Russia conducts multiple rocket launches, tests new technology

Published: 2004 Feb. 22

Veterans of the Russian space industry are familiar with the term “General’s effect,” which allegedly causes test launches to fail in the presence of high officials, such as army generals. The "phenomenon" has apparently been at work this month, when Russia staged a massive display of its rocket power -- as part of the Security-2004 war games.

Scheduled on the eve of the March 14 presidential elections, multiple missile firings from the sea, air and land were intended to add points to the already unmatched popularity ratings of the incumbent president Vladimir Putin. Wearing a navy uniform, Putin boarded a nuclear submarine to watch missile firings in the icy waters of the Barents Sea. However the oversized military spectacle turned into a major embarrassment, when technical problems crippled launches from submarines, while Navy officials resorted to their notorious tactics of denial and withholding the information. As a result, the Russian and foreign press were filled with conflicting reports about the developments in the field, accompanied by ridicule and generalizations about the sorry state of the Russian armed forces. "Our imaginary enemy won," joked, an independent Russian news site, about the outcome of the war games.

Based on various press reports the events unfolded as follows:

February 4: The Pravda newspaper reports that the Russian army plans the largest military exercise since 1982, including simultaneous launches of the Zenit-2 booster from Baikonur and Molniya-M from Plesetsk.

February 16: In Severomorsk, President Putin boards the submarine TK-17 Archangelsk, which around 19:00 Moscow Time departs for the training area in the Barents Sea to monitor the launches of two R-29RM (Sineva) ballistic missiles from the submerged submarine K-407 Novomoskovsk (Delta IV by Western classification) scheduled for 10:15 and 10:22 Moscow Time next day. According to the Russian press, one missile was intended to fly toward the Kura impact site on the Kamchatka Peninsula, while another would become a target for the antimissile system onboard the cruiser Peter the Great, also stationed in the Barents Sea. A number of journalists were onboard the cruiser to witness the exercise.

February 17: Both attempts to launch R-29RM missiles from the K-407 apparently fail. Accounts of the events onboard the submarine varied wildly. An official statement from the Northern Fleet said that a satellite blocked signals for launches. However, Russian media reported that one missile either moved several centimeters in its silo, or was ejected from the submarine and then plunged to the bottom of the sea nearby. Search crews were reportedly attempting to locate the missile. To add to the confusion, admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy, claimed that the submarine exercise envisioned a "virtual launch" only and no attempt of to actually fire the missile had ever been planned. He called reports about the failures a "gossip." Remembering awkward statements of the Russian navy in the days of the Kursk disaster in August 2000, few people in Russia believed such an explanation. From bits of information available at the time, it seemed that launches had been planned, but both missiles had never left their silos.

While the independent Russian press scrambled to find out details of the events, the country's major TV channels, controlled by the government, "forgot" to mention the problems in the Barents Sea.

By mid-March 2004, Russian media reported that a special commission investigating the mishaps during Security 2004 exercise, had concluded that the failure of the ADK-3M/Sluz automated launch system had caused aborts of missile firings on February 17.

February 17: Tu-95MS strategic bombers successfully launched cruise missiles and safely returned to their bases.

February 17: At the end of the day, President Putin returned to Severomorsk and then flew to Plesetsk to witness the next stage of the Security-2004 exercise.

February 18, 10:05:55 Moscow Time (07:05 GMT): A Molniya-M booster successfully launched a military communications satellite from Plesetsk. Upon reaching its final highly elliptical orbit at 11:02 Moscow Time, the payload, (apparently a Molniya-1T No. 100) was initially identified in the Russian sources as Cosmos-2405, however it was later renamed Molniya-1T.

February 18, 12:00 Moscow Time: An UR-100UTTKh ballistic missile lifted off from the silo facility in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. The reentry vehicle of the missile was expected to reach the Kura impact site on the Kamachtka Peninsula some 25 minutes later.

February 18, 12:30 Moscow Time: The submarine Karelia (also Delta IV class ship) stationed in the Barents Sea fired a R-29RM (Sineva) ballistic missile toward the Kura impact range on the Kamchatka Peninsula. The missile lifted off successfully, however after 98 seconds in flight it deviated from the assigned trajectory and self-destructed, according to Igor Dygalo, chief of the Russian Navy's press center.

February 18, 13:28 Moscow Time (10:28 GMT): A Topol ICBM lifted off from Plesetsk and its warhead successfully reached the target at the Kura impact site on the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Accompanied by the Minister of Defense, the commander of the space forces and the chief of the cosmodrome, President Putin watched the activities from Plesetsk and thanked the personnel for the excellent performance. President Putin also visited the vehicle processing building in Plesetsk, where he reviewed a display of space hardware.

Security-2004 exercise concluded at the end of the day February 18.

Tests of prospective weaponry

In an apparent reference to the Topol launch on February 18, Colonel-General Yury Baluyevsky, First Deputy Chief of the General Staff, told reporters on February 19 that Russia had tested a highly maneuverable vehicle, potentially capable of penetrating antimissile defenses.

According to independent Russian sources, the Topol was carrying an experimental warhead equipped with its own rocket thrusters and, possibly, with some sort of air-breathing engine. Such a propulsion system reportedly enables the vehicle to conduct multiple entries into the Earth atmosphere (like a stone ricocheting at the surface of water) and/or enables a powered flight in the atmosphere. Maneuverability of the warhead, along with a lower then traditional trajectory, reportedly makes it more difficult for a potential missile-defense system to track and intercept an incoming reentry vehicle.

The Topol was originally designed to carry three warheads, however it was "downgraded" to a single-warhead vehicle to comply with arms-controls treaties. As a result the vehicle obtained extra payload capacity, which allowed the integration of propulsion systems for the new type of warhead. One of the previous tests of the system apparently took place in mid-July 2001.

Other Russian sources claimed that an experimental warhead flew on top of a UR-100NU rocket, while the Topol conducted a routine training/test flight.



R-27, R-27K and R-29 submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Credit: NIIKhIMMash