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Updated: Aug 1, 2008

Russia Tests a New Ground-Launched Cruise Missile and a New Strategic Missile on the Same Day

On May 29, 2007 Russia tested two new missiles, advertised as a response to Eastern European missile defense, but are they?

by Nikolai Sokov

1 June 2007


On May 29, 2007 Russia tested two new missiles, immediately igniting considerable controversy and speculation.

One was the launch of a cruise missile, dubbed R-500, from the launcher of the new Iskander short-range ballistic missile. The test was announced in advance and was attended by Russian Deputy Prime minister and former Minister of Defense Sergey Ivanov as well as the new defense minister, Anatoliy Serdyukov. The other missile tested on that day was the RS-24, a MIRVed ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile with multiple independently targetable warheads). This latter launch came as a surprise not only because the test had not been announced, but also due to the fact that there had been no information that a new MIRVed ICBM was under development. Russian media speculated that Ivanov chose to attend the Iskander launch rather than that of the new strategic missile because no one could be sure the latter would be successful; Ivanov and Serdyukov chose to be present at the launch whose success was virtually guaranteed.

This article will examine the two aspects of the tests that have attracted the most attention: the features of the new weapons and what they add to Russian military capabilities, and the more intriguing question of the reasons for the development of these new weapons. It is a common assertion that the missiles represent a response to U.S. plans to deploy a missile defense system in Eastern Europe; even many in the Russia adhere to this view. Close scrutiny reveals, however, that this is not the case and that the missiles were intended to fill other missions. If they possess some capabilities vis-à-vis U.S. missile defense, this fact is a side benefit, not their main purpose.

New Missiles: The Knowns and the Unknowns

Iskander

The Iskander was developed in the 1990s as a replacement for the OTR-23 Oka (NATO designation SS-23) missile system, which was eliminated under the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Russians still complain that the SS-23 should not have been banned under the INF because its range was below 500 km, the cut-off definition for intermediate-range systems; however, it was included due to the intense pressure exerted by the United States. The INF Treaty left Russia with only the Tochka tactical missile system, with a range of 120 km, but did not prevent it from developing a new system with a range below 500 km.

The widely advertised Iskander-E ("export") version of the missile has the range of 280 km and was developed with an eye to exporting it (the guidelines established by the Missile Technology Control Regime, MTCR, prohibit exporting missiles with a range of 300 km or more). The range of the "domestic" Iskander and Iskander-M missiles has not been announced but is without a doubt higher than that of Iskander-E, probably about 400 km. Deployment of the new system has been delayed for several years, primarily for funding reasons. The first brigades of the basic model have only begun to be deployed this year, in the North Caucasus Military District. Deployment of the modernized ("M") version of the missile is planned beginning in 2009.

Iskander's launcher carries two missiles, which can be launched at an interval of about one minute; the missiles have a very advanced guidance system and are reported to be protected from enemy countermeasures. Iskander is equipped with conventional warheads that weigh about 480 kg; it is possible that with a lighter warhead its range could be further increased. Sergey Ivanov noted, somewhat quizzically, that the missile will have "variable" warheads, hinting perhaps that it could, in the future, be equipped with nuclear warheads.

While the standard Iskander is a ballistic missile with the capability to maneuver along its trajectory, the May 29 test added one more feature to the system - the ability to launch cruise missiles, R-500. Accordingly, the new designation of the system is Iskander-K (for "krylataya," or cruise). The missile launched during the recent test flew at about 100 meters altitude or less at a speed of 250 meters/second; it performed several maneuvers during the flight, and at the terminal phase deviation from the target trajectory was less than 30 meters. The range of the cruise missile developed for the Iskander missile complex is unknown. However, under the INF Treaty, which banned not only ballistic, but also land-based cruise missiles, it cannot exceed 500 km.

RS-24

Very little is known about the RS-24 missile. The official announcement only stated that it was a MIRVed ICBM launched from a mobile launcher, and that simulated warheads reached the Kura test range in Kamchatka according to plan. The missile was developed by the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology (MITT), the same institute that developed the Topol and Topol-M ICBMs and that is now working on the Bulava submarine-launched missile. The RS-24 is intended to replace the existing SS-18 and SS-19 ICBMs, whose service lives are expiring. The announcement pointedly noted that RS-24 "meets all requirements of international agreements on limitation of strategic nuclear weapons currently in force, START I and SORT."[1]

There is precious little existing information about the new missile, in stark contrast to the usual degree of relative openness about strategic missile programs. Based on what has become available from news sources and non-governmental experts, the RS-24 is based on the Topol-M (RS-12M1 and -2) ICBM, but is heavier and has a larger first stage, making its throw weight greater. It is likely to carry between three and six warheads; the presence of defense-penetration aids is unknown (it is still unclear how much additional throw weight the new missile features compared to its predecessors).

The new missile potentially has interesting legal implications. According to Article V, paragraph 12(d) of the 1991 START I Treaty, which remains in force until December 2009, parties are prohibited from increasing the number of warheads on existing types of ballistic missiles. For that reason, the new missile was dubbed RS-24 (instead of, for example, RS-12M3) to emphasize that it is a new missile type, even though it is apparently based on an existing type of ICBM, the Topol-M.

To constitute a new type, however, the new missile has to differ from Topol-M by at least one of several parameters, including: diameter of the first stage at least five percent greater, launch weight at least 10 percent greater, length of the first stage or of the assembled missile at least 10 percent greater (other criteria are either irrelevant in this case or cannot be assessed).[2] It is impossible to gauge at this moment whether the first stage is sufficiently large to constitute a new type or (if its dimensions are below these criteria) it constitutes a "variant."[3] In the latter case, it remains an open question whether a "variant" of an existing missile type can be MIRVed without violating treaty obligations. On the other hand, the new missile is clearly still a "prototype" and thus not accountable under the treaty.[4] The text of START I contains only a general ban on increasing the number of warheads on existing missile types ("Each party undertakes not to ... increase the number of warheads...) rather than more typical bans on "production, flight-testing, and deployment." Thus, a flight-test of a prototype variant could still be permissible under some interpretations of START I. Details of the new missile will eventually become available in the notifications Russia provides to the United States under the treaty. It should be noted, however, that in approximately two and a half years START I will expire and then nothing will prevent Russia from MIRVing either a variant of the Topol-M or even the Topol-M itself. Deployment of RS-24 is tentatively planned for 2011-2012.

A Response to What?

Both tests, especially that of the new ICBM, were immediately touted as a Russian response to U.S. plans to deploy elements of a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, to which Russia has expressed strong and unyielding opposition. The notion of a direct relationship between missile defense and the new missiles has been promoted by both Western and Russian media.

That theory seems far-fetched, however, and has been rejected by none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin. A Russian on-line news service, RBC.RU, put the following headline on its report about Putin's statement at press conference on May 31, 2007: "V. Putin: The Tests of New Missiles in Russia are a Response to Missile Defense in Europe."[5] The full quote, however, conveys a different interpretation: the tests, said Putin, are "a response to quite tough and unreasonable actions on the part of our partners,"[6] listing several developments that cause concern in Russia, among them problems with implementation of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, the decision to establish U.S. military bases in Romania and Bulgaria, as well as plans to deploy a missile defense system in Europe. That is, the new missiles are a response to a trend rather than a specific single event.

Indeed, the Russian military emphasized the defense penetration capabilities of new and future strategic systems long before the U.S. announcement of its plan to deploy missile defenses in Eastern Europe. The current Russian policy dates back to the late 1990s and became even more focused after the U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 ABM Treaty in 2002. The real hallmark of the policy has been the deployment of a new single-warhead Topol-M ICBM and the testing of a maneuverable warhead for that missile.[7] It has long been known that Russia planned to deploy multiple warheads on Topol-M.[8] The only genuinely new development, therefore, is that instead of deploying a MIRVed Topol-M Russia tested a new missile.

Furthermore, MIRVing ICBMs has long been seen as an unavoidable step for Russia. The bulk of its strategic forces today consists of Soviet-made weapons, whose service lives have already expired and been extended several times. The bulk of these weapons will have to be retired in the first half of the next decade. To come even close to the level of 2,200 warheads on strategic delivery vehicles mandated by the 2002 Moscow Treaty (the United States will have to come down to that level by the end of 2012), Russia needs MIRVed ICBMs: limiting itself to single-warhead ICBMs would be simply too expensive.

In fact, it can be said that the main motive behind the development of a MIRVed ICBM is not so much penetration of U.S. missile defense (that task can be accomplished by single-warhead Topol-Ms), but first and foremost the maintenance of the overall strategic balance. In this sense, development of a new MIRVed ICBM is not surprising or even dangerous - it simply allows Russia to maintain perhaps as many as 1,500 or so warheads on strategic delivery vehicles by the middle of the next decade, still much fewer than the U.S. strategic arsenal.

Similarly, the development of Iskander precedes the current debates about missile defense in Europe by many years. Its primary mission is that of enhancing the capability of the Russian Army, and it is indicative that the first brigades are being deployed in the North Caucasus, thousands of miles from Poland and the Czech Republic. The Iskander fits with the Russian Military Doctrine's emphasis on long-range precision strike weapons.[9] It is a different matter, of course, that the missile has some capability vis-à-vis both missile interceptors--like those that are supposed to be deployed in Poland--and perhaps also against the radar whose deployment is foreseen in the Czech Republic.

The tendency to conceptualize the recent tests as a response to missile defense in Eastern Europe reflects the preoccupation of both the media and politicians with current events at the expense of longer-term trends. Within this framework, research and development on new weapons, which always takes years, becomes equated to producing a rabbit from a hat--a trick that missile designers cannot do, unlike magicians. If the new tests are put in the right perspective, they indicate a steady movement toward a goal that was set years ago. The details can still be surprising, but the overall trajectory should not be.


SOURCES:

"Sergey Ivanov dovolen segodnyashnimi ispytaniyami novykh ballisticheskoy i krylatoy raket na poligonakh Plesetsk i Kapustin Yar" [Sergey Ivanov satisfied with tests of a new ballistic and a new cruise missile at Plesetsk and Kapustin Yar Test Ranges], ITAR-TASS, May 29, 2007.
"Iskandera uspeshno ispytali" [Iskander successfully tested], Strana.Ru, May 29, 2007.
"Rossiiskaya armiya poluchit vysokotochnoye oruzhiye" [Russian Army to receive a high-precision weapon], Strana.Ru, May 29, 2007.
"V Plesetske zapustili mezhkontinentalnuyu raketu" [Intercontinental missile launched from Plesetsk], Strana.Ru, May 29, 2007.
Alina Chernoivanova and Aleksandra Zaitseva, "Rocket for USA", Gazeta.Ru, May 29, 2007.
"S kosmodroma Plesetsk osushchestvlen pervyy ispytatelnyy zaspusk prototipa novoy MBR" [Prototype of a new ICBM launched from Plesetsk Space Range], ARMS-TASS, May 29, 2007.
"V Rossii uspeshno ispytana novaya krylataya raketa R-500" [New R-500 cruise missile successfully tested in Russia], RBC.Ru, May 29, 2007.
Aleksey Nikolskiy, "'Iskander' protiv PRO" ["Iskander" against NMD], Vedomosti, May 29, 2007.
Viktor Litovkin, "Sergey Ivanov zamakhnulsya 'Iskanderom'" [Sergey Ivanov has produced "Iskander"], Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 30, 2007.
Nikolai Poroskov, "Vse zapushcheno" [Everything was launched], Vremya novostey, May 30, 2007.
Konstantin Lantratov and Aleksandra Gritskova, "Yaderno-udarnyy trud" [Successful nuclear work], Kommersant-Daily, May 30, 2007.
Madina Shavlokhova and Gennadiy Savchenko, "Iskander - shchit, satenyonok - mech" [Iskander is a shield, Son of Satan - a sword], Gazeta, May 30, 2007.
"Pervyy start" [The First Start], Krasnaya zvezda, May 30, 2007.
"Putin obvinil 'nekotorye strany' v diktate" [Putin accuses "certain countries" of dictatorial tendencies], Strana.Ru, May 31, 2007.
Artur Blinov, "Ispytaniya nastorozhili Evropu i SShA" [Tests worry Europe and the U.S.], Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 31, 2007.


[1] "Pervyi Start" [The First Start], Krasnaya Zvezda, May 30, 2007.
[2] See definition of "new type" in the Definitions Annex to START I.
[3] See definition of "variant" in the Definitions Annex to START I.
[4] See definition of "prototype" in the Definitions Annex to START I.
[5] "V. Putin: Ispytaniya v FA Novykh Raket - Otvet na PRO v Evrope" [V. Putin: The Tests of New Missiles in Russia are a Response to Missile Defense in Europe], RBC.RU, May 31, 2007.
[6] The exact quote in Russian says, "[O]твет на достаточно жесткие и не имеющие никаких оснований для такого поведения действий со стороны наших партнеров." "Statement to the Press and Q&A after a meeting with President of Greece Karolos Papoulias, May 31, 2007 <http://president.kremlin.ru/appears/2007/05/31/1812_type63377type63380_132212.shtml>.
[7] See Nikolai Sokov, "The Future Shape of Russia's ICBM Force Clarified," CNS Research Story, November 9, 2005 <http://cns.miis.edu/pubs/week/051109.htm>; Nikolai Sokov, "Russia to Deploy Defense-Penetrating ICBM," WMD Insights, December 2005/January 2006 <http://wmdinsights.com/I1/R1_RussiatoDeploy.htm>.
[8] See Nikolai Sokov, "Russian Strategic Forces Meet Success and Setbacks at Year End," WMD Insights, February 2007 <http://wmdinsights.com/I12/I12_R3_RussianStrategicForces.htm>.
[9] See Nikolai Sokov, "Russian Ministry of Defense 2003 Policy Paper: The Nuclear Angle," NTI Issue Brief, August 2004, http://www.nti.org/e_research/e3_55a.html#Russian_Ministry_of_Defense_2003_Policy_Paper:_The_Nuclear_Angle>.


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