was given international designation 2015-029A. It is expected to perform a transfer to a sun-synchronous circular orbit with apogee of about 720 km in a few days.

Previous launch of a Persona satellite, Cosmos-2486, took place on June 7, 2013.

I have a piece in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists where I try to untangle the controversy around alleged Russia's non-compliance with the INF Treaty. The short version of it is that I believe that the culprit missile is an SLCM that was tested from a "wrong" kind of launcher. It's still a violation, of course, which would require some creative thinking to reverse. Read the column for details.

Hard evidence is difficult to come by these days (unfortunately, a ban on posting selfies taken on the test site seems to be enforced quite well), so all we have is bits and pieces that may or may not fit together. When the Bulletin column was published, some of my colleagues were skeptical about the SLCM claim. The question I got was, What about that 9M729 missile that looks like the Iskander's 9M728/R-500 follow-on?

Well, what about it? Very much all we know about 9M729 comes from a brief mention in a report of GosNIIP, a design bureau that builds guidance for cruise missiles (the site has been taken down for redesign). According to the report, Russia completed state acceptance trials of the "ground-based system 9M728, 9M729 and its modernized version." We know that 9M728 is a cruise missile developed as part of the Iskander project (see "Kamnev" on this page; as always, thanks to Alexander for the links). It appears that it is the missile usually referred to as R-500, which has been now deployed with Iskander-M systems.

It's very reasonable to suggest that 9M729 is a follow-on to 9M728, also to be deployed as part of the ground-based Iskander-M. If so, it appear to be a very good candidate for the role of the INF non-compliance culprit. The only thing I would note here that since it was tested together with 9M728, it's unlikely to be a follow-on. A long-range version with a light (presumably nuclear) payload would be one possibility. But not the only one.

The 9M729 theory looks fairly compelling, but it doesn't seem to fit the various bits and pieces of information about the non-compliance allegation. First, U.S. officials have repeatedly said that the missile in question is not Iskander. There are many ways to interpret these statements, but I would think that if we were talking about a nuclear-capable Iskander missile the language would have been somewhat different.

Then, as I understand, Russia has been working on long-range cruise missiles, but these seem to be larger (8 meters) missiles. This does not necessarily mean that there is no project that produced a short 6-meter missile to be launched from Iskander, but it's just another piece that doesn't quite fit.

Also, I have it on good authority that the missile in question has its own launcher (apparently treaty-compliant) that is different from the (presumably non-fixed) launcher that triggered the non-compliance allegation. Again, this does not prove anything, but it's one more detail to consider.

Finally, I would just note that the difference between SLCMs and GLCMs is very much artificial. There is no reason a SLCM cannot be easily deployed on land. There are few doubts that Russia is working on long-range SLCMs, which could then be deployed on ground-based launchers, if necessary. In fact, they don't have to be - as far as Europe is concerned, Russia could cover it with SLCMs. So, while I cannot completely rule out a scenario in which Russia decided to openly disregard the INF Treaty, I still strongly believe that the alternative - SLCM tests that turned out to be non-compliant - is much more plausible.

In an article in Jane's Intelligence Review, "Russia tests hypersonic glide vehicle", published last week, Alexander Stukalin and I tried to put together all that is known about Project 4202 to this date. The article is behind a very serious paywall, but there is not much there that has not been published here already - starting from the 2013 post on Object 370 and to the February report about the failed flight test of the Project 4202 vehicle. All the information is, of course, taken from open sources (most of the links are in the earlier posts and comments).

Still, a few things may be worth mentioning. First, there is a list of flight tests that seem to be part of the hypersonic development program. For some tests the information is fairly solid, for others it is more circumstantial. It is quite possible that the tests continued in the 1990s, but if they did, there are few signs of that.


Date Test site Comment
25 Feb 1990 Baykonur Appears to be the first test of the Yu-70/102E vehicle. Did not involve separation of the vehicle from booster
5 Mar 1990 Baykonur Yu-70/102E vehicle. Did not involve separation of the vehicle from booster
6 Jun 2001 Baykonur A UR-100NUTTH test that may have involved the Yu-70/102E vehicle
18 Feb 2004 Baykonur Demonstration of the Yu-70/102E vehicle. UR-100NUTTH launch during a strategic exercise. Reportedly unsuccessful.
27 Dec 2011 Baykonur Appears to be the first test of the Yu-71 vehicle of the Project 4202 program
26 Sep 2013? Dombarovskiy Presumably a Yu-71 test. Reportedly unsuccessful
Sep 2014? Dombarovskiy Presumably a Yu-71 test. Probably unsuccessful
25 Feb 2015 Dombarovskiy Presumably a Yu-71 test. Apparently unsuccessful

It appears that until 2011 the tests involved an "old" vehicle, referred to as Yu-70 or 102E. The December 2011 tests is by all indication the first one that was done under the Project 4202 program. The vehicle is now known as Yu-71.

A closer look at the NPOMash web site showed that it worked on a system that is strikingly similar to a hypersonic vehicle system - the Strela launcher and its larger payload. This should give a sense of what the Yu-71 vehicle looks like. In particular, we can see that the launcher with a larger payload sticks out of the standard UR-100NUTTH silo - this is why the new system will be deployed in converted R-36M silos, which are considerably larger.

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Speaking of silo conversions, it is still not clear which one of the Dombarovskiy silos is used for Project 4202 launches. But there is only one silo - east of Yasnny - that has a restricted flight area above it (as shown at the fpln.ru site), so it is quite possible that it is the one. Unfortunately, the most recent imagery on Google Earth is from 2009, which is probably before the construction there started in earnest.

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It appears that we are still quite a few years away from seeing the hypersonic vehicle in action, especially given the apparent string of failures in recent tests. The maneuvering part of the flight, which is the whole point of the program, seems to be the most difficult to master. But it is by all indications an active high-priority program, so we will probably see it at some point.

When the Makeyev Design Bureau got the contract to build new "heavy" liquid-fuel ICBM, it was reported that the NPOMash (the Chelomey Design Bureau) is taking part in the project as well. However, the NPOMash chief designer, Alexander Leonov, is now saying that his design bureau does not contribute to the Sarmat development.

On June 9, 2015 the Air and Space Defense Forces successfully tested a short-range interceptor of the A-135 missile defense system, which is deployed around Moscow. The interceptor, apparently 53T6, known as Gazelle, was launched at 11:32 MSK and is said to have successfully reach its target. The test was supported by the Sary-Shagan crews of the Strategic Rocket Forces and industry representatives.

Previous test of the interceptor took place during the command and control exercise in May 2014.

UPDATE: The ministry of defense released a video account of the test.

The U.S. State Department released the 2015 Compliance Report. I don't think anyone was counting on the State Department to release more information about the substance of its claim of Russia's non-compliance with the INF treaty. The State fully met everyone's expectations - there are nothing specific there.

Having said that, a simple track change comparison with the 2014 Compliance Report shows some interesting changes. First of all, the report adds two more articles of the treaty to its "compliance analysis":

Paragraph 7 of Article VII provides that if a launcher has been tested for launching a GLCM, all launchers of that type shall be considered to be launchers of that type of GLCM.

Paragraph 8 of Article VII of the INF Treaty provides that if a launcher has contained or launched a particular type of GLCM, all launchers of that type shall be considered to be launchers of that type of GLCM.

This may not be very significant, but it does seem to support my guess that the violation is a technicality that involved a test from a "wrong" kind of a launcher:

the violation is largely a technicality having to do with the fact that the INF Treaty requires that any missile that is not a GLCM covered by the treaty should be test-launched from a "fixed land-based launcher which is used solely for test purposes and which is distinguishable from GLCM launchers." Strictly speaking, a test of a SLCM (with a range of more than 500 km) from a road-mobile launcher would mean that this SLCM would qualify as a GLCM and therefore will be a treaty violation.

The difference between a "fixed land-based" and "mobile" launcher is rather thin - for example, as far as I can tell, a cruise missile can be tested from some kind of a truck, but if that truck has its wheels taken off it could conceivably classified as a "fixed" launcher. But if the wheels are there, it would become mobile (even if it doesn't move much).

So, I think the evidence that we have still suggests that it was a sea-launched cruise missile that was tested from a truck that happened to have wheels. It is a violation of the letter of the treaty of course, but not a very dramatic one.

Politically, of course, it is a rather big deal, especially if it turns out that RS-26 is in fact an intermediate-range missile. Unlike the cruise missile, this one would be a clear violation of the spirit, but not the letter of the INF Treaty, making it is difficult to bring a formal complaint. But to leave these two developments without a response is not really an option for the United States. so it went after the truck.

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At 18:24 MSK (15:24 UTC) on June 5, 2015 the Space Forces successfully launched a Soyuz-2.1a rocket from launch pad No. 4 of the launch complex No. 43 of the Plesetsk launch site. The satellite that was successfully delivered to orbit was reportedly designated Cosmos-2505. It is believed to be an optical reconnaissance satellite of the Kobalt-M type.

Previous Kobalt-M launch, Cosmos-2495, took place in May 2014. These satellites use a re-entry capsules to return film with captured images to the Earth. Cosmos-2505 is believed to be the last satellite of this type.

it's not about modernization of the old aircraft anymore. Russia wants to resume production of Tu-160 bombers and build at least 50 new planes. At least this is what the commander-in-chief of the Russian Air Force, General-Colonel Vladimir Bondarev told journalists today.

The idea resuming the Tu-160 aircraft was first mentioned by the defense minister Sergey Shoigu during his visit to the Kazan Aviation Plant about a month ago. At the time it seemed like a remote possibility, but apparently it is more than that and the air force is now talking about a decision that has been already made. At the same time, Bondarev said that the plan of building a new bomber, PAK-DA, is still there. And, of course, there are no plans to retire the old Tu-95MS aircraft just yet. Well, I guess that if it's okay for the Strategic Rocket Forces to have seven or so different types of ICBMs, then there is nothing wrong with three types of bombers. Nobody in Kremlin seems to be counting money these days anyway.

Russian press quotes the director of the Kazan aviation plant as saying that the Tu-160 strategic bombers will undergo a second round of modernization, which will include "an almost complete replacement of all avionics." According to the director, the overhaul will be completed in 2019.

Deployment of new early-warning radars of the Voronezh-M and Voronezh-DM type is by all indication a successful project - the new radars are seemingly inexpensive and quick to built. So, it is not a surprise that the program is getting more money and more orders - earlier this month Spetsstroy announced that it will build another radar, in Zeya, Amur oblast.

Judging by the photo used by Spetsstroy to illustrate the news, the radar in Zeya will be of the Voronezh-M type. However, we'll have to see for the signs of construction to be certain.