On December 9-12, Russia held its annual strategic nuclear forces exercise. Despite the increased incidence rate of COVID-19 in the autumn, in particular, in the Armed Forces, it was important for Russia to show its strength to the West.
Russia’s nuclear exercise should have been conducted this year. Failure to conduct the exercise in 2020 could show the West that Russian nuclear forces are not ready enough or their combat readiness has weakened this year. According to President Vladimir Putin, nuclear forces ensure its sovereignty, territorial integrity and make it a leading world power, Russia would never allow this.
During the exercise, the Yars intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was launched from the Plesetsk test range in the Arkhangelsk region. The Yoshkar-Ola division of the Strategic Missile Forces (SMF), fully re-equipped with these missile systems, conducted the launch.
Once again, the crew of the Karelia submarine of the Dolphin-class launched a Sineva submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) from a depth of 50 meters in the Barents Sea.
It is worth noting that the participating forces were the best in their troops. At the end of 2019, the Karelia sub was the best crew of the Northern Fleet, and the Yoshkar-Ola division was recognized several times as the best in the SMF. Last year, the Yoshkar-Ola division was the best among the units equipped with the Yars ICBMs.
There were also launches of high-precision long-range cruise missiles by Tu-160 and Tu-95MS aircraft that took off from the Engels and Ukrainka airfields, respectively. According to the video, the bombers employed the latest air-launched cruise missiles Kh-101 and Kh-555 (converted into a non-nuclear version of the strategic missiles Kh-55) they carried in their weapons bays.
Three days later, the Vladimir Monomakh ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) of the Borei-class carried out a salvo launch. It was reported that it was the final stage of the exercise. For the first time, the launch was carried out by Borei submarine from the Okhotsk Sea at the Chizha test range in the Arkhangelsk region. Until recently, the Navy and industry had difficulty loading missiles and testing them from the Pacific. The submarine base in Vilyuchinsk was modernized for the Borei submarine's berthing capacity; particularly, the loading complex for the Bulava missiles was being prepared.
The exercises had several features. There were no press conferences, neither pre-exercise nor the final one. Unlike last year, this time, no one says that the exercise is not directed against other countries.
Neither Kalibr missiles nor the Iskander missile systems were used in the exercise. That was, for example, last year. Special Operations Forces, which had previously modeled conventional enemy forces in similar exercises, were not involved.
Two test ranges were used for ICBMs, and two for test ranges for cruise missiles. Test ranges located in Kazakhstan were not used, although they were sometimes used earlier.
For the second year in a row, strategic submarines from two fleets- the Northern and Pacific- participated in nuclear exercises.
In the past two years, the exercise has been held for more than two days. The three-day break this year is not clear. It is probably related to technical problems; otherwise, these launches would have been carried out either on the same day or the next.
In total, six ballistic missile launches were carried out in the 2020 exercise. It is the largest number in such exercises. In 2019, one R29-R (SS-N-18 Stingray) ballistic missile was launched toward the Chizha test range; moreover, RS-24 Yars (SS-29) and R-29RMU2 Sineva (SS-N-23 Skiff) missiles were fired at the Kura test range in Kamchatka. In 2018, R-29RMU-2.1 (Sineva-2) and R-29RKU-02 (Stantsia-02) SLBM were fired during the maneuvers, along with several cruise missiles and guided aircraft-launched missiles. In 2017, there was one launch of the Topol ICBM and three SLBMs: two R-29RKU-02s and one R-29RMU-2.1. During Grom 2016, there was only one Topol and one liquid-fueled SLBM of each type involved.
It should be noted that the marine part of Russia's nuclear triad has recently become more reliable than the ground. So, the naval forces annually carry out 5-6 launches of strategic missiles, while the Strategic Missile Forces in 2018 and 2020 carried out only 1-2 launches, although they planned much more.
The exercise was held in December, although it is usually held in October. The reason for this is the coronavirus pandemic. Time was spent quarantining, disinfecting divisions, and testing military personnel. For a long time, the SMF was engaged in activities that were not typical for themselves. SMF participated in the activities for providing care to the sick and carrying out quarantine measures. In particular, the same division that launched the Yars missile on this exercise in April disinfected public transport stops, territories of hospitals and clinics, pharmacies, kindergartens, and food stores in Yoshkar-Ola, the city placement. Also, the SMF conducted special exercises to localize emergencies related to the threat of viral infections. This affected the training plan for the troops. The SMF planned to conduct large-scale exercises in the territory of the Orenburg and Irkutsk regions but conducted to hold only in Irkutsk.
The Northern fleet was suspected of coronavirus; the crews were quarantined and tested. Stopping the spread of coronavirus at sea is much more difficult than on land. Isolation is not possible on a submarine. In confined spaces with artificial ventilation, and these are the majority on submarines – viruses spread rapidly. Therefore, it is likely that the training plans of the submarine forces suffered most. Quarantine measures and repeated testing are time-consuming, and this has greatly affected the quality and timing of crew formation, and therefore the activity of submarines. The first SSBN was vaccinated in Russia only in December; this submarine was probably Karelia, which participated in the exercise. Despite the danger of spreading the coronavirus in confined spaces, the strategic submarine Vladimir Monomakh was also involved in this exercise.
The Russian armed forces were obviously negatively affected by the coronavirus. Despite this, the minimum number of nuclear forces maintained the scale, high activity, and effectiveness of nuclear exercise due to the participation of the most reliable units of the missile forces and the submarine fleet. The direct participation of President Vladimir Putin and the video demonstration of the launches highlighted the importance that the Kremlin attaches to the successful conduct of this exercise as a means of demonstrating its strength to the West, when despite the pandemic; nuclear forces remain in the service of state security and ready for use.
Maxim Starchak is an independent expert on Russian nuclear weapons and the nuclear industry and a Fellow of the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University, Canada.