On October 26, 2017 Russia conducted its annual strategic forces exercise. Last year, the exercise took place on October 12. The new element this year was that it took place at night. The exercise was said to be a drill of the command and control procedures. President Putin, who participated, personally issued the launch orders.

The exercise involved a launch of a Topol/SS-25 ICBM from Plesetsk. The warhead is said to successfully reach its target at Kura.

The three SLBM launches were a salvo launch of two missiles from the Sea of Okhotsk to the Chizha test site and a launch of an SLBM from the Barents Sea to Kamchatka. The official report does not provide any information about submarines and missiles involved, but the video shows that all three SLBMs were liquid-fuel missiles. This means that the Okhotsk Sea salvo involved two R-29R missiles launched from one of the Project 667BDR/Delta III submarines. The Barents Sea launch was that of a R-29RM Sineva from one of the Project 667BDRM/Delta IV submarines.

Long-range bombers took part in the exercise as well. The official account says that Tu-160, Tu-95MS, and Tu-22M3 bombers based at Engels, Ukrainka, and Shaykovka launched ALCMs at targets at Kura, Pemboy, and Terekta (Kazakhstan) test sites.

GE4voekUolQ.jpg A photographer from Strezhevoy, Tomsk region, Alexey Yakovlev, took a series of spectacular photos of one of the missiles.

parallel_deployment.jpg It appears that we have an answer to the question of what kind of "experimental warheads" were tested in the September 12 Yars launch. And a confirmation of a guess made on Twitter by @artjomh shortly after the test. The image above is from that post - it's from a textbook they use at the Bauman University. According to The Diplomat's Ankit Panda, Russia tested "an independent post-boost vehicle (IPBV) configuration for a three-warhead version [of the Yars ICBM]." The Bauman textbook calls it "an RV with independent (parallel) deployment." As can be seen from the image, each RV is sitting on top of its own mini-bus, which is different from a more common configuration, when one bus deploys RVs one after another.

There is no doubt that this project was justified as a response to missile defense and it indeed could be an effective countermeasure, especially if an RV is attached to its mini-bus through most of the midcourse phase (which may or may not be the case). Even small maneuvers would make it difficult for an interceptor to catch the RV. But probably not impossible - a lot would depend on the divert capability of the mini-bus and the interceptor.

There is no free lunch, of course. Small mini-buses are probably heavier than one big one, so a missile would carry fewer warheads - three in this case instead of four that Yars is believed to normally carry. And these three warheads are probably smaller (although it hardly matters unless you try to hit missile silos, which is not Yars' mission). On the balance, I think this could be a useful anti-missile defense capability, but it's not a game changer. As far as effectiveness is concerned, it's hard to beat an old proven countermeasure - more warheads and decoys. But it is also a good illustration to the futility of the entire missile defense enterprise - it is much easier for "rocket men" to come up with new ideas than for missile defense to find a way to respond.

The U.S. State Department released aggregate New START numbers from the 1 September 2017 data exchange. Russia declared 1561 deployed warheads, 501 deployed launchers, and 790 total launchers. In March 2017 the numbers were 1765, 523, and 816 respectively.

The U.S. numbers in September 2017 were 1393 warheads, 660 deployed and 800 total launchers (1411, 673, and 820 in March 2017).

There has been a lot of speculation that Russia might not be able (or is not going) to comply with the New START limits by the February 2018 deadline. It was never clear what what was behind these speculations, since Russia always had plenty of options to choose from - from withdrawing old R-36M2 and UR-100NUTTH missiles from service to decommissioning even older Project 667BDR submarines. Figuring out what exactly has been done may take some time, though.

On September 26, 2017 the Strategic Rocket Forces conducted a successful launch of a Topol missile from Kapustin Yar to the Sary-Shagan test site. According to the official statement by the ministry of defense, the goal of the launch was "to test advanced combat payload" as part of the work on countering missile defense. The warhead (singular) was said to have successfully reached Sary-Shagan.

Previous launch of this type was conducted in December 2015, but a "new combat payload" was also tested in the launch from Plesetsk in September 2016.

The ministry of defense has a video of the launch. The missile was also seen from Astrakhan (warning: lot of stupid swearing), from Novoselitskoye in Stavropol Krai, and from Astrakhan again.

On September 22, 2017, 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 03:03 MSK (00:03 UTC). The satellite that the rocket and its Fregat boost stage delivered into orbit is a Glonass-M navigation satellite, designated Cosmos-2522. The satellite received international designation 2017-055A and was registered by NORAD as object 42939.

Previous Glonass launch took place in May 2016.

Given that the new satellite is designated Cosmos-2521, the satellite-inspector, released by Cosmos-2519 in August 2017, has not received a Cosmos designation.

UPDATE: Early reports indicated that the satellite was designated Cosmos-2521. This information has been updated. The Cosmos-2522 designation means that the satellite-inspector, released by Cosmos-2519 in August 2017, received the Cosmos-2521 designation.

Yars-M-20170920.png On September 20, 2017 crews of the Yoshkar-Ola missile division conducted a successful training launch of a mobile RS-24 Yars ICBM from the Plesetsk test site. The ministry of defense reported that all warheads successfully reached their targets at the Kura test range in Kamchatka. The goal of the launch was described as "confirmation of reliability of a party of ICBMs of this type."

Russia has been conducting an annual large-scale exercise of its strategic forces in October (here is the most recent one), but this one appears to be linked to the large Zapad-2017 exercise that was completed today. It is worth noting that before the launch the missile crews practiced "relocation of the missile launcher to a remote launch area."

Previous launch of a mobile Yars missile was conducted quite a while ago - in December 2014. The last time the Yars missile was tested from a silo was a bit over a week ago - on September 12, 2017.

UPDATE: The missile was launched from a Krona stationary shelter. This can be seen on the video of the launch posted at the ministry of defense site (for example, at 00:17).

On September 12, 2017 the Strategic Rocket Forces performed a successful launch of a silo-based Yars ICBM from Plesetsk to the Kura test site in Kamchatka. According to the official release by the Ministry of Defense, quoted in the media, the goal of the launch was to "confirm reliability of a party of missiles of this class." The statement also said that "experimental warheads successfully reached their targets."

RS-24 Yars missiles are being deployed in silos with missile divisions in Kozelsk and there are plans to deploy them in Tatishchevo as well. It appears that the missile that was used in today's test was taken from the recently manufactured batch to check its reliability.

What is new is the "experimental warheads" that were said to be tested in this launch. We don't know what they are. One thing is certain - these are not "hypersonic deeply maneuverable vehicles." On the other hand, if these were just "conventional" RVs of a new type, their experimental nature wouldn't have been mentioned. So, it is a puzzle for now. Of course, the defense industry has many things in its sleeve - a MaRV, for example (this one was developed by the Makeev Design Bureau, so I doubt it would be tested on Yars). Let's wait - maybe we'll hear more about this particular experiment.

Pu at SRS.png UNIDIR is looking for a researcher to work on the project "New Approaches to Transparency and Verification in Nuclear Security and Disarmament" that is funded by a joint two-year grant from the MacArthur Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. In this project, UNIDIR will explore new tools and approaches that can provide transparency and accountability in nuclear disarmament and nuclear security with a focus on fissile materials in the military domain, including materials still in nuclear weapons and their components. The primary goal of the project is to develop tools that would use recent advances in verification technologies to achieve transparency without intrusiveness in dealing with materials that are sensitive in nature.

The work on the project will involve an analysis of the existing nuclear security arrangements applied to civilian and military fissile materials, safeguards and material accounting practices, technical and political aspects of nuclear disarmament and elimination of excess military materials. To get a sense of the kind of research the project will involve, please check UNIDIR project on the FMCT or my article on Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

This position is open to postdocs as well as faculty and researchers on sabbatical (and other qualified candidates). Advanced PhD students are encouraged to apply as well. A degree in physics or other relevant technical discipline would be a strong advantage, but is not a formal requirement. However, strong knowledge of technical aspects of nuclear weapons, nuclear security, safeguards, and fissile materials production and handling is required. A record of published peer-reviewed research in these fields is essential.

The job announcement says that the term of the appointment is "at least nine months," which is correct, but there is a strong possibility of an extension. The term will start as soon as practically possible, ideally in the fall of 2017. The position will require physical presence in Geneva.

The formal announcement is on Inspira, the UN recruiting web site. If you are interested, you should apply there. UNIDIR will start considering applications on October 6, 2017, but the offer will be open until a suitable candidate is found. Feel free to write to me if you have any questions: Pavel Podvig at pavel.podvig@un.org

Photo: Plutonium stored in containers at the Savannah River Site. Source

This map above shows the structure of nuclear weapon storage sites in Russia. Or, more correctly, it shows units of the 12th Main Directorate that maintain nuclear weapon storage facilities. What was once a very large infrastructure now appears to include 12 national-level facilities (large red dots) and an estimated 35 base-level facilities. (This map can be difficult to read. Here is a larger one.)

More details about the facilities are in the UNIDIR research report "Lock them Up: Zero-deployed Non-strategic Nuclear Weapons in Europe", which was completed earlier this year. The report also lists locations of NATO bases in Europe that host U.S. weapons. The idea of the research project that produced the report was to look into a possibility of an arrangement that would transfer all non-strategic nuclear weapons to central storage facilities (those big red dots). Russia, in fact, has long maintained that it has done just that, although it never specified that it's the national-level facilities that it considers "central." We have found that the "zero-deployed" arrangement is entirely feasible. Its key element is that we would only verify the absence of nuclear weapons at specified sites and never have to have access to weapons. This would make verification much easier than counting the number of non-strategic weapons in storage, as most proposals advocate. Please read the report for a more detailed discussion.

Back to the Russian storage sites. Until 2009, the base-level facilities were assigned to individual services, but now all of them are in the 12th Main Directorate. However, they still bear marks of their former affiliation. Badges of individual units were very helpful in the process. Also, with a few exceptions, it is relatively easy to identify the units that a storage facility is supposed to service.

There are a couple of outliers, though - the site in Shaykovka, located near a long-range aviation airbase, appears to be subordinated to the Strategic Rocket Forces. There are two "engineering units" - Khabarovsk-41, located near the Khabarovsk-47/Korfovsky national-level site, and Chita-46, co-located with the Gornyy base-level storage. The mission of Gornyy is not entirely clear - it is technically assigned to the air force, but there is no air base there. It used to be a Strategic Rocket Forces site, but that was quite some time ago.

Storage facilities are fairly easy to identify in most cases, although not always - for some units we can only be certain of the location of the headquarters. I got some flack for putting all this information together, but that was a conscious decision to do so. Yes, security of these sites is important. But those who are entrusted with protecting these sites should never ever assume that their facilities are invisible. Because they are out there in the open.

I must also admit that the list of storage sites in the report is incomplete. We just missed the Borovsk-1 facility that stores nuclear weapons for interceptors of the Moscow missile defense. This does not change any conclusions in our report, but for the sake of completeness, here is the site:


I've been told that we may have missed one or two more. I think it is unlikely, but it is possible. Leave a comment or send me a note if you know what is missing.

The ministry of defense announced today that the satellite launched on June 23, 2017 (Cosmos-2519) released a "satellite-inspector." The statement suggests that the inspector, described as a "small spacecraft,' will inspect the host satellite. The words that were used was "отечественный спутник", probably to emphasize that the satellite will not be used to approach foreign satellites.

According to Anatoly Zak of russianpaceweb.com, this is the first time the Russian military confirmed an inspector mission. It is believed that the Cosmos-2499 and Cosmos-2504 missions were also small inspector satellites.

UPDATE 9/24/17: The inspector was registered by NORAD as object 42919. International designation of the satellite is 2017-037D. In Russia, it was designated as Cosmos-2521.