“Thunder-2019”: Showcasing Russia’s Nuclear Triad

On October 15th-17th in Russia the large-scale exercise of strategic nuclear forces which received the name “Thunder-2019” took place. Working out manoeuvres took place in an intense international situation, against the background of which information that spread in the media about not all planned launches taking place normally caused an extensive expert discussion. Especially for the “eurasia.expert” website the invited research associate of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at Hamburg University (IFSH) Dmitry Stefanovich evaluated the validity of critical statements and also characterised the current state of Russia’s nuclear triad.

Unprecedented transparency

The fact that in 2019 regular exercises of the strategic forces will be held under the public name “Thunder” became known at the end of last year. The announcement was made during the final Collegium of the Russian Defence Ministry. Another difference, compared to traditional approaches, was the holding of a detailed briefing for foreign military attachés the day before, during which the main details of the forthcoming exercise were covered. Of course, much more detailed information is provided to at least American and Chinese partners under existing agreements, but the example of unilateral transparency is unprecedented.

In addition to general launch plans (including submarine ballistic missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles, sea, air and land-based cruise missiles) and the total number of equipment involved (more than 200 Strategic Missile Forces launchers, more than 100 aircraft, including 5 strategic missiles, surface ships, 5 submarines), the general scenario was announced during the briefing. It stipulated some significant escalation at Russia’s borders, leading to threats to the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state”. Accordingly, a response, albeit to an unspecified opponent, was prepared.

At the same time, it is not a favourite concept of “escalation for the sake of de-escalation” by a number of Western analysts, but only a demonstration of the readiness of all systems and subsystems to repel full-scale aggression and strike back with a crushing blow.

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It should be noted that the Military Doctrine also indicates a key condition for the use of nuclear weapons – “a threat to the very existence of the state”. Let us emphasise: consciously or not, but Major General Evgeny Ilyin, who held the briefing, almost equated “threat to the very existence” with “threat to sovereignty and territorial integrity”. At the same time, the space for interpretation remains, and the level of threat will be assessed for compliance with the conditions for the retaliatory use of nuclear weapons after the beginning of hostilities – if deterrence does not work.

What was launched

On October 17th the active phase of the Strategic Command-HQ Exercise took place. The command for launch was given by the Supreme Commander-in-Chief directly from the National Defecse Management Center of the Russian Federation. At the strategic level, all three “legs” of the nuclear triad were involved.

From Strategic Missile Forces the launch performed the calculation of the “Yars” mobile ground complex from the site at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in the Arkhangelsk Region at the Kura training ground in Kamchatka. Unfortunately, the characteristics of the indicated “Yars” was not indicated, while at the present time up to 13 missile regiments of 6 missile divisions are equipped with this missile system (including the “Yars-S” variant) of the 5th generation.

The sea part of the triad was represented by highly esteemed underwater missile cruisers of strategic purpose of projects 667BDR (Ryazan, the Pacific fleet) and 667BDRM (Karelia, the Northern Fleet), which executed launches of P-29P missiles (in R-29RKU option), and R-29RMU (“Sineva”) respectively at the “Chizha” and “Kura” training grounds.

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Strategic aircraft was represented by also highly esteemed aircraft – the Tu-95MS missile carriers, although armed with the most modern cruise missiles from the X-101/X-102 family. Aviators were tested against ground targets at the “Kura” and “Pemboy” training grounds.

At the “non-strategic” level, carriers of sea-based cruise missiles “Kalibr” were actively involved: the “Severodvinsk” submarine and “Admiral Gorshkov” frigate in the Northern Fleet, one of the most advanced ships in the general-purpose forces of the Russian Navy, as well as the missile ships “Dagestan” and “Grad Sviyazhsk” from the Caspian Fleet.

The attention of observers was also drawn to the launches of cruise missiles from the “Iskander-M” tactical missile system at the training grounds of the Southern and Eastern military districts. The specific type and index of missiles were traditionally not specified, but the phenomenon itself is very non-trivial – especially in the context of many years of discussion about cruise missile ranges and launch vehicle types in connection with the crisis surrounding the deceased INF treaty.

Questions of the activity of Space Forces, and also the divisions providing the operation of nuclear weapons remained outside the equation, however with a high share of probability it is possible to claim that they did not get bored.

Errors and conclusions

It was not without events that caused questions and criticism. So, despite the announced volley launch of two P-29PK missiles from the Pacific Ocean, there was only one. At the same time, both experts and the Russian Defence Ministry recognise that this was caused by problems with the submarine ballistic missiles themselves.

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This is not something that would be unexpected or strange: this system has been in service for decades, and “Ryazan” is the latest carrier. Much better systems are already being replaced, and the planning of missile and nuclear strikes always includes a “reserve” in case certain elements fail.

Some problems have also been voiced concerning “Kalibr” on the Caspian Sea. This time, the Russian Defence Ministry radically denies the very fact of an abnormal situation. Perhaps here it is a matter of classifying certain incidents – what may seem like serious trouble to a third-party observer, for the military department it is routine work, and if the missile strikes the target, the task is completed.

It should be noted that failures always occur at exercises, and the identification of problems is one of the key tasks. According to the information available at this moment, the incidents did not result in casualties among the personnel and the decommissioning of the equipment.

In fact, much more concerning was the absence of launches of “Bulava” submarine ballistic missiles within the framework of “common” exercises, and in general the complete absence of launches of this product “from East to West”. There may be many reasons for this, ranging from insufficient stocks of missiles to concerns about intelligence capabilities on Pacific theatre of military operations, but the fact remains. At the same time, “Bulava” we will certainly see in flight this year – before the end of the year tests of the strategic mission missile submarine cruiser “Prince Vladimir” of the “Borey-A” project, stipulating the testing of the “main calibre”, should be completed.

Dmitry Stefanovich

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