Russia's Satan 2 ICBM Service Entry Delayed As Arms Control Deals Falter

Technical issues or economic problems might be the source of the delay, but it means the missiles could enter service in the middle of an arms race.

Russian MoD

The Kremlin has revealed that the planned date for deploying its new RS-28 Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missiles, also known as the SS-X-30 Satan 2, has gotten pushed back, even as it announced which unit will be the first to receive these weapons. The delay could be due to technical issues with the missile, Russia’s slumped economy, or a combination of factors. It also means the country won’t be fielding the weapons until after a key arms control deal with the United States, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, potentially expires, which has sparked concerns about an impending arms race.

The RS-28 is a silo-launched, liquid-fueled, nuclear-armed ICBM. Russia has been working on the missile for nearly a decade and it will reportedly have a host of capabilities intended to defeat ballistic missile defenses ranging from decoys and other countermeasures to a fractional orbital bombardment capability, independent post-boost vehicles (IPBV), or even a payload of multiple hypersonic boost-glide vehicles.

“We plan to start the rearmament with this missile complex starting in 2021 in the Uzhur-based missile force division, which currently has in operation its predecessor – the Voyevoda missile complex,” Russian Strategic Missile Force Commander Colonel-General Sergei Karakayev told Krasnaya Zvezda, the official newspaper of Russia’s Ministry of Defense, in an interview published on Dec. 17, 2018. The RS-28s are set to replace the older Voyevodas, also known as R-36Ms or SS-18 Satans, which have been in service since the 1970s, though they have received with various upgrades in the intervening years.

A liquid-fueled ICBM might seem somewhat dated, but it does offer the advantage of a more capable and dynamic propulsion arrangement. But unlike a solid fuel design, it has historically been difficult to keep these type of missiles in a fueled state indefinitely, often meaning that launch crews had to go through a lengthy process of fueling the weapon shortly before launch. However, a hydrazine-based liquid rocket fuel with nitrogen tetroxide (NTO) as the oxidizer, provides a more stable, less corrosive option, that allows for long-term storage of missiles in a fueled, ready state when combined with the right component materials and environmental controls.

Russian state media outlet TASS added that, “according to earlier reports,” serial production of the RS-28 was set to begin in 2020 before entering service the next year. There have also been statements suggesting that mass production of the missiles won't actually start until 2021. However, as recently as May 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin himself had said that the Sarmat was supposed to become operational in 2020.

“Trials of other promising systems continue,” he said at a meeting of senior Russian military officials and the heads of state-run defense companies on May 18, 2018. “Soon, they are to begin service in our strategic forces. I mean first of all the Sarmat system that is to enter operational service in 2020 … ”

The exact reason for this latest delay is unclear, but it’s not the first time the RS-28 program has run into trouble. In 2015, there were reports that the schedule had slipped and, two years later, a series of tests got pushed back due to the need to re-inspect certain missile components for apparent quality-control issues. The first successful ejection test of a Saramat prototype occurred in December 2017.

It would seem that any continuing issues lie with the missile itself or in ramping up production of the weapons. “Over the past few years, we have created modern infrastructure for deploying [RS-24] Yars [road-mobile ICBM] complexes and the infrastructure for the Sarmat missile system has already been prepared,” Russian Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov said in a separate interview that the business daily Kommersant published on Dec. 17, 2018.

It is possible that technical or quality-control problems still dog the missile. On or about Dec. 10, 2018, Russia suffered what appears to have been a catastrophic failure of an IBCM during a test at the Kapustin Yar missile test facility.

After video of the incident surfaced on social media, Russian officials claimed that the weapon in question was an S-350 Vityaz surface-to-air missile, but experts and observers have had their doubts. “This account appears inconsistent with the sheer scale of incident depicted in the video,” Joseph Dempsey, a Research Associate for Defense and Military Analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think tank in the United Kingdom, Tweeted out on Dec. 12, 2018.

There is no evidence that this was an RS-28, though, with unconfirmed reports that the missile was actually an RS-12M Topol ICBM. Russia routinely uses these older weapons to test new warheads and countermeasures systems.

That serial production of the RS-28 isn’t set to begin until 2020 might point to broader economic difficulties that make it difficult to pay for the weapons, too. International sanctions against Russia over illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and its active military involvement in and around that country, on top of its actions in Syria and elsewhere, have taken their toll. The low price of oil, Russia’s major revenue generating exports, has also been a factor.

The Kremlin has already canceled the Barguzin rail-mobile IBCM project – originally set to be in service by 2018 – and shelved the RS-26 Rubezh silo-launched ICBM program indefinitely to free up funds for more pressing strategic weapons efforts. Chief among these is the Avangard nuclear-armed hypersonic boost-glide vehicle, which Russia says will enter service in 2019 using older, refurbished rocket boosters. There are reports that Avangard might eventually be a warhead option for the RS-28, too.

But the delay could prove advantageous for the Kremlin in the long run, since the New START treaty is set to expire in 2021. The deal places hard limits on the number of deployed and non-deployed land-based ICBMs, total available launch tube for submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and nuclear-capable heavy bombers that Russia and the United States can have in total. The agreement also sets a firm limit on total deployed and non-deployed systems.

With those limits in place, Russia might not be able to deploy both the new Avangard-equipped missiles and replace the R-36Ms with SS-28s on a one-for-one basis, while still maintaining its other ICBMs and moving ahead with other strategic weapons modernization programs. It is true that Russia had less than 520 deployed “launchers” – the total of land-based IBCMs, SLBM launch tubes, and heavy bombers – as of September 2018, while the treaty allows for a maximum of 700 such systems.

New START also includes a provision that would allow the U.S. and Russian governments to extend it, but only through 2026. Negotiations for a follow-on deal will have to begin in earnest soon, if they haven’t already, but those talks will come at a time when the two countries are at odds over a separate nuclear weapons deal, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF.

The United States has presented evidence to the Russians and its own allies that the Kremlin has a missile that violates the INF and has announced its own intention to withdraw from the agreement in early 2019 if Russia does not return to compliance with its terms. The Russians continue to insist that the weapon in question does not breach the treaty.

As such, they have been growing calls from within the U.S. government, especially from Congress, arguing that the United States should not simply extend New START, but should seek to negotiate a new deal that better incorporates various American demands about both intermediate-range and strategic nuclear weapons. President Donald Trump and his administration have shown great willingness to dispense with major existing international agreements that they argue have not served America’s interests.

But without New START, or the INF, in place in 2021, Russia would have a free hand to deploy systems such as the RS-28, on top of its other missiles, without any restrictions. It could also indefinitely retain the R-36Ms in an active state for any future purpose, without those missiles counting against its total non-deployed weapons. The Kremlin has already warned that an end to the INF would prompt it to deploy missiles in that category – likely simply officially fielding the missiles it already has – and touch off an arms race.

All told, while the Russians might have had to delay putting the first SS-28s into operational service, it could let them hold on to the ICBMs they have now and deploy even more missiles in the future.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com