By Hans M. Kristensen
The Russian Ministry of Defense announced the test launch of an SS-25 ICBM from Kapustin Yar to the Sary-Shagan range in Kazakhstan, and included a video showing the missile’s launch and assent on a clear starry night.
Kapustin Yar is a huge complex that is used for many different purposes including test launches of ICBMs, SRBMs, and air-defense interceptors. As such, it’s a good facility to track the status of launcher units that are upgrading to new systems.
The RMOD video is a great help because it allows geo-location of the particular facility with the garage from which the SS-25 was launched. Although the launch took place at night, the glare from the missile engine illuminated the entire facility so I could geo-locate on Google Earth (see below).
Russia test launches about half a dozen ICBMs each year. Most are flow at ICBM range (more than 5,500 km or 3,600 miles) from Plesetsk with payload impact at the Kura range on the Kamchatka Peninsula. But some ICBMs are flown to only about one-third of that range, roughly 2,000 km (1,270 miles) from the Kapustin Yar site in southern Russian with payload impact outside Russian at the Sary-Shagan range deep inside Kazakhstan (see map).
Unlike the Kura range, the Sary-Shagan is thought to have more advanced tracking facilities that are used to monitor the behavior of advanced payloads. It is unknown what the Russian military was flying on the SS-25 but it might have been a maneuverable reentry vehicle or some advanced decoy intended to fool missile defense systems.
In 2013, when Russia test launched a modified SS-27 ICBM known as the RS-26 to this range, some observers got very excited and said it was a violation of the INF treaty, which prohibits testing of ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500-5,500 km. But Russia had previously test launched the RS-26 to ICBM range (5,500+ km), and the missile had been displayed under the New START treaty, and the US Intelligence Community has continued to characterized it as an ICBM.
These shorter ICBM flights are no more violations of the INF treaty than when the US Navy in 2006 flew a Trident II D5 on a compressed trajectory of only 2,200 km (1,380 miles). In fact, after the INF treaty was implemented, the US expected Russia to reassign some of its ICBMs to the shorter strike scenarios previously covered by the banned missiles.
Russia is two-thirds through a generational upgrade – not a buildup but a modernization – of its nuclear forces. The SS-25 that was test-launched is being phased out and replaced by fewer SS-27 missiles.
This publication was made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the New Land Foundation, and the Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.