Russia Shows Off Parts Of Its Controversial Cruise Missile System, But Not The Missile Itself

Treaty-busting or not, the missile presents a nightmare for anyone trying to verify that the Russians are meeting their international obligations.

Sergei Bobylev/TASS

For the first time ever, Russia has publicly displayed the launch canisters for the 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile and its associated transporter erector launcher, or TEL, and offered new details about the complete system. The United States says the missile violates the terms of an important arms control agreement and has called on the Kremlin to completely and verifiably eliminate the entire system from its inventory.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense presented two 9M729 launch canisters and a single TEL to foreign military attaches and the press at its Patriot Park theme park outside of Moscow on Jan. 23, 2019. The U.S. also refers to this missile as the SSC-8. The Russians only publicly acknowledged its existence in November 2018, though it has reportedly been in development since the mid-2000s.

The 9M729/SSC-8 has an improved guidance system and a larger warhead compared to the older 9M728, also known as the Iskander-K or SSC-7, Chief of the Russian Missile and Artillery Force Lieutenant-General Mikhail Matveyevsky told attendees at Patriot Park. The general officer said that this resulted in a missile that is longer, heavier, and actually has less range than its predecessor. The new TEL can also carry four missiles, while the older vehicle associated with the 9M728/SSC-7 could only fire two before needing to reload.

These claims are key to the Russian position that the 9M729/SSC-8 doesn’t violate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, to which it and the United States are both parties. This agreement prohibits signatories from having any conventional or nuclear-armed ground-launched missiles of any type with maximum ranges between 310 and 3,420 miles.

Sergei Bobylev/TASS

The launch canisters for the 9M729 missile and their associated TEL.

Russia says that the 9M729/SSC-8 has a range of just less than 300 miles, while the older 9M728/SSC-7 butted right up against the INF range limit. The Kremlin has also described the new missile as simply a modification of the older type.

The United States is unconvinced and says that, according to its intelligence, the Russians have demonstrated the weapon at prohibited ranges by using a provision in the treaty that allows for land-based testing of missiles intended for air- and sea-launched applications. Russia denies that this is the case.

Vadim Grishankin

The TEL for the older 9M728/SSC-7 ground-launched cruise missile, with a launch canister in the firing position.

In his briefing on Jan. 23, 2019, Lieutenant-General Matveyevsky further claimed that, during the period that the Americans said the 9M729/SSC-8 tests occurred at the Kapustin Yar test facility, the only missiles the Russians fired from there at INF-prohibited ranges were intercontinental ballistic missiles. These weapons are covered under a different U.S.-Russia arms control agreement.

It remains unclear why Russia would choose to develop a new variant of the 9M728/SSC-7 that is longer and requires a larger TEL and not at least match the range of the older missile. The Kremlin also insists that there is no way to readily modify the missiles to fly further.

Sergei Bobylev/TASS

A rear view of the new TEL for the 9M729 missile.

Since the display at Patriot Park only showed the launch canisters and not the missiles themselves, it is difficult to judge the validity of any of the Russian claims against its visible size, configuration, and features. Even if the Kremlin’s position on this particular missile is accurate, it presents a verification nightmare.

Russia says that the launch canister has a diameter of just over 20 inches and a total length of around 312 inches. The RK-55, a ground-launched cruise missile the Soviet Union canceled development of after signing the INF, since it would’ve violated that deal, was only six inches longer than the 9M729/SSC-8’s launch canister and had essentially the same diameter.

So, it is not hard to see how the Russians could develop a missile that fits within the same launch canister and that prioritizes range over an enlarged warhead. There would be no ready way to verify the contents of the tube visually, especially from satellite or other long-distance imagery.

This may be entirely by design on the Russian’s part, too. As noted, until November 2018, the Kremlin did not even acknowledge the 9M729/SSC-8 existed. By announcing it and now revealing it publicly, Russia has had the leeway to apply that nomenclature to whatever missile it chooses.

It remains entirely possible that the missile the United States identified as the 9M729/SSC-8 is simply not the one the Russians are putting up for display now. The TELs would also simply give the Kremlin a way to readily deploy INF-violating missiles if it not already doing so. This is almost certainly why the U.S. government had called for the elimination of the launch vehicles along with the missiles themselves, since it would hard, if not impossible to verify those vehicles were only carrying INF compliant weapons.

Sergei Bobylev/TASS

A 9M729 marking on one of the launch canisters, which is about the only outward indication that they contain the missile the Russians say they do.

Unless the United States can declassify some of its own intelligence on the matter, the Russians may be putting it in an increasingly impossible situation and giving themselves additional room to blame the U.S. government entirely for what seems to be the increasingly inevitable collapse of the INF.

In addition to professing its innocence, the Kremlin also continues to argue that the U.S. military is itself in violation of the INF through the construction of Aegis Ashore missile defense sites in Europe. These fixed facilities employ a version of the Mk 41 vertical launch system, versions of which U.S. Navy destroyers and cruisers use to fire the BGM-109 Tomahawk land attack cruise missile. The United States insists the land-based variant of the launcher does not have this capability.

“We expect that the objective technical data provided by us and the arguments that have been cited will lead to the intensification of the thought process in the U.S., which will help give another chance to a dialogue aimed at preserving the INF Treaty,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said at the event at Patriot Park on Jan. 23, 2019. “For our part, we continue to be ready for such work. It should be done with the mandatory mutual consideration of both parties’ interests and concerns and without any counterproductive ultimatums.”

But it’s not clear where the two countries would be able to find common ground if one of Russia’s core interests is maintaining a weapon system that violates the treaty, or at least the capability to readily deploy one that does. That is completely incompatible with both the U.S. position and the treaty itself.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com