Emerging Russian Weapons: Welcome to the 2020s (Part 1 – Kinzhal, Sarmat, 4202)

Vladimir Putin’s speech on March 1st revealed a number of seemingly new or emerging weapon systems, some of which were known to be in testing, while others may come as somewhat a surprise. However, most of these ‘new weapons’ are long running projects, systems thought to be in development, or testing. Some had not shown themselves in quite some time, while others have never been seen, although there were reports of their tests in public releases or official statements. The weapons represent a mix of hypersonic missiles, hypersonic boost-glide vehicles, traditional ballistic missile projects, and third strike vengeance weapons on the basis of Russian advancements in nuclear technology. Here I will briefly cover Kh-47M2 Kinzhal, R-28 Sarmat, and ‘4202’ – the rest of the more fantastical weapons will come in Part 2.

But first, a brief comment on the overall presentation. The speech itself felt like a “послание” in more than one meaning of that word for those who speak Russian. It was certainly a ‘challenge accepted’ message from VVP, in part responding to the NDS and NPR. After a good run through new and seemingly fantastical capabilities, VVP returned to the subject of Russia’s military doctrine, nuclear policy, and the like. So, aside from domestic politics, there is a fair bit of coercive diplomacy in the message, from talking about the capabilities themselves, to Russian resolve, and concluding with assurances that all will be well if nobody gets into it with Russia. Moscow understands the audience well: nothing gets the attention of U.S. policymakers like nuclear weapons, and there is one person in particular in Washington who is readily impressed by videos of missiles. The graphics were not exactly Lord of the Rings quality, but what can you do, Russian MoD has to live with budget reductions since 2015.

This was my overall impression listening to the speech and the vision it offered.

Deathstar Russia

Now, back to the missiles. A number of the more futuristic projects can only be characterized as semi-rational, in the sense that a fair bit of defense procurement is semi-rational. There was a need to support various design bureaus, Russia’s nuclear energy industry, and a long standing narrative about the need to penetrate a missile defense system the U.S. does not have (and probably after 30 years of copious amounts of funding still won’t have, because Russia is hardly the only country that suffers from semi-rational defense spending).

There is no way to intercept Russian ICBMs, and with the upgrades to penetration aids they’re already implementing, Russia can ensure the viability of its deterrent for decades to come. This is not to mention recently deployed air launched cruise missiles like Kh-101/102. The ticket price of upgrading strategic nuclear weapons for better penetration, i.e. the offense, is just incredibly lower than the cost of trying to mount any viable defense. Statements on the various projects on March 1st can best be summarized as true lies, that is their stages of development are likely exaggerated, but none of what was said qualifies as science fiction either.

Mainstream media coverage, and experts quoted have been rather dismissive of Putin’s presentation. That is an unfortunately common but foolhardy reaction, and its almost habitual. Observers are right to say that these technologies will take considerable time to test and deploy, but what some may not recall, because investment in Russian military analysis took a vacation 1992-2014, is actually when testing and development for these weapons began. The narrative of a sanctioned, economically weak and decaying Russia tends to prevail, but it comes with blinders on the issue of military technology. Yes, they can do this, and much of this may become reality in the 2020s. Recall awhile ago when Russian MoD leaked a slide on Status-6, many observers thought it was a PR stunt, and some kind of bluff, until it showed up in the NPR. Some thought T-14 Armata was a bluff, and made of cardboard, that ‘often wrong, but never in doubt list’ of expert dismissals is fairly long.

Aeroballistic Missile Kinzhal – the air Iskander

Kinzhal

The shown missile is a substantially modified version of the Iskander SRBM, with Mig-31 serving as the boost phase, providing a high  altitude launch at supersonic speeds (recommend A. Ramm and Bogdanov for good reading). This is far from the first missile design to leverage Mig-31s performance in speed, takeoff weight, ceiling and combat range. Kinzhal is an operational-tactical complex, able to reach hypersonic speeds, a 2000 km range – although some suggest it is closer to 1500 km. According to official statements this missile can reach mach 10 and can conduct high-G maneuvers on terminal approach. I’m skeptical of the former, that is it likely can do mach 10 at early stages of flight, but then reduce speed for terminal maneuvers. The latter makes sense, because OTK 9M723 Iskander SRBM was designed to make random maneuvers in order to make its flight path difficult to intercept.

Kinzhal is quite shorter, with smaller control surfaces, and a narrower nose. Gen Sergei Surovikin, head of Aerospace Forces (VKS) said the designation for this missile is Kh-47M2. Iskander, referenced as 9M723, can reach 350-450 km depending on payload, if launched at supersonic speeds from high altitude it stands to reason that a modified variant can achieve a substantially increased range. VKS should be happy since Mig-31s are technically under their service arm, and one of the few types of aviation they actually control. This gives them a new standoff weapon, and better chances at an anti-ship mission.

Kinzhal is new, but according to A. Ramm and others, the concept initially surfaced 8 years ago. It has since then been mentioned by experts like Pyotr Bukowski in 2017. Given Iskander-M is considered to be a dual-capable replacement for Tochka-U, though its principal mission is conventional, there is ample reason to believe that the same nuclear warhead can be deployed on Kinzhal. Guidance is an interesting question, supposedly it can actively home on targets, and has scene matching as well. How that comes together at hypersonic speeds is a question, but more than likely this weapon is capable of very complex flight profiles. At least it is advertised with different seeker heads, one for traditional air-to-ground work, and the other as an anti-ship weapon.

Readers will recall that Raduga’s Kh-15 (AS-16 Kickback) aeroballistic missile from 1980s was allegedly quite fast, perhaps reaching Mach 5. Kinzhal might have more power than the original Iskander too. Russia’s MoD has plans to upgrade the current Iskander-M, improving range, so a Iskander-M2 is in the offing already for the ground forces.

Kinzhal anti-ship.JPG

I’m skeptical of the claim that this weapon has already begun combat duty in the Southern MD, which sounds like a ‘true lie,’ but it is probably the closest to operational deployment among weapons mentioned. One should not be surprised to see this in Syria at some point. Rumor has it the new GPV 2018-2027 plans to upgrade up to 50 Mig-31s to carry this missile. If anything, this weapon is ideally suited for the Pacific theater, where many Mig-31s are based, and in the anti-ship role, as it will prove incredibly difficult to intercept. I will add, there’s been no news of Tsirkon (a hypersonic cruise missile in development) since last year, principally for the anti-ship role. In 2017 everyone was advertising their goods to get funding in the new GPV, but since then Tsirkon has gone a bit quiet.

Added another photo after more videos came out.

Кинж

 

R-28 Sarmat – heavy ICBM replacement for R-36M2 Voyevoda (SS-18)

Sarmat 2.jpg

R-28 Sarmat is a liquid fueled heavy ICBM designed to have high throw weight, deploying multiple warheads and numerous penetration aids. Although often touted as being a 200 ton replacement for SS-18, there’s a lot of conflicting information, some of it suggesting that its actually much closer to the weight of the SS-19, that is towards 100 tons. Earlier information suggested this was a 106 ton missile with a throw weight of 4350 kg. As a silo-based ICBM, SS-18 could deploy 10 warheads, but was designed and produced by Yuzhmash in Ukraine SSR. Hence Russia had an obvious problem, not only is this aging missile fielding a substantial percentage of the currently deployed force under New START, but it was still serviced and maintained by Yuzhmash.

Currently, Sarmat is about 2 years behind schedule based on the contract initially signed in 2011. The last ejection test was in late December 2017, which seems to have gone successfully, with two more planned for early 2018. Sarmat features prominently in the new state armament program so there’s every reason to believe that it will be completed sooner rather than later, but in the end this is rocket science, not basket weaving. Suffice it to say, this missile is nowhere near serial production or operational readiness. Problems in Russian industry when it comes to missiles, rockets, and space lift, tend to stem less from S&T and more from production quality of complex components. This was at the heart of Bulava’s spotty test record. I’m also skeptical of the south pole trajectory shown in Putin’s address, implying it could be a fractal orbital weapon. In the end, we have to wait for the actual parameters of the missile to become public (100t or 200t ?), because Russian officials have a long established problem with numbers – whether lies, truth, or self-PR, rarely does anyone in Russia give the same figures for anything.

Capture

Sarmat is possibly the least interesting item shown during the weapons menagerie. More puzzling is that little has been said about RS-26 Rubezh, which has stayed out of the news for some time after initially being tested as an ICBM and classified as such. Russian MoD needs to do a ‘where are they now’ catch up segment on some of these systems.

Gerasimov’s face during Sarmat video expresses how I felt.

Gerasimov's face during talk of Sarmat

Avangard or 4202 hypersonic boost-glide weapons

During the address, Vladimir Putin said that they couldn’t show the actual video of the rocket being used, and hence the name reference to Avangard is rather confusing. Avangard was a project mentioned back in 2011 by Serduykov and some sources incorrectly suggested it was based on a modified RS-24, which was made by MIT, whereas 4202 has been a well known hypersonic boost-glide program and is regularly mentioned as being tested on УР-100УНТТХ, which is made by NPO Mashinostroyeniya. The video during Putin’s presentation shows UR-100 (SS-19 Stiletto) as expected, besides being associated with 4202 – this ICBM also forms the basis for two successful space lift variants ‘Rokot’ and ‘Strela.’ The concept involves using an ICBM to boost a vehicle to near orbital speed, then it descents and adjusts flight profile at some altitude where there is still minimal atmospheric resistance into a sustained hypersonic glide, with the terminal phase being dive to target.

Borrowing this graphic

HTV-2.jpg

First mention of Russia’s hypersonic boost glide program, and tests using UR-100, actually goes back to large scale RVSN exercise in 2004.  This, like Kinzhal in 2008, is to give the reader some indicator as to how long these programs have been in progress so as to remove any confusion about the proposition that VV Putin ran out of things to claim and is now making all this up. USSR had ideas about hypersonic vehicles back in mid-1980s, so this is hardly a new concept.  N. Surkov has a good article on the program here, adding that 4202’s flight control system was made in Ukraine, and needed replacing after the war. According to Surkov the vehicle is boosted to 100 km altitude and then glides down, perhaps at 5-7 km per second, those could be just official stats though, just like when Shoigu liberated 500,000 sq km of Syria.

The idea behind 4202 is Russia’s version of Prompt Global Strike, except this system is intended to be an air defense penetrator carrying a strategic nuclear warhead. The vehicle being tested is analogous to U.S. Hypersonic Test Vehicle 2. Russia’s military continues to imagine a distant future where BMD is able to intercept their second strike, and therefore sees value in an expensive program to deliver nuclear weapons via a boost-glide vehicle. Although this threat perception is not too different from our oft advocated need for a new B-21 stealth bomber, since the current $2 billion B-2 is going to be defeated in some future where stealth is no longer viable. How Russians talk about the capabilities of U.S. missile defense to justify programs, and how Americans talk about Russian integrated air defense when it comes to B-21 and LRSO, has quite a bit in common.

obj 4202

A. Ramm has one of the best articles with details on 4202. A R-36M2 silo (listed as object 370) is being used to test 4202 (the complex is often referenced as A35-71. The UR-100 in question, together with 4202 on top of it, fits into this R-36 silo because it is designed for a missile that is 7 meters longer. Earlier mention of Avangard on a RS-24 based missile seems incorrect, unless this is a different system altogether, but in my view 4202 and Avangard are the same. Ultimately R-28 Sarmat is the most logical carrier for this hypersonic vehicle. UR-100 is the current test missile for 4202, while Yars or Topol lack the throw weight for such a weapon, but because UR-100 is too old, it means that R-28 Sarmat is the only perspective ICBM ‘booster’ for this weapon when/if it is completed. Before anyone chimes in that these things take a long time to develop, remind them that R-28 contract was signed 2011, and 4202 began testing 2004. So perhaps we will be seeing both by the mid-2020s?

Bottom line: there remains a strong emphasis on non-contact warfare, particularly tactical operational and operational-strategic weapons, along with dual-capable standoff systems. Even if the rationale of U.S. missile defense doesn’t hold much logic behind it, Russian leadership continuously thinks about a future where their strategic deterrent is somehow compromised, and this threat concept is rather convenient to justify a host of next generation technology programs, delivery systems and the like. Where there is capability in long range precision guided munitions the short coming often ends up being capacity. These are not bluffs, the question is less whether they can make it work and more of ‘how many can they afford.’ The upcoming GPV 2018-2027 will focus on increasing munition stocks and bringing to fruition several new standoff missiles – Kinzhal is just one among several projects. More in part 2 on Dr. Strangelove weapons.

Beyond the bad graphics, there is a real vehicle somewhere in testing, though it likely has a long way to go.

4202 video.JPG

In one brief graphic its even dodging numerous missiles that appear to be GBI interceptors, so there are two fantasies playing out in this image

past gbi

Comments and suggestions are welcome.

U.S. Strikes and Russian PMC Casualties in Syria – Fact vs Fiction

It’s become common knowledge that a U.S. strike took out an advancing column of Syrian forces on February 7th in defense of SDF positions east of Deir ez-Zor, and more likely to protect U.S. SOF embedded with them. Since then the story of Russian casualties among supporting PMCs (mercenaries belonging to private military companies) has proliferated across the internet and newspaper articles, with many of the facts and figures inaccurate. I’ve seen 100 dead, 200 dead, 600 dead, dozens, hundreds, scores of dead, and so on and so forth. Unfortunately Russian casualties, troops participating in military exercises, or similar such events have a large “applied internet multiplier” whereby they increase several fold depending on the source. By current figures many of those involved in the fighting February 7-8 were killed at least twice, if not multiple times.

Due to a lack of credible information serious newspapers are citing some Russian businessman, a Syrian commander, and all sorts of other conflicting sources. The contradictory stories are reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s famous film Rashomon, where every character has their own often self-serving narrative about the same event. After a journalist called this morning to inquire whether it is true that U.S. airpower took out 20% of Russian ground forces in Syria it seems time for something sensible to be written on the matter. I’m updating this a bit as better information comes out.

Based on the information available at the time I wrote that actual casualties among PMCs in this episode are likely somewhere on the order of 13-15 dead and a relatively equal number wounded. Initial reporting seemed closer to a dozen than dozens. The casualties  from this strike are spread between a Syrian unit known as ISIS Hunters (~20 KIA) and the bulk among SAA units which seemed to include some percentage of local fighters from the area (these numbers might be around 40 or more). There was word of a Syrian brigadier killed as well along with the SAA soldiers. More than likely this was an unit from Syria’s 5th Assault Corps supported by PMCs. The 13-15 PMC casualties are also not all necessarily Russian, but thus far all the confirmed dead are. A good number seem to be Cossacks, and many are fighters who previously were part of separatist formations in the Donbas, either directly on behalf of DNR or under contract as mercs.

I am very biased towards conservative assessments based on the information that can be confirmed, and makes sense, i.e. I prefer starting low and working my way up. In this case it seems that the less probable event was true, the number of Wagner mercenaries killed was much higher than I initially thought.

On Feb 16 I updated the count after more information and some additions from fighting February 10th. The better number increasingly looked like ~40 dead and 70 wounded as in MK article. I’m more inclined towards MK numbers in this graphic than any of the other figures, but it is still too low an estimate. Those are figures for combined casualties, referencing 3 companies of Wagner involved in support of Syrian forces. Of these the number of PMCs killed and wounded is probably more than a dozen but doubtfully exceeds 30-40 (or so I thought). Today the more realistic number is somewhere between 100-200 killed in that engagement.

MK article here: http://www.mk.ru/politics/2018/02/13/pogibli-40-raneny-72-istochnik-v-chvk-vagnera-utochnil-poteri.html

A good source comparison chart to figure out where all these numbers are coming from can be found here: https://chervonec-001.livejournal.com/2227259.html

This is a photo of ISIS Hunters holding a funeral following the strike

ISIS Hunters funeral

The KIA count may go up depending on the fate of the wounded. There is a general assumption based on the evidence that the few PMCs killed belong to Wagner ChVK, as Wagner is the principal mercenary group fighting in support of SAA in Syria. As is often the case, facts point to a much less exciting and sensational story behind the headlines.

According to DoD statements, and those by SecDef Mattis, the attacking force approximated ‘300 pro-regime forces’ in a surprise push towards SDF positions on February 7. Thus, the fantastic figures of hundreds dead, including Igor Girkin’s 644, can be safely thrown out the window. Somewhere on the order of 200 dead is also improbable unless the numbers for those attacking were much higher than being reported by the American side. The U.S. would have to kill literally everyone involved, and that seems quite a reach for typical rules of engagement. But it seems the numbers were somewhere 100-200 after all, that is the reporting from Russia and numerous sources suggest the U.S. intentionally under reported Russian PMC casualties in this fight. Either that, or the additional fighters died from poor morale after seeing the strike.

Later on, DoD statements elaborated that the attack came evening of Feb 7th, and it included a ‘dismounted battalion sized element’ which was turned back. So this is somewhere on the order of 300-500 attacking but they only had contact with a part of the force. The difference in the numbers between Mattis’ initial 300 and LTG Harrigan’s battalion is in the leading half of the battalion, which dismounted (200-300), that U.S. forces struck and most of the casualties were among this element.

Since LTG Harrigan indicated the attack was not unexpected, and they observed the buildup for some time (https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/1441080/department-of-defense-press-briefing-by-lieutenant-general-harrigian-via-teleco/), it explains better how so many assets were involved in beating back the assault – MQ-9, F-15E, F-22, even B-52 and AC-130. B-52 in particular would take some time to arrive on station. This suggests the U.S. knew the attack was coming, and they told the Russians they knew, and the action went forward anyway.

This episode appears to have taken place around Al-Tabiyeh east of Deir ez-Zor. Syrian forces began an attack on SDF positions, with armor and artillery. Then U.S. forces made contact with Russian MoD to deconflict, and after being told there were no Russian soldiers there, which by all accounts there were not, they struck the advancing units. So, initially I thought total casualties were probably less than 100 with a approximately 40 SAA, 20 ISIS Hunters, and 13-15 PMC split (although unclear if SAA losses include ISIS Hunters losses in which case it might even more conservative). Now looking back, that was grossly conservative. Somewhere between 100-200 were killed, many of them Wagner fighters, that is more than the 42-70 estimate from the MK story.

The exact reason for why this episode took place is naturally unclear, but it may be connected to the overall friction between Syrian forces wanting to seize energy infrastructure, gas and oil, from SDF forces. The latter took it from ISIS, and of course need the resources, just as the Syrian regime needs the money to sustain a rump state. There are also Russian interests there looming in the background, among people interested in contracts handling Syrian energy extraction post-conflict, and hoping that PMCs can secure potential energy cash cows. This episode may be due to poor coordination, deliberate probing, or as often happens in war – a confluence of events yields compound risk as mistakes and misjudgments stack.

From higher altitude, the U.S. has a strategy to maintain presence in Syria via SDF, and Russia has a strategy to make the regime as viable as possible financially, while pushing U.S. proxies further east. Astride the war between Turkey and Kurds playing out in Afrin, the war between Israel and U.S. vs Iranian presence in the south, this is technically Syria’s war #3 which involves Russian forces backing SAA to retake more of Idlib and gain ground east of Deir ez-Zor.

P.S. Behind this tale is another looming story about some Syrian T-72 that was taken out by a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone in defense of SDF positions and embedded U.S. advisers (internet can’t decide if its Russian or Soviet made). Actually on the video available it first looked more like a T-90, supplied by Russia to Syria’s 5th Assault Corps. There is an object right of the gun that looks like a Shtora system than IR illuminator from T-72BA – but this was not the case. https://www.military.com/daily-news/2018/02/13/us-mq-9-reaper-takes-out-russian-t-72-tank-syria.html (I got this photo from the same article)

Looking at it some more later the V barrier on the front seems to point to T-72M, which is the more probable answer. This is is from Feb 10 fighting.

DoD video shows a U.S Air Force Reaper strike on a Russia-made T-72 tank. (Screen shot of DoD video)

We stand by to find out from the internet whether this particular tank was filled with hundreds of Russian PMCs or personally driven by Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu.

Figures compiled from a few news sources like Novaya Gazeta, Meduza, etc. some blog sources that are ‘pro-Russian’ but fairly well informed on the situation in Syria, work put out by CIT, other journalists/experts currently working the issue)

https://www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2018/02/13/75496-oshibka-ili-predatelstvo

https://www.novayagazeta.ru/news/2018/02/12/139439-cit-uznala-imena-pogibshih-v-sirii-boytsov-chvk-vagnera

MK might have the best sources: http://www.mk.ru/politics/2018/02/13/pogibli-40-raneny-72-istochnik-v-chvk-vagnera-utochnil-poteri.html

Oryx probably took number of dead and did standard 3x wounded multiplier, which makes sense.