A few days ago, the head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, Yuri Borisov, announced the entry into service of the new Russian intercontinental missile RS-28 Sarmat (NATO code: SS-30 Satan 2).
The announcement was made at an event organized by the association Knowledge, later taken up by various Russian news agencies, with a very interesting detail, which escaped most in the West. In fact, it would seem that the presentation, prepared for the occasion by Roscosmos indicated 2024 (and not 2023) as the year of entry into service of the new missile, thus contradicting what Borisov said. Tass, reporting the news, specified this detail1.
For this reason, it is somewhat difficult to understand whether the Sarmat missile system is operational or not. Last February, on the occasion of the Defender of the Fatherland Day, the Russian president himself, Vladimir Putin, declared that the missile would enter service within the year: this is in line with the announcement made by Borisov2. However, since it was a government news agency that underlined Roscosmos' alleged mistake, thus inevitably raising doubts about the authenticity of Borisov's statement, it cannot be excluded that the announcement is yet another case of misinformation aimed at confusing Western (and not only) analysts engaged in studying and evaluating the state of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces.
Regardless of how things actually are, the entry into service of the Sarmat is destined to mark the future of the strategic balance between the Russian Federation, on the one hand, and the United States (and - more generally - NATO), on the other.
The development process of the missile started in 2011, and was overseen by the Makeyev State Rocket Center, a company of the Roscosmos group. Some tests were carried out on the launch system in 2017 and 2018: others were scheduled for 2021, then postponed. In April 2022, a comprehensive test was successfully carried out, which would appear to be the only one of its kind. Since then, announcements and declarations of the imminent or imminent commissioning of the new device have begun.
The Sarmat was conceived as a replacement for the RS-20 intercontinental ballistic missile (NATO reporting name: SS-18 Satan), of which it almost entirely takes up its dimensions and war load capacity: for this reason, it is also called Satan 2.
From a technical point of view, the missile is liquid-propellant, has a diameter of 3 meters by 35,5 meters in length, weighs about 208 tons and has a maximum range of 18.000 kilometers (exceeding that of any SS-18 entered in service), a property that would allow it to conduct polar-tracking attacks from both the North and South Poles3.
The Sarmat can carry up to 10 MIRV-type autonomous warheads (Multiple Independently targetable Reentry Vehicles), as well as various devices aimed at deceiving the enemy's missile defenses (decoys, fake targets). It would seem that no details have been provided on the power of the individual warheads but, taking up that of the atoms loaded on the SS-18 Mod. 5, it is reasonable to hypothesize a value between 500 and 1000 kilotons4.
The missile is also capable of carrying the Avangard, a particular hypersonic reentry vehicle of the latest generation which, due to its particular technical characteristics and flight trajectory (planing, so-called gliding flight), would appear to be particularly effective at evading enemy missile defenses5.
The Sarmat should have an initial phase of launch (boost phase) very small, which would reduce the opponent's detection capabilities. The missile would also be capable of reaching its target following a trajectory with a flight curve lower than that typical of ICBMs (so-called depressed trajectory), reducing the time of arrival on the target as well as the capabilities (times) of interception. Furthermore, according to Russian sources, the missile would be capable of flying over different layers of the atmosphere and of maneuvering, suddenly gaining and losing altitude, to more effectively evade enemy missile defenses6.
In addition to this, the SS-30 would appear to be coated with a special material which would reduce its vulnerability to engagement with the use of laser weapons and would allow for more effective use during a large-scale nuclear conflict, with the area launch site contaminated by clouds and atomic radiation7.
As stated earlier, the Sarmat is intended to replace the SS-18 missiles supplied by the Russian Strategic Missile Forces. According to the latest edition of The Military Balance, edited by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, currently 46 SS-18 are operational8. Of these, most are equipped with a multiple warhead (Mod.5): the remaining units (Mod.6), on the other hand, would mount a single warhead with an explosive power, according to Russian sources, of no less than 20 megatons.
Given the military installations that deploy the SS-18s and given the first confirmations on the adaptation works to the fixed positions (silos) intended to house them, it would certainly seem that the deployment of the Sarmats at the 62nd Missile Division stationed in Uzhur, in the Krasnoyarsk region (Siberian Federal District) and in the military complex of the 13nd Missile Division of Dombarovsky, Orenburg region (Volga Federal District)9.
The entry into service of the Sarmat will make Moscow's nuclear deterrent more credible. But the progression of the Strategic Missile Forces will be only qualitative and not quantitative in nature. The new SS-28 missile, as well as the Avangard system, are among the types of weapons regulated by the agreement that regulates the nuclear-type strategic balance between the United States and the Russian Federation, the New START Treaty. According to the provisions of the agreement, both parties can hold a maximum of:
700 land-based (ICBM) and naval (SLBM) ICBMs, and strategic bombers (deployed);
800 devices including ICBMs, SLBMs and bombers (deployed and in reserve);
1.550 nuclear warheads installed in ICBMs, SLBMs and bombers (deployed)10.
Since the Sarmat will replace the SS-18 Satan missile, a gradual replacement between the two weapon systems is envisaged on the basis of a schedule which, for carriers and warheads, should respect the limits agreed by the treaty.
Some problems could arise when the future of the New START should become even more difficult and problematic than it already is at present. Just when he announced that the Sarmat would enter service within the year, Putin declared the Russian suspension of the New START. Of course, "suspension" does not mean "withdrawal" from the agreement, and Moscow has stated several times that it intends, however, to continue to respect the quantitative limits of the treaty.
The problem lies in the fact that, to date, some important mechanisms of control and verification of compliance with the agreement have not been respected by the Russian side. Among other things, the New START envisages: inspections of bases and sites where carriers and warheads are located (18 site inspections per year per party); exchange of detailed reports on the state of armaments (six-monthly); notification of any update or change relating to the technical characteristics and location of the weapon systems. A body responsible for consultations on issues covered by the agreement was then set up, called Bilateral Consultative Commission (BCC), which should meet at least twice a year11.
Site inspections have been suspended since 2020 due to the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus and, since then, despite overcoming the emergency phase of the pandemic, they have not resumed. The BCC did not meet again either: a meeting was scheduled in Cairo in November 2022, then canceled a few days before the meeting. As for the semi-annual report and daily notifications, Moscow has suspended both communications. Hoping to induce the Russian Federation to adopt a more collaborative posture, the United States too, last March, suspended the sending of the semi-annual report, only to then publish, two months later, an information sheet with aggregate data on the armaments regulated by the treaty. at the same time calling on Moscow to respect the provisions on controls and checks foreseen by the agreement12.
With the suspension of the New START, doubts about Russia's willingness to fully respect the agreement are entirely legitimate. In the worst-case scenario, in fact, the Kremlin could decide to deploy a number of Sarmats higher than the decommissioned Satans or to load on the former a number of warheads higher than the 10 foreseen13. If the deployment of the SS-30 has already begun (or, in any case, close to the beginning), when the New START expires (February 5, 2026), Russia will be in the middle of the Sarmat production and deployment process: for that data, in the short term, should not have particular difficulties in deploying a number of ICBMs greater than the limit established by the Treaty14.
The evolution of the conflict in Ukraine could also have an impact on the strategic posture of the Kremlin. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the nuclear deterrent represented for Moscow an instrument of guarantee and compensation of forces due to the reduction of conventional military potential. If on the Ukrainian front the expenditure of armaments of the latter type will be considerable and with long-term repercussions, it cannot be excluded that Russia decides to increase its unconventional device, both tactical and strategic.
Just as, equally important, will be the nuclear structure that the People's Republic of China will assume. Although, in recent years, relations between Moscow and Beijing seem to be characterized by a strong political and military understanding, China's nuclear arsenal upgrade program could cause some concern in the Kremlin which, reasoning from the point of view of global strategic balance (security), could no longer consider the maximum limit of vectors and warheads allowed by the New START to be sufficient.
3 Miko Vranic, Russia's Sarmat super-heavy ICBM undergoes first full flight test, in Janes, April 21, 2022, https://www.janes.com/defence-news/news-detail/russias-sarmat-super-heavy-icbm-undergoes-first-full-flight-test (last access date: 04 September 2023).
4 See Federation of American Scientists, R-36M/SS-18 Satan, https://programs.fas.org/ssp/nukes/nuclearweapons/russia_nukescurrent/ss18.html (last accessed 04 September 2023) and Hans M. Kristensen, Matt Korda & Eliana Reynolds, Russian Nuclear Weapons, 2023, in Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, https://thebulletin.org/premium/2023-05/nuclear-notebook-russian-nuclear-weapons-2023/#post-heading (last access date: 04 September 2023).
5 Nikolai Novichkov, Russia announces successful flight test of Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, Janes, 03 January 2019, https://www.janes.com/defence-news/news-detail/russia-announces-successful-flight-test-of-avangard-hypersonic-glide-vehicle (last access date: 04 September 2023).
6 Given the size and weight of the carrier, this latter capability leaves room for reasonable doubt as to the alleged flight performance of the missile.
7 Timothy Wright, Russia's new strategic nuclear weapons: a technical analysis and assessment, The International Institute for Strategic Studies, June 16, 2022, https://www.iiss.org/online-analysis/online-analysis//2022/06/russias-new-strategic-nuclear-weapons-a-technical-analysis-and-assessment/ (date last accessed: 04 September 2023)
8 The International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2023, Routledge, London, p. 184.
9 Timothy Wright, Burevestnik and the future of arms control, The International Institute for Strategic Studies, September 29, 2022, https://www.iiss.org/online-analysis/online-analysis/2022/09/burevestnik-and-the-future-of-arms-control/ (last access date: 04 September 2023).
12 US Department of State – Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, New START Treaty Aggregate Numbers of Strategic Offensive Arms, May 12, 2023, https://www.state.gov/new-start-treaty-aggregate-numbers-of-strategic-offensive-arms-5/ (last access date: 04 September 2023).
13 According to some sources, in fact, the Sarmat would be capable of loading up to 15 thermonuclear warheads.
14 In the case of a number of ICBMs greater than that permitted by the treaty, works will be necessary for the adaptation of old silos or the construction of new ones, operations which may be verifiable, before their completion, by means of satellite reconnaissance.
Photo: Russian Federation MoD