December 2018 was the first time in a while when the Rocket Forces made no announcement of the missile launch plans for the upcoming year and said nothing about the number of missile launches conducted in the year that is ending. Maybe it's because these announcements were getting a bit embarrassing - normally the Rocket Forces would conduct about half of the planned launches (this old chart provides a good illustration).

The story repeated itself in 2018 - in December 2017, Sergey Karakayev, the commander of the Rocket Forces, announced that his service will conduct 12 launches in 2018. The actual number appears to be closer to two.

Counting missile launches in 2018 is not easy - there was virtually no official information this year. There were three official statements - in October 2018, the press quoted the ministry of defense as saying that the Air and Space Forces conducted three launches since December 2017 - two Sarmat ejection tests (in March 2018 and in May 2018 and a test of a Yars missile - apparently the one in June 2018 (no information was released at the time).

Then, at the end of December, Dmitry Rogozin tweeted that Roskosmos conducted 22 launches in 2018. Most of these were space launches, but two out of eight launches from Plesetsk were not. We know that one of them was the Yars launch in June 2018, but the identity of the second one is more difficult to establish.

There are a number of candidates. First is the test of Nudol ASAT system that took place in March 2018. I am not entirely certain that this would be something Roskosmos would take credit for, but colleagues tell me that since it was a suborbital launch it's a Roskosmos territory. But it probably shouldn't count as a Rocket Forces launch. In the past, RVSN did not take credit for Nudol tests.

Other candidates for that second launch from Plesetsk are the event that was expected to take place during the October 2018 strategic exercise. A NOTAM warning was released, but nothing happened. Or maybe it did, but it went unannounced. Sounds possible, but more likely the test was postponed. Something similar happened in December 2018 - Russia released a NOTAM that covered December 23-25, but no launch was reported. I would judge that it is also unlikely that it was an actual launch. So, unless more information about ICBM comes out, I will count the March 2018 Nudol test as the second Plesetsk launch.

There were launches outside of Plesetsk, of course. It was difficult to miss the test of Avangard system from Dombarovskiy on 26 December 2018. This should probably count against the 12 launches in Karakayev statement.

Then, it appears that there was some activity at Kapustin Yar. There is fairly strong evidence that the event that took place there in early December 2018 was a failed launch of a Topol-E missile.

There is also some evidence that there was a launch of a missile, probably Topol-E, from Kapustin Yar to Sary Shagan in October 2018 - pieces of what looked conspicuously like fragments of a Topol first stage landed in Kazakhstan. Given that it landed outside of the designated areas the launch was probably not a success.

Putting it all together, it appears that Russia conducted only two successful ICBM launches in 2018, not 12 announced by Karakayev in December 2017. If we count Nudol, the number of successful launches will be three. Well, maybe the two Sarmat ejection tests were included in the 12 launches as well. These and the two apparent Kapustin Yar failures would bring the number of Rocket Forces tests to six (Nudol won't be included here), which, in fact, would be more in line with the historical record - the actual number is about half of what is planned.

On 26 December 2018 the Strategic Rocket Forces performed a test of the Avangard system that includes a hypersonic glide vehicle carried on a UR-100NUTTH/SS-19 missile. The launch, which took place at 12:59 MSK, was observed from the National Defense Control Center by the President of Russia and other officials. The test was said to be successful. It was also reported that the Avangard system has completed the program of tests and is ready for deployment in 2019.

The UR-100NUTTH missile that carried the vehicle was launched from a converted R-36M/SS-18 silo of the Dombarovskiy missile division (the one at 51.030849,59.690144). This silo has been used in earlier tests of the system (referred to as Project 4202). The vehicle reached its target at the Kura test site.

According to earlier reports, the deployment of Avangard will begin with two UR-100NUTTH missiles with the glide vehicle of the Avangard system will begin with two missiles deployed at Dombarovskiy by the end of 2019.

The history of Avangard/Project 4202 tests is a bit complicated. The vehicle, initially known as Yu-70, was tested four times in the 1990s and then it was mothballed until 2001. It was demonstrated to the Russian leadership in a test in February 2004 after which the development apparently got the green light (even though the test may not have been entirely successful). The next three tests - in December 2011, September 2013, and September 2014 (the evidence is mostly circumstantial for this one) - that involved a Yu-71 vehicle (built without Ukraine's participation) were probably not very successful as well. I was told that the designers had some problems with getting the vehicle to maneuver. This seems to be in agreement with what Yuri Borisov, deputy defense minister, said in a recent interview - the program was almost shut down "four years ago" (which would place it at the end of 2014). However, the designers asked for another chance to prove that the project is viable and they got it.

After that decision, there was a known test in February 2015 (probably unsuccessful), and two in 2016 - in April and in October. U.S. intelligence sources were quoted as saying that there was another (unsuccessful) test in October 2017, but this report does not seem very reliable - all 2017 ICBM launches have been accounted for and Borisov said that the most recent test of Avangard was the third one (I assume it was the third successful).

Here is my attempt to bring everything in one table:

Date Test site Comment
28 Feb 1990 Baykonur Appears to be the first test of the Yu-70/102E vehicle. Did not involve separation of the vehicle from booster. 15A35P launch
29 Mar 1990 Baykonur Yu-70/102E vehicle. Did not involve separation of the vehicle from booster. 15A35P launch
26 Nov 1991 Baykonur 15A35P launch
28 Jul 1992 Baykonur 15A35P launch
27 Jun 2001 Baykonur 15A35P launch
18 Feb 2004 Baykonur Demonstration of the Yu-70/102E vehicle. UR-100NUTTH launch during a strategic exercise. 15A35P launch. Reportedly unsuccessful.
27 Dec 2011 Baykonur The first test of the Yu-71 vehicle of the Project 4202 program. 15A35P launch
27 Sep 2013? Dombarovskiy Reportedly unsuccessful
Sep 2014? Dombarovskiy Not confirmed
26 Feb 2015 Dombarovskiy Reportedly unsuccessful. 15A35P launch
19 Apr 2016 Dombarovskiy Reportedly successful. 15A35P launch
25 Oct 2016 Dombarovskiy Reportedly successful
Oct 2017? Dombarovskiy Reported, but not confirmed
26 Dec 2018 Dombarovskiy Reportedly successful

In any event, everything appears to be ready for the first two Avangard launchers at Dombarovskiy in 2019. The total of 12 missiles are expected to be deployed there by the end of 2027, which confirms that it's largely a niche capability. There are persistent rumors about Avangard gliders being deployed on Sarmat ICBMs - as many as three on a missile - but I am a bit skeptical about that.

AvangardLaunchCover.pngP.S. An interesting detail that can be seen at 0:05 on the video of the launch - the opening silo cover has something like a piece of cloth (тряпочка) attached to it. My guess is it's a cover of the missile container that is being removed as the silo opens. But the removal method doesn't seem particularly elegant.

P.P.S. The glider is said to have reached speed of 20M or even (according to Borisov) 27M. This sounds impressive (and in fact it is), but we should keep in mind that the vehicle is flying at altitudes of 70-80 km. The speed of sound there is about 290 m/s, which is less than 340 m/s at the sea level (NASA has a nice calculator). So, 20M would be 5.8 km/s (27M is about 7.8 km/s).

At 03:20 MSK (00:20 UTC) on December 21, 2018 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-2533.

Cosmos-2533 is the Blagovest communication satellite (No. 13L) produced at the Reshetnev ISS enterprise in Zheleznogorsk.

Previous launch of a satellite of this type, Cosmos-2526, took place in April 2018.

According to the ministry of defense, "the first regiment of Yars missiles in Kozelsk began combat duty." Which is interesting, since the military reported that the regiment was on combat duty in December 2015 (here is a link to the Interfax story).

What probably happened was that in 2015 the regiment began combat duty with six missiles and is brought to full ten only now. I was too optimistic in suggesting that the 2015 missile delivery plan meant that six silo-based Yars will be deployed in Kozelsk that year. Rather, it was the "normal" rate - two missiles a year. Still, if that was the case, the deployment should have been completed in 2017 - apparently there was another delay, besides production of missiles.

Now that the fist regiment is fully ready, one would expect to see more activity at silos of the second regiment.

This video that appeared online on December 10, 2018 shows an apparent failure of a missile launched from the Kapustin Yar test site. By the size of the fireball it seemed like a large missile, probably an ICBM. And indeed, the next day LiveJournal user e_maksimov (of the Burevestnik launch site at Novaya Zemlya fame) presented good evidence that it was a launch from the launch complex No. 107 of the Kapustin Yar test site. This made him to conclude that it was a failed launch of a Topol-E missile - a Topol ICBM modified to test payloads in launches from Kapustin Yar to Sary-Shagan. Later, the same user found a NOTAM notice that supported his Topol-E hypothesis. (UPDATE: That NOTAM is for December 11-15, but there is an earlier one too.)

It all looks quite convincing to me, so the event should probably be counted as a Topol-E failure. These kind of launches (but not failures) have been, in fact, fairly common. The most recent one was about a year ago, in December 2017.

On December 10, 2018 two Tu-160 strategic bombers arrived in Venezuela. The aircraft landed at Maiquetia airport outside Caracas. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the aircraft flew from their bases in Russia (most likely from Engels) "over the Atlantic, the Barents, Norwegian, and Caribbean seas." The bombers do not carry any armaments.

The planes that went to Venezuela this time are Vasili Reshetnikov (No. 2) and Nikolai Kuznetsov (No. 10).

This is the third time Russian Tu-160 bombers visit Venezuela. The first visit took place in September 2008, the second one - in 2013. During the 2013 visit, the planes also visited Nicaragua.

According to an industry source, quoted in the Russian media, the 2018-2027 State Armament Program includes construction of two additional Project 955A/Borey-A submarines. This will bring the number of submarines of the Project 955 class to ten by 2028. The source said that five submarines will be based in the Northern Fleet and five - in the Pacific. He also suggested that the construction of the Borey submarines will continue after 2027, since it is unlikely that the Project 667BDRM subs will be able to remain in service that long. (Back in May 2018, it was suggested that Russia may build six additional Project 955A submarines, bringing the total to 14.)

The original plan called for construction of eight submarines of the Project 955 class. Three of them are already in service - Yuri Dolgorukiy with the Northern Fleet and Alexander Nevskiy and Vladimir Monomakh in the Pacific. The fourth submarine, Knyaz Vladimir, just began sea trials (it left the dry dock in November 2017). Construction of the eighth submarine, Knyaz Pozharskiy, began in December 2016.

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," which almost verbatim repeats the statement made after the previous test. The date of the test was not reported, but it is likely that it took place on November 30.

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

The INF treaty violation dispute just took a few very interesting turns. It started with Sergey Ryabkov's briefing in Moscow on Monday. At some point there was a rumor that the United States is going to formally announce its withdrawal from the treaty on Tuesday. That proved to be a false alarm, and instead we saw results of U.S. administration's effort to present a better case to its NATO allies. That effort brought a statement from the Dutch government, that said that it independently confirmed that Russia is violating the INF Treaty. Then the German intelligence services assessed U.S. evidence as "convincing." And the week closed with a statement released by the Director of National Intelligence, Daniel Coats.

The DNI statement finally provided the official U.S. theory of the violation:

Russia initially flight tested the 9M729 - a ground based missile - to distances well over 500 kilometers (km) from a fixed launcher. Russia then tested the same missile at ranges below 500km from a mobile launcher. By putting the two types of tests together, Russia was able to develop a missile that flies to the intermediate ranges prohibited by the INF Treaty and launches from a ground-mobile platform.

This is not exactly news - this was the theory that first appeared back in 2014 and then was very much confirmed by the people who knew details of the case. Not in so many words, of course, but there was enough information out there to put it all together:

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).

I think I have to ask - What was so secret about it? There is absolutely nothing in the DNI statement that could not be released back in 2014. And it would have probably helped find a way to deal with the problem. Instead, attempts to find out what happened were met with dismissive "If only you knew what we know" or "You were not in the room when we discussed the intelligence" kind of response. All this helped bring us to the point when we are discussing the impending collapse of the INF Treaty.

Russia, of course, insists that it did nothing wrong and the missile tested from a fixed launcher is different from that tested from a mobile launcher. Ryabkov, in fact, addressed this more or less directly is his presentation:

[The United States] assumed that Russia could carry out tests of a missile with a smaller amount of fuel than provided for by the design. For our part, we highlighted the specifics of the fuel system of our missile, which preclude such experiments.

What he seems to be referring to is the possibility that the tests from a mobile launcher were made appear treaty-compliant by simply not filling up the fuel tank to the full (the "cколько топлива нальем, тому договору и будет соответствовать" scenario). Whatever is the case, the United States described Russia's measures to ensure that the mobile-launcher tests stay below the INF treaty limit as "attempts to obfuscate the nature of the program." But Russia probably considers them legitimate measures that ensure that the program is in compliance with the letter of the treaty.

Given the confidence with which the United States insists that Russia is in violation, they probably have some fairly solid intelligence. This could be human intelligence, intercepts of phone calls or maybe of the telemetry - something that is fairly good but cannot be shown publicly. Or maybe not - judging by how long it took to convince the Europeans that the violation is real, the evidence may not be all that solid. At this point I wouldn't give U.S. administration the benefit of the doubt. But I don't see a reason to trust the Russian government either.

Where does this leave us and is it possible to find a way to keep the INF Treaty alive? I have written already that inspecting 9M729 is unlikely to be very helpful here. For Russia to agree to show the missile, it would have to be quite certain in advance that the United States will accept that it is a different missile. Otherwise it would just give the U.S. more reasons to accuse it of a treaty violation. The situation is not totally hopeless, but it would require a fairly high level of trust, strong commitment to preserve the treaty, and probably Russia's willingness to take some corrective actions. Alas, all these are in short supply these days.

On November 30, 2018 at 05:27 MSK (02:27 UTC) the Air and Space Forces conducted a successful launch of a Rockot space launcher with Briz-KM booster stage from the launch pad No. 3 of the launch complex No. 133 of the Plesetsk test site. The three spacecraft delivered into orbit are military communication satellites of the Strela-3M/Rodnik type. In addition to the three satellites, the launcher appears to have placed an additional object to the orbit.

The Rodnik satellites received designations Cosmos-2530, Cosmos-2531, and Cosmos-2532 and international designations 2018-097A, 2018-097B, and 2018-097C. They are registered by NORAD as 43751, 43751, and 43752.

Previous launch of Rodnik-type satellites took place in September 2015. It also used the Rockot launcher, which is a converted UR-100NUTTH ICBM.

In the past, launches of the Rodnik-type satellites also delivered into orbit a small payload, unannounced at the time of the launch. This is what apparently happened this time as well - NORAD registered an additional object, 2018-097D/43754 (2018-097E is the booster).

UPDATE: This payload is reported to be a dummy satellite that took place of the Blits-M satellite that wasn't ready to launch.