It was a bit unusual, to put it mildly, that the annual exercise of the strategic forces that was held yesterday, on October 11, 2018 did not involve an ICBM launch. The only Rocket Forces story was a decontamination training in a number of Yars divisions.

Plesetsk-NOTAMs-2018.jpgAs it turned out, an ICBM launch was apparently part of the plan, but was either cancelled or failed. We can see that from the NOTAM that closed areas around Plesetsk between 11 and 16 of October (it's still active, so the launch may still take place). The location of the first area is a bit odd - it appears to be up-range from the Topol/Yars launch pads. But this appears to be a normal practice - the NOTAM from a Yars launch in June 2018 closed exactly the same area.

The Yars test in June, in fact, was not announced at the time. It was only later the Rocket Forces revealed that there was indeed a test. What is interesting is that the areas closed in October look very different from those closed in June. This may be a difference between Topol and Yars - I need more NOTAMs to compare. Or maybe it's something else. I'll try to look into that.

On October 11, 2018 the Russian strategic forces conducted an annual exercise that involved launches of SLBMs and launches of weapons carried by long-range bombers.

The SLBM launches were conducted from one of the Project 667BDRM submarines of the Northern Fleet from the Barents Sea to the Kura test range and one of the submarines of the Pacific Fleet, probably Project 667BDR class Ryazan, from the Sea of Okhotsk to the Chizha test range. It appears that in both cases it was a salvo launch, but there is no official information about the number of missiles that were involved.

As for the strategic aviation, the exercise included flights of Tu-95MS (apparently with the new Kh-101 missile), probably from Ukrainka, Tu-160 from Engels (probably also with Kh-101), and flights of Tu-22M3 from Shaylovka. The bombers are said to hit targets at the Pemboy and Terekta test ranges.

It appears that no ICBMs took part in the exercise.

It should be noted that the official statement about the exercise mentions that all SLBM launches were detected by the EKS space-based early-warning system and by the early-warning radars.

Previous exercise of this kind took place in October 2017.

The U.S. State Department released aggregate New START numbers from the 1 September 2018 data exchange. Russia declared 1420 deployed warheads, 517 deployed launchers, and 775 total launchers. In February 2018 the numbers were 1444, 527, and 779 respectively.

The U.S. numbers in September 2018 were 1398 warheads, 659 deployed and 800 total launchers (1350, 652, and 800 in February 2018).

The ministry of defense told journalists that it conducted three missile tests at the Plesetsk test site since December 2017 - two ejection tests of Sarmat and one full test of RS-24 Yars.

This is the first official confirmation of the Yars test that apparently took place in June 2018. The test was not announced at the time, although it was confirmed informally.

The situation with Sarmat tests is more interesting - there was a report about a third ejection test in May 2018 and that information came from a number of normally credible sources and there is no reason to doubt them.

It's difficult to see why the ministry of defense would not admit that there was a test, especially since there is a video of a Sarmat ejection test that doesn't look like either December or March - the one that was published in the official ministry of defense YouTube channel on July 19, 2018:

We can definitely tell that this is not the December 2017 test - the video of that one was released on March 1, 2018, right after Putin's address:

There was also a video of the March test, published on March 29, 2018:

Even a quick look tells us that this is not the December test - the clouds are different to begin with and I'm sure that there are other differences too. We also know from satellite imagery that the site was covered in snow in March, so there is no way that first video was taken in March.

The word from "an industry source" is that flight tests of the Sarmat missile will begin "in the beginning of 2019." This follows a series of ejection tests that took place in Plesetsk in December 2017, March 2018, and May 2018 (although the source quoted by TASS says there were only two tests).

UPDATE: The ministry of defense insists that it carried out only two Sarmat tests - in December 2017 and in March 2018.

RussianEarly-WarningRadars2018.pngThe Soviet Union built a lot of early-warning radars (I wrote about it a while back and then again). Most of them, however, ended up outside of Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Those that are still operating are getting rather old, so Russia has been building an almost entirely new early-warning radar network. I tried to collect all these radars - past, current, and future - in one place, or, rather, one Google Earth file. Here it is - Russian Early-Warning Radars 2018.kmz.

The entire picture is quite busy, so I tried to add a color scheme to the file to make it easier to read. Those radars that are no longer operational (some of them have been demolished) are in black and hidden by default. The old Soviet radars that are still in service are blue. The missile-defense radars around Moscow are orange. Of the new ones, Voronezh-M and Voronezh-VP are red and Voronezh-DM are green. I hope that the file gives some idea of how the new radars are replacing old ones and how the different types of radars complement each other. It takes some clicking, though.

The numbers for range, minimum elevation and azimuth coverage are taken from the map that was seen in the Main Space Situational Awareness Center. For some older radars, especially the Dnestr and Dnepr deployed in Skrunda, Mishelevka, and Balkhash, these are largely guesses.

Comments, corrections, and interesting observations are welcome.

UPDATE: There is a file for the United States too - U.S. Early-Warning Radars 2018.kmz. It's not as colorful, though:


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." The date of the test was not reported, but it is likely that it took place on August 29 of August 30.

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

The Air and Space Defense Forces conducted a successful test of a "modernized" interceptor of the Moscow missile defense system at the Sary-Shagan test site. The date of the test was not disclosed, although it was said that it took place in July (UPDATE: Around 15-18 July I'm told).

The report mentions that the interceptor has the speed of 4 km/s. It is also said that in this test the intercept point was "at the maximum distance from the protected object."

The new interceptor is sometimes referred to as 53T6M. It appears that this is the fourth test of the interceptor; the most recent previous one was conducted in April 2018.

I do not think many people believe that the upcoming U.S.-Russian summit in Helsinki will get to the point of a serious discussion of arms control. However, it might provide an opportunity to address some outstanding issues. The dispute about the INF Treaty is definitely one of those.

We are now in the fifth year of the controversy and, unfortunately, we are not getting closer to finding a way out of this situation. One idea, however, keeps being mentioned in various discussions and policy papers - one-time inspections that would demonstrate that neither the Russian 9M729 cruise missile nor the U.S. Mk-41 launchers deployed in Romania violate the treaty terms. Something along the lines of "You show me your observable differences and I will show you mine."

It's a perfectly fine idea and it is understandable that it has support of the arms control community. Unfortunately, the inspections, even if they can be arranged, are unlikely to solve the issue. In fact, they would complicate the situation even further. To see why this is the case, we need to step back and look at what we know about the alleged violations.

Even though the United States still refuses to reveal any specifics about its accusation on non-compliance, there are some things that we can say with fairly high certainty. We know the designation of the missile, of course - it's 9M729. It is also a reasonable assumption that the missile is some version of the Kalibr sea-launched cruise missile, which, being an SLCM, is perfectly treaty-compliant despite having the range of more than 500 km.

Now to the 9M729 itself. I had a number of posts about the missile - the two more recent ones were in July 2017 and in December 2018. What follows is essentially a summary, although I can say a few things with higher confidence now.

Most importantly, there was no "smoking gun" - the 9M729 missile itself has not been tested to the INF range (which is between 500 km and 5,500 km). This is probably the reason why Russia is so puzzled by the U.S. accusations - this was never intended to be a violation and Russia apparently genuinely believes that it is in full compliance with the treaty.

Now, we know that the fact that the missile was not tested to the INF range doesn't mean much. It is the "range capability" that matters. Here is where the parties diverge - the United States believes it has non-refutable evidence of 9M729 having the INF range capability, while Russia appears to deny that the missile is capable of flying farther than 500 km.

So, imagine that Russia agrees to conduct an inspection and shows the missile to U.S. inspectors. The most likely outcome of that demonstration is that the United States will say that their analysis was correct that 9M729 does have the INF range capability. Given that U.S. experts have already reached that conclusion without seeing the actual missile, I don't see how they would reverse that judgement once they have a chance to inspect 9M729 up close. Russia, of course, would insist that the missile does not have the range, but since "range capability" is not a very well defined concept it would be really difficult to win this argument on technical grounds. At best, the parties will go back to square one, each insisting on its interpretation of the data. More likely, though, instead of showing that the missile is treaty-compliant, Russia would give the United States hard evidence to prove its case.

Another problem is that Russia cannot really afford to admit that the 9M729 has compliance issues. One would think that since only two or so 9M729 battalions have been deployed so far, Russia could offer to destroy those and put the issue to rest. That, however, does not seem to be an option, since Russia apparently tested the missile from a standard Iskander-M launcher. Even though the actual 9M729 launcher is different - it is said to be larger - from the point of view of the treaty Iskander-M launchers are "tainted" and a true return to compliance would require eliminating all of them. This is not something that Russia would want to consider.

So, not only an inspection is unlikely to resolve anything, for Russia it would be an extremely risky move. As would be anything that might look like admitting the violation.

By all indications, Russia has never intended to violate the INF Treaty or circumvent it by covertly deploying a missile with prohibited range. As far as I know, nobody made a conscious decision to do anything that would not be treaty-compliant. Russia stumbled into this crisis largely through poor oversight of its defense industry and a bit of overconfidence in its ability to convincingly defend its case. U.S. politics played an important role too - it is clear to me that had it not been for the pressure on the Obama administration from the Republicans things would have been done differently. Also, in my view the Obama people made a serious mistake by dealing with the problem the way they did - not telling Russia what it is accused of and demanding that Russia must own up to the violation before any discussion can begin.

The Trump administration has fully subscribed to that approach and, according to Russian officials, insists that Russia must repent before anything can happen. Things are further complicated by the fact that there are people in the United States who would not mind using this situation to get out of the INF Treaty (as long as Russia gets the blame). INF compliance is also a convenient issue for those who oppose bilateral arms control. So, things are not looking bright for the INF Treaty.

At the same time, both Russia and the United States maintain that they remain committed to the treaty and want to preserve it. If that commitment is genuine, which it appears to be, it could provide a very small window of opportunity. About the only way the inspections might work is if the parties agree in advance that they will put the matter to rest - Russia will produce the missile and the United States will agree that it is satisfied with what they see and declare the issue closed. This, however, would require a level of trust that does not seem to exist today. And it would mean that the United States will effectively admit that its assessment of non-compliance was wrong. I don't really see this happening.

If Russia really wants to get out of this corner, it could offer to admit the violation and agree to eliminate the disputed missiles and launchers. Not exactly something that I would expect it to do, but theoretically this might be an option. There is the issue of the Iskander launchers, of course, but here an agreement might be possible as well - Russia could demonstrate that the launcher that was used in those 9M729 tests is different from a standard Iskander launcher. The differences do not have to be "functionally related" - there is a precedent in the START Treaty when a red box attached to a launcher was the only thing that distinguished an RS-24 launcher from that of Topol-M. This kind of solution, however, would also require a certain degree of trust between the parties.

My guess is that the best that can come out of the Helsinki summit is a joint statement to the effect that the United States and Russia confirm their commitment to the INF Treaty and agree to work to resolve the differences. But even that would be difficult to expect these days.

Russian press quotes a source in the industry as saying that the Bulava SLBM has been finally accepted for service. That was a long wait.

The work on the Bulava program started almost exactly 20 years ago. It was included in the plan that was approved in 1998, when Russia was struggling to find the way to maintain its strategic forces not much below the START II levels of 3500 warheads - at that point it was expected that START II will come into force. It wasn't an easy process and the MITT emerged with two projects in its portfolio - the Topol-M (which will later become Yars) ICBM and the Bulava SLBM. The R-39UTTH Bark SLBM project - a follow-up to R-39/SS-N-20 - was cancelled after three failed flight tests. Part of MITT's argument was that Bulava will use Topol-M technologies and therefore will be cheaper to produce.

At the time, there were plenty of skeptics who doubted that MITT can successfully build a sea-launched missile. To a certain extent the skeptics were right - as we can see it took 20 years for get the missile accepted for service. All in all, it took 32 flight tests to get to this point. I wouldn't be surprised if the navy still have their doubts about the missile. They seem to have insisted on an unprecedented* four-missile salvo launch, since Bulava didn't quite pass the test in (two-missile) salvo launches in 2015 and in 2016.

  • As it turns out, it's not unprecedented - in the R-39 missile test program, the Soviet Union conducted four four-missile salvo launches and a few two- and three-missile ones.