According to an announcement posted on the ministry of defense of Kazakhstan's web site, Russia will conduct a total of three tests of its ICBMs from Kapustin Yar to Sary Shagan (via Rossiyskaya Gazeta). After the launch conducted on March 4, 2014, two more launches are expected in March.
According to Kazakhstan, Russia sent the request to conduct the tests on February 19, 2014. It was approved on February 28, 2014. Kazakhstan identifies the missiles as Topol-E.
At 22:10 MSK (18:10 UTC) on March 4, 2014 the Strategic Rocket Forces conducted a launch of a Topol/SS-25 ICBM from the Kapustin Yar test site toward Sary Shagan. According to a representative of the ministry of defense, the launch was used to test a new type of combat payload ("for the Rocket Forces and the Navy") and the test warhead successfully reached its target.
Tests of new warheads in Topol launches from Kapustin Yar to Sary Shagan have became fairly common - this is the third such test since October 2013 (the second one took place in December 2013). This suggests that the development of a new warhead (or warheads) is a fairly active program.
Although the test took place at the time of increased tensions caused by Russia's military intervention in Ukraine, the launch was definitely not related to these developments as these tests are normally scheduled some time in advance. At the same time, the timing of the test could serve as an illustration of an unpredictable and potentially dangerous interaction between nominally unrelated events.
Speaking at a press-conference in Moscow, Gen-Col. (ret.) Yesin said that the Strategic Rocket Forces expect the new heavy ICBM, Sarmat, to be ready for deployment in 2020. This is a small correction to the previously announced time range of 2018-2020 (and likely a more realistic estimate).
Ministry of defense and the Tupolev design bureau signed a contact to develop a new long-range strategic bomber (known in Russia as PAK DA). Under the contract, Tupolev will develop a draft technical design of the aircraft. The new bomber is expected to be included in the 2016-2025 State Armament Program.
The R&D work on the new bomber was reported to begin in 2011. Preliminary design work started earlier - in 2009. At the time, it was expected that flight tests of the aircraft would begin in 2020.
According to a source quoted by Kommersant today, Russia has produced the total of 46 Bulava missiles, 19 of which have been already expended in flight tests. Five of the remaining 27 missiles are being returned to the Votkinsk plant, where they will have telemetry equipment installed. This is series of five tests that was ordered by the minister of defense after the failed launch in September 2013. The tests are expected to begin in May-June 2014.
After the series is completed (presumably successfully) the navy will be able to equip the two Project 955 submarines that have been already accepted for service - Yuri Dolgorukiy and Vladimir Monomakh - so they could begin actual service in 2014.
It is interesting to note that the number of test missiles quoted in Kommersant is different from the number of tests in my list - I have 20 test missiles (in 19 tests as one was a salvo launch). I'm not sure what the explanation is. One possible culprit is the November 2007 test, which has never been officially announced.
Anyway, whatever is the history, there is no reason to doubt the number of missiles that are currently available for tests or deployment - 27. Given that five will be expended in tests, to have enough Bulava missiles for two submarines, Votkinsk would have to produce 10 missiles. That should be doable, assuming that the tests do not uncover any new problems.
After the release of the last START data exchange in 2009 it has become rather difficult to get a good breakdown of the numbers of deployed launchers and warheads - the aggregate New START numbers leave too much room for uncertainty. Still, it's been a while wince the last update, so it is time a new attempt to make sense of the New START numbers.
According to the most recent data exchange, as of 1 September 2013 Russia had 1400 warheads associated with 473 deployed launchers. It is 19 launchers and 80 warheads less than in March 2013 - quite a significant drop. It's hard to get the structure of the strategic forces working back from these two numbers, so I'll try to start with what we know about deployed systems and then see if the numbers match (although I know that they don't).
The bombers, with all the uncertainty, don't affect the final numbers much. Although we don't know how many of them are counted in New START as deployed, the previous estimate seems to be reasonably good - 11 Tu-160 and 55 Tu-95MS. In 2009, Russia declared 13 operational Tu-160 bombers (there were also seven test aircraft), but it appears that one or two bombers are in overhaul at any given time, so if we count operational ones, then the number is probably closer to 11. Tu-95MS bombers are more difficult to count, but at some point there was a plan to have 59 of them in 2009, so, given that about two would be in overhaul, 55 seems like a reasonable estimate.
New START counts each bomber as one deployed launcher and one deployed warhead, so the 66 bombers would be counted as carrying 66 warheads. In reality, they could carry more - Hans Kristensen suggests that "a couple of hundred weapons are present at the two bomber bases."
There is more information about submarines, as they are relatively easy to count. However, we do not necessarily know whether a particular submarine is loaded with a full complement of missiles and, in fact, how many warheads these missiles carry. There is, for example, some uncertainty about the Liner version of the R-29RM missile - it could carry four, eight, or ten warheads. I think there is a good reason to believe that all new R-29RM missiles still carry four warheads, but we don't know that for sure.
The two Project 955 Borey submarines, Yuri Dolgorukiy and Alexandr Nevskiy, which were transferred to the Navy this year, still have no missiles on board, so their launchers would not be counted as deployed for the New START (or any other) purposes.
Submarines of the Project 667BDRM class have been gradually completing overhaul, so right now five of the six submarines of this type would be considered operational - Tula, Bryansk, Novomoskovsk, Karelia, and Verkhoturie. Ekaterinburg is still at the Zvezdochka plant in Severodvinsk undergoing repair after the fire in December 2011. It is expected to return to the fleet in 2014. Assuming that the five submarines are loaded with missiles, the Project 667BDRM fleet would account for 80 launchers and 320 warheads.
Of the three Project 667BDR submarines based in the Pacific, only two stay in Vilyuchinsk - Sv. Georgiy Pobedonosets and Podolsk. Ryazan was transferred to the Zvezda plant near Vladivistok some time in 2012, so it is safe to assume that it had its missiles removed. As for the two submarines in Vilyuchinsk, only Sv. Georgiy Pobedonosets appears to be in full readiness - most recently it launched a missile during the strategic exercise in October 2013. There have been no news about Podolsk for more than a decade now, so it's not clear if that submarine is alive. If we assume that it is, Project 667BDR submarines contribute 32 missiles and 96 warheads to the New START count.
If the assumptions above are correct, the share of SLBMs in the New START aggregate numbers is 112 missiles and 416 warheads.
All this leaves about 300 launchers and a bit under 1000 warheads in the Strategic Rocket Forces. To be exact, the numbers are 295 and 918 respectively, but this would imply the accuracy that these number just don't have.
There are five different types of ICBMs that are currently deployed - R-36M2/SS-18, UR-100NUTTH/SS-19, Topol/SS-25, Topol-M (both silo and road-mobile), and RS-24 Yars (only road-mobile so far).
It appears that the Rocket Forces operate 52 R-36M2 missiles. These are deployed at two bases - Dombarovskiy and Uzhur. I assume that Dombarovskiy has 24 (in four missile regiments) and Uzhur - 28 (also four regiments, of which one has ten missiles). With ten warheads per missiles, 520 R-36M2 warheads account for roughly half of all ICBM warheads and for more than a third of all deployed nuclear warheads.
Until recently UR-100NUTTH missiles were deployed at two bases - Tatishchevo and Kozelsk. Since the Kozelsk division is being prepared to host silo-based RS-24 Yars, I assume that all UR-100NUTTH missiles have been removed from that base. This would leave 40 operational UR-100NUTTH missiles with 240 warheads in Tatishchevo.
Topol is a single-warhead road-mobile missile that appear to be deployed with the divisions in Yoshkar-Ola (27 missiles), Vypolzovo (18), and Barnaul (36). In addition, there are still some Topol missiles in the divisions that are being converted to receive RS-24 Yars - I assume that there are 9 Topol ICBMs in Irkutsk and 18 in Novosibirsk. Overall, this would add up to 108 Topol ICBMs with 108 warheads.
Topol-M is also a single-warhead missiles that is currently deployed in 60 silos in Tatishchevo and on 18 road-mobile launchers in Teykovo. This means that Topol-M adds 78 missiles and 78 warheads.
Finally, as of the end of 2013, the new RS-24 Yars - a MIRVed version of Topol-M - was deployed with two regiments in Teykovo (the total of 18 missiles), one regiment in Novosibirsk (9 missiles) and one incomplete regiment (6 missiles) in Nizhniy Tagil. It is not clear if the 15 missiles in Novosibirsk and Nizhniy Tagil would be included in New START as deployed launchers - they became operational only at the end of the year - but they would have to be included in the final number.
One of the problems with RS-24 Yars is that there is no official data on the number of warheads associated with the missile. At some point it was believed that it has six warheads, but in his more recent estimates Hans Kristensen, who seems to have good sources, lists the missile as carrying four. I would trust his number (and also note that if it's six then it is much more difficult to reconcile the New START launchers and warhead numbers).
So, as of the end of 2013, Russia seemed to have 33 RS-24 Yars ICBMs with 132 warheads (only some of them would be included in the September 2013 New START data exchange).
The ICBM bottom line is that at the end of 2013 Russia was estimated to have 311 missiles with 1078 warheads.
One problem with the numbers above is that if we add everything up, we'll get 489 launchers and 1560 warheads. The number of launchers is roughly compatible with the New START data, but the warhead count is much higher - by more than 100 warheads. I am not quite sure how to explain this difference. One possibility is that missiles were (temporarily) removed from one of the submarines and (permanently) from some of the ICBMs (e.g. from some UR-100NUTTH). We'll have to wait for the March 2014 data to see if they help clarify the situation.
To sum it up, I estimate that in January 2014, Russia had 489 operational strategic launchers - 311 ICBMs, 112 SLBMs, and 66 bombers. The total number of strategic warheads associated with these launchers was about 1700 - 1078 on ICBMs, 416 SLBM warheads, and about 200 nuclear weapons that could be delivered by bombers.
Pavel Podvig | 13 January 2014
It is no exaggeration to say that Command and Control by Eric Schlosser was one of the most interesting books on nuclear issues published in 2013. The author's well-presented account of US nuclear accidents makes a compelling read. It also helped draw public attention to a very important issue: How safe are nuclear arsenals? Can we rely on the combination of technological and administrative controls that seems to have worked in the past to avert future catastrophic nuclear accidents?
These questions, of course, should be asked of all nuclear arsenals, not just America's. Unfortunately, information about other nuclear weapon states is rather scarce and fragmented. But what we do know about Soviet nuclear weapons largely confirms the general pattern seen in the United States--the Soviet Union and now Russia have also had their share of close calls and nerve-racking experiences. Fortunately, the Soviet Union appears to have taken the safety of its nuclear weapons quite seriously, probably more so than did the United States. Most important, the USSR never flew strategic bombers with nuclear weapons on board as part of regular patrols; nor does Russia today. If the US experience with airborne nuclear weapons is any guide, this is a wise policy. The Soviet Union was also careful with its land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). When the missiles it deployed in the 1960s reached the end of their service life, the Soviet Union chose to remove their warheads to minimize the risk of a nuclear accident. (This is exactly what the United States failed to do with its obsolescent Titan II ICBM--the missile at the center of Schlosser's book--which was kept in service far beyond what was reasonably safe.)
As a result of various precautions, Soviet and thus far Russian ICBM operations appear to have been relatively safe. Save for a few reported rollovers that involved road-mobile launchers, Moscow has had no serious accidents with deployed land-based ICBMs.
The safety record of Soviet and Russian naval nuclear weapons has been considerably less stellar. This is hardly surprising, given the inherent risks posed by submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and other sea-based nuclear weapons even in the course of routine operations. It did not help that Soviet SLBMs were traditionally liquid-fuel missiles, and that naval operations involve periodic loading and unloading of missiles and torpedoes (with nuclear warheads on). There have been fuel leaks, fires, and explosions, although through a combination of sturdy design and some luck, none has resulted in a warhead detonation, let alone an unintended nuclear explosion. Unfortunately, though, such accidents are not exactly a thing of the past--just two years ago, in December 2011, a submarine caught fire while undergoing repairs in drydock, apparently with a full complement of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles on board.
As unsettling as these accidents were, they proved that it is quite difficult to set off a nuclear warhead accidentally. Many conditions have to be met to make it happen, and now that the number of deployed weapons has been dramatically reduced, and most of the remaining ones no longer participate in regular patrols, the probability of an accidental nuclear detonation has been reduced, as well.
The possibility of such an accident, however, is not the only risk associated with the day-to-day operations of nuclear forces. Nuclear warheads and the delivery systems that carry them are part of a larger system that is supposed to support deterrence. This system has been built up by the United States and Russia to maintain a very high degree of readiness, provide early warning of any attack, and ensure prompt and reliable delivery of launch orders. Unlike nuclear warheads, which can be kept safe by reasonably straightforward technical solutions, the larger nuclear enterprise includes many components that could interact in completely unpredictable ways. Crucially, the system often has to rely on humans making decisions under circumstances they can neither predict nor control.
For all the differences between the US and Soviet early-warning and command and control systems, the two countries encountered very similar problems. Both experienced incidents in which a training tape that simulated a nuclear attack resulted in a very realistic warning. Both faced incidents caused by faulty or unreliable equipment--a bad computer chip in the US case, and a new sensor on one of the Soviet satellites. There were cases in which the unexpected launch of a missile that flew along an unusual trajectory caused an early-warning system to generate an alarm. The most recent such event was the 1995 launch of a Norwegian research rocket that triggered an alarm in Russia.
Even though we know that in all of these cases the decision-making system worked as intended, and that in the end no false alarm was mistaken for an indication of an actual attack, this is hardly reason for complacency. These incidents strongly suggest that nuclear command and control structures might be the kind of "complex and tightly coupled systems" first identified by sociologist Charles Perrow. He argued that in such systems accidents are "normal," meaning that they will inevitably happen and cannot be prevented by introducing additional technical or administrative safety precautions.
Perrow's two concepts--the "complex and tightly coupled system" and the "normal accident"--are often misused and applied quite arbitrarily to any sufficiently complicated system. When it comes to the system governing nuclear weapons use, though, they are appropriate. In his book The Limits of Safety, political scientist Scott Sagan concluded after a thorough analysis that the nuclear arsenals Washington and Moscow have built are indeed complex and tightly coupled. Unfortunately, while the reduction in warheads may have reduced operational burdens and made accidents less frequent, there is no reason to believe that it did much to change the underlying nature of the nuclear complex that makes it vulnerable to "normal accidents." Indeed, in some important respects the system may be becoming more fragile. For example, the line between nuclear and conventional capabilities is becoming increasingly blurred. Also, the investment in new early-warning radars and satellites, which may appear to be an incontrovertibly positive development at first, adds to the complexity of the system and creates new opportunities for errors and miscalculations.
It is often said that nuclear arsenals owe their fragility to the conflicting requirements of deterrence, which need armed forces to both maintain an extremely high degree of readiness and guard against accidental or unauthorized use. This is true, but only to a certain extent--deterrence itself is not the problem. Indeed, Sagan concluded his analysis by saying that nuclear weapon systems are not inherently complex and tightly coupled. Theoretically, a country could construct a nuclear force that would provide reliable deterrence and be immune from accidents, "normal" or otherwise. The problem, however, is that in the real world, deterrence is not the only or even the main factor shaping nuclear arsenals. Nuclear arsenals and policies never existed in a technocratic vacuum--they are the complex products of political circumstances, rivalries, prejudices, and misconceptions.
The question, though, is not whether a reliable, safe nuclear arsenal is imaginable, but whether the political and military institutions currently setting nuclear policy are capable of building one. The evidence so far suggests they may not be. The Cold War record is not very encouraging, and neither are developments of the past several years. The United States has stubbornly refused to scrap its land-based intercontinental missiles, despite persistent problems in the US ICBM force. The US Prompt Global Strike program plows ahead despite the inevitable risks it poses. In Russia, there is virtually no discussion of the rationale for the government's massive strategic force modernization program, which will see deployment of at least three new types of ICBMs.
In the end, there is a danger that political leaders and the public will draw the wrong lesson from the history of nuclear accidents, concluding that catastrophe can be avoided with the right arsenal structure, rigorous procedures, and clever technical solutions. After all, the nuclear powers managed to muddle through the very dangerous Cold War times. But these conclusions would be mistaken. It appears that the only way to make nuclear weapons safe and secure is not to have them at all.
Two Project 955 submarines - Yuri Dolgorikiy and Alexandr Nevskiy - reportedly arrived in Gadzhievo today.
This is a return home for Yuri Dolgorikiy - it first arrived to its base at the Northern Fleet in September 2013, but then went back to Severodvinsk for repairs in early December. It was expected that the repair would take "several months", so it is possible that the submarine will be back to Sevmash again soon.
For Alexandr Nevskiy Gadzhievo is likely to be a temporary base - the submarine was officially assigned to the Pacific Fleet at the acceptance ceremony just a week ago. However, it will have to wait for Bulava missiles and at this point it is not clear how long the wait will be.
The Strategic Rocket Forces announced today that two regiments of RS-24 Yars missiles began combat duty in Novosibirsk and Nizhniy Tagil divisions on December 25, 2013. It's interesting that the Rocket Forces representative was quoted as saying that the missiles began "experimental combat duty". This is a bit strange for a missile that has been in service from some time.
These are apparently the 15 Yars missiles that were expected to enter service by the end of the year. In an earlier announcement, the Rocket Forces said that the Nizhniy Tagil regiment is incomplete - right now it has only six ICBMs.
On December 27, 2013 the Strategic Rocket Forces carried out a successful test launch of a Topol/SS-25 missile from the Kapustin Yar test site. The launch took place at 21:30 MSK (17:30 UTC). The warhead was reported to have successfully reached its target at the Sary Shagan test site.
Flights from Kapustin Yar to Sary Shagan are most likely used to test new combat payload for new ICBMs. Previous launch of this kind took place in October 2013.