The Russian press reported today that a test launch of an ICBM conducted at the Plesetsk test site on September 27, 2011 ended in failure. The launch took place at 11:08 MSK (07:08 UTC). According to the reports, right after the launch the missile quickly disappeared from the screens of tracking radars and was located by helicopters two hours later, at 13:10 MSK, eight kilometers from the launch pad.

There was little more information available. According to the official statement by a representative of the Space Forces the launch was conducted as part of a development program of a new missile. Also, the missile was said to be a solid-propellant ICBM launched from a mobile launcher. Most reports described it as a "fifth-generation ICBM" and some suggested that it was the "Avangard" missile that was mentioned by the Russian defense minister in July 2011.

The news about the new missile came as a bit of a surprise. If there is something Russia needs the least today it is another ICBM of a new type. One is already in the works - in May 2011 the Makeyev design bureau got a contract to build a new "heavy" MIRVed ICBM. Whatever was tested in Plesetsk is a different missile - the Makeyev design bureau will be building a liquid-fuel ICBM. Solid-propellant missiles is the territory of the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology (MITT), which apparently was involved in the failed launch on September 27.

Taking all this together, my best guess is that the missile that crashed in Plesetsk is another modification of the Topol-M/RS-24 Yars line. It's hard to tell how serious this modification is - after all, there is only so much one can do with an ICBM - but probably it was deep enough for MITT to claim that it is a "fifth-generation missile." As I understand, when the ministry of defense opened a tender for a new "heavy" MIRVed ICBM, MITT did submit a proposal. Maybe this is the system that was developed as part of that process. This, however, is pure speculation on my part.

Even if the new ICBM is a moderate upgrade of the Topol-M/RS-24, it is quite puzzling that this project exists at all. Why on the earth would Russia need another type of ICBM? The only explanation I can see is that the society is too weak and the political leadership is too incompetent to rein in the military and the defense industry who keep asking for more money to build more useless stuff. I wrote about it almost four years ago and, alas, if has been downhill from there.

UPDATE: Kommersant quotes a source in the defense ministry as saying that the first stage of the missile tested on September 27 is identical to that of the Topol-M/Yars missile.