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.

In February 2018, when Russia announced that it completed reductions of its strategic forces under the New START, it also issued a statement that asserted that the United States reached the limit in part by

converting a certain number of Trident II SLBM launchers and В-52Н heavy bombers, in the way that the Russian Federation cannot confirm that these strategic arms have been rendered incapable of employing SLBMs or nuclear armaments for heavy bombers.

There was another charge as well - some reductions were done by

arbitrary renaming silo training launches into "training silos," a category not specified by the Treaty.

A later statement issued by the Foreign Ministry provided more details. Russia believes that 56 Trident launchers and 41 B-53H bombers were converted in a way that does not render them incapable. With "training silos" we are talking about four silos (curiously, the number is mentioned only in the Russian version of the statement).

Although at the time the tone of the statements was rather reserved - Russia noted the fact and said that the issue is "of fundamental significance" - the stance appears to have hardened since then. Speaking at a session of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, Vladimir Ermakov, director of the Department for Nonproliferation and Arms Control of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that the New START extension can only be discussed when the United States "fully return to complying with the spirit and the letter of the treaty" (h/t DS).

It appears that Russia has made a decision to elevate the issue to the level of accusing the United States of non-compliance with New START.

Since things get that serious, it makes sense to take a look what this is all about. When I tried to look into the issue in February my conclusion was that more information would be necessary to understand it. So, I asked around and I believe that at this point I have a reasonably good picture of what is going on.

Trident II and B-52H

The treaty does allow parties to convert launchers or heavy bombers "by rendering [them] incapable of employing ICBMs, SLBMs, or nuclear armaments" (see paragraph I.3 in Part Three on p. 90 of the Protocol). Once this is done, "such a converted strategic offensive arm shall cease to be subject to the aggregate numbers."

NewSTARTConversion.png

It is indeed the case that the United States converted some of its Trident II launchers this way - the 56 launchers in question are four launchers on each of the 14 submarines that carry the missile. As I understand, the conversion was done by removing gas generators of the ejecting mechanism from the tube and bolting the tube covers shut.

The problem that Russia has with that procedure is that it is reversible, as it indeed appears to be. The argument made by the United States is that New START does not explicitly require the conversion to be irreversible, and that as long as the treaty is in force Russia can always use its inspection provisions to check that the launch tubes remain "rendered incapable" of launching SLBMs.

The treaty does require, however, that the procedure is done in a manner "that the other Party can confirm the results of the conversion." If the procedures "are ambiguous or do not achieve the goals" of the conversion, the converting party shall conduct a demonstration, presumably to convince its counterpart that there the goals of the conversion are achieved. But the treaty does not, in fact, require the demonstration to be convincing, so it is entirely possible that the other party will still have issues with the way the conversion is done. Which appears to be exactly what happened.

My take is that Russia probably has a point here. It does have the right to "confirm the results of the conversion." The treaty does not say it explicitly, but it is clear that the idea of this requirement is that Russia has to agree that the procedure does what it is supposed to do. As I understand, the United States does not dispute the fact that the conversion of Trident tubes is reversible. Yes, replacing the gas generator and unbolting the cover may not be a trivial procedure, but since the tube can still be used to deploy an SLBM, it would be more appropriate to consider it a "non-deployed launcher," which means it cannot be excluded from the New START aggregate numbers. If the United States wants to exclude these tubes from the New START count, it should pour concrete in them or do something similar.

I don't have details of the B-52H conversion, but I would guess that the conversion is done in a reversible manner as well. But bombers has always been tricky, since their conversion is never truly irreversible. As I understand, it is largely an issue of having a socket that allows the arming mechanism of a nuclear weapon to be connected to the equipment inside of the aircraft. There is the equipment itself, of course, but its absence is more difficult to verify. But with bombers at least there is an understanding of the risks and there are arguably other ways to ascertain that a bomber has been converted to non-nuclear missions. That's not the case with submarines and SLBMs.

As I understand, at some point last year Russia and the United States considered an option of issuing a joint "agreed to disagree" statement that would outline their differences on the issue. But something didn't work out.

UPDATE 04/18/18: In fact, the Protocol describes the conversion procedure (h/t AS). It's on pp. 95-96, reproduced below:

NewSTARTConversion1.png NewSTARTConversion2.png

The important words here are "carried out using any of the procedures." So, pouring concrete as in (a) is an option, but removing a gas generator is an option too. The latter, however, may be accompanied by a removal of some "launch-related systems," but maybe not. So, maybe Russia's point is not as strong as I thought it is. But there is still a point there.

Training silos

Unlike the Trident claim, this one seem less serious. At the center of the issue are four "training silos" at the three operational ICBM bases (there are two at the F.E. Warren AFB).

The reason these are not reported in the treaty is that the United States maintains that they should not be. New START requires counting "silo training launchers," which are defined as "full-scale silo launcher of ICBMs specified for training purposes" (see p. 12 of the Protocol. It's полномасштабный in Russian).

NewSTARTTrainingLauncher.png

In U.S. view "training silos" are different from "training launchers" in one very important aspect - "silos" are not "full-scale" launchers in that even though they are replicas of the real thing and are indeed used for training, they cannot possibly launch a missile.

I am largely with the United States on this one - "full-scale" does imply the capability to launch, so if a silo cannot do that, it shouldn't be counted. It is true, though, that in the "old" START these silos were reported as "silo training launchers," so the United States should probably demonstrate why it no longer considers these silos as launchers. So, Russia may have a point again.

Verifying this should be fairly easy. It wouldn't even require using the treaty inspection quota - F.E. Warren AFB at some point offered a public tour of its training silo, so I'm sure it can be easily arranged again. But at some point it should be done.

Sources in U.S. intelligence community told Ankit Panda that Russia conducted a test launch of the Nudol anti-satellite system in Plesetsk on March 26, 2018, this time from a transporter erector launcher.

The Nudol system, also known as PL-19, is believed to be a direct-ascent ASAT developed by the Almaz-Antey design bureau. The system appears to have the internal designation 14Ts033 (14Ц033), the interceptor is known as 14А042 (14А042). There were three test launches of the interceptor in 2014-2015 (one of them unsuccessful) and two after that - in May 2016 and in December 2016. This would make the March 2018 test the sixth one.

It is not clear whether the test was just a test of a missile or it involved an intercept attempt. It appears that it didn't this time. I am reasonably certain that the first three tests were just tests of the missile, not the interceptor. So, it seems that the tests still do not involve a kill vehicle.

Just as a reminder - the December 2016 test was said to be conducted from a "site in central Russia." Kapustin Yar was suspected, but if the March 2018 was the first test from TEL then it is less clear how the test could have taken place there. Another interesting data point - construction at the Chekhov radar site near Moscow is said to be somehow connected to the Nudol program, but the exact nature of that connection is not clear.

A couple of weeks ago we got a word about the future of the RS-26 missile. According to the Russian media, the RS-26 program did not make it to the 2018-2027 State Armament Program as the priority was given to the Avangard project (which is known here as Project 4202). It may reappear again, of course, but probably not right away.

To recap, the missile was first tested in September 2011 (unsuccessfully) and in May 2012. A March 2015 report said that the missile was fully tested and ready for deployment. Being a "short" RS-24 Yars, RS-26 was by all indications an intermediate-range missile, which generated some controversy. I have it on good authority that Russia did declare RS-26 as a prototype of a new ICBM in New START, so it would have been covered by its provisions had it been deployed. Right now, though, it will remain in a limbo - as a prototype it doesn't really have a range. If we will get to the point of a clear collapse of the INF Treaty Russia could declare RS-26 as an intermediate-range missile that is not constrained by New START (or its successor).

The Air and Space Defense Forces conducted another test of a "new modernized" interceptor of the Moscow missile defense system at the Sary-Shagan test site. The test appear to take place on April 1, 2018. The new interceptor is often referred to as 53T6M.

The first time description of a test included mentions of improvement of the Moscow missile defense system was the June 2017 test. It is possible that it was the first test of the new interceptor, but it is more likely that it was a regular annual test of the old 53T6 (these traditionally take place in June). The words "new modernized" appeared only in November 2017, and then again in February 2018. So, this is probably the third test of the 53T6M.

On March 29, 2018 the ministry of defense posted a video of the second ejection test of the Sarmat missile, which took place at the Plesetsk test site, apparently either on March 28th or March 29th, 2018.

The first ejection test of the missile took place in December 2017. The silo that was used in the test has some interesting history (h/t NK forum). The silo is located at the Yubileynaya site at Plesetsk. It was built in the 1990s as an experimental silo, 15P765-18E (15П765-18Э), to test the START II procedure of converting a R-36M silo to that of Topol-M. The conversion included pouring concrete "up to the height of five meters from the bottom of the silo launcher" and installing "a restrictive ring with a diameter of no more than 2.9 meters" (see Article II.4 of the START II Protocol on Procedures Governing Elimination of Heavy ICBMs). Since there was no R-36M silos in Plesetsk, Special Machine Building Design Bureau built a new one (or, rather, converted an old silo, of course). Now this silo has been converted again, this time for Sarmat tests. The process probably had to include removal or the five meters of concrete poured in earlier - not an easy task, I would say, unless you are rebuilding the silo again. Note that the converted silo is likely to have a new designation as well.

On March 29, 2018 at 20:38:42 MSK (17:38:42 UTC) the Military Space Forces conducted a successful launch of a Souyz-2.1v launcher from the launch pad No. 4 of the launch complex No. 43 of the Plesetsk test site. The spacecraft was deployed on an almost circular orbit with altitude of about 320 km and inclination of 96.64 degrees. After deployment the satellite received an official designation Cosmos-2525.

Cosmos-2525 has been described as an experimental imaging satellite EMKA, developed at the VNIIEM corporation. It received international designation 2018-028A and was registered as object 43243.

According to Sergey Karakayev, the commander of the Strategic Rocket Forces, the Nizhni Tagil and Novosibirsk divisions are now fully equipped with new Yars missiles. The divisions in Irkutsk and Yoshkar-Ola are in the process of conversion and Vypolzovo (Bologoye) and Barnaul apparently haven't started yet. This statement largely repeats what he said in September 2016, although at that time Karakayev seemed to suggest that conversion at Bologoye was imminent.