On October 15–17, Moscow staged a nationwide test of its nuclear deterrent in the strategic command-staff exercise (Strategicheskiye Komandno-Shtabnyye Ucheniya—SKShU) Grom (Thunder) 2019. The exercise involved the Strategic Rocket Forces (Raketnye Voyska Strategicheskogo Naznacheniya—RVSN), Long-Range Aviation, and Military Transport Aviation (Voyenno-Transportnoy Aviatsii—VTA). The participating forces tested the command and control (C2) and efficiency of the nuclear triad. Grom 2019 was conducted under the leadership of the supreme commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, President Vladimir Putin. Such exercises are a standard test of the nuclear deterrent forces and frequently follow the annual strategic-level military exercise held each September. However, with the collapse of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and with New START facing expiration in 2021, this year’s SKShU contained features that indicate Moscow may be preparing to face nuclear deterrence and conflict escalation in a post–arms control era (Moskovsky Komsomolets, October 17).
President Putin oversaw the Grom SKShU from the Moscow-based National Defense Management Center (Natsionalnogo Tsentra Upravleniya Oboronoy—NTsUO). The facility was used to direct controlled launches of ballistic and cruise missiles at designated target ranges across Russia. Reportedly, Grom 2019 involved 12,000 military personnel, 213 missile launches by the RVSN, up to 105 aircraft (including 5 strategic bombers), missile carriers, as many as 15 surface ships, 5 submarines, and 310 units of military and special equipment (Topwar.ru, October 17).
Russian Northern and Pacific fleet nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) fired submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) from the Barents and Okhotsk seas at the Kura training grounds (in Kamchatka) and at the Chizh test site (Arkhangelsk Region). Simultaneously, surface ships from the Northern Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla launched 3M-14 Kalibr high-precision cruise missiles from the Barents and Caspian seas against shore targets. The RS-24 Yars mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) struck targets at the Kura test site, and the Iskander-M missile launcher launched cruise missiles at target grounds in the Southern and Eastern military districts (MD). Launches of airborne-fired and airborne-guided missiles were carried out at four ranges of the Western, Southern and Central MDs and the Northern Fleet (Mil.ru, October 17).
According to a report in Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, sea-launched cruise missiles were fired from naval platforms in the Barents, Baltic, Black, Caspian and Okhotsk seas. As noted above, submarines in the Barents Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk hit targets located in Kamchatka and Arkhangelsk region. At the same time, strategic submarines from the Northern and Pacific fleets launched missiles from an underwater position. High-precision Kalibr cruise missiles, fired by Northern Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla ships from the waters of the Barents and Caspian seas, hit targets on shore (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, October 17). Long-Range Aviation Tu-95Ms were involved in the launch of Kh-55 Kalibr air-launched cruise missiles against ground targets at the Pemboy training grounds (Komi Republic) and Kura (Kamchatka). According to the defense ministry, all missiles during the exercise struck their designated targets, and Grom 2019 was deemed a success (Function.mil.ru, October 17).
The SKShU was staged in the Western, Southern, Central and Eastern MDs and in the Northern Fleet. But scant information is available on the exercise scenario itself, though defense ministry sources indicate it was not intended as a response to one particular country or group of countries. Rather the emphasis was reportedly on a defensive reaction to conflict escalation in order to test the competence of commanders within the overall command structures of the RVSN, Long-Range Aviation and the VTA. The exercise was held exclusively on the territory of Russia, with foreign military attachés informed in advance of its commencement (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, October 17).
Although officially deemed a success, this year’s Grom maneuvers did not pass without an emergency incident. Two anonymous defense ministry sources told Vedomosti about a Delta III–class nuclear submarine, the K-44 Ryazan, misfiring during the exercise. The vessel was tasked to conduct launches of the R-29R Vysota SLBM. The first was successful, but the second failed to launch; an emergency situation was declared, and the General Staff and Pacific Fleet have initiated an investigation into the cause of the October 17 incident. The K-44 Ryazan is armed with liquid-fueled R-29R two-stage rockets, which can fire three warheads of 200 kilotons each, at a range of 6,500 kilometers (RIA Novosti, October 21). One of Vedomosti’s interlocutors suggested that the cause of the emergency could have been the failure of some submarine systems through which the launch passes. The R-29R SLBM is part of the D-9R complex, which was installed on Soviet-era Kalmar Project 667BDR submarines. The Ryazan is the last submarine of this type on alert: its predecessors are either already decommissioned or are awaiting their disposal (Vedomosti, October 21).
While Grad 2019 suffered this isolated setback, overall the testing of readiness levels and command competence involved in the country’s nuclear triad was satisfactory to Russian military command. Staged, as it was, across the Russian Federation, it seems to have rehearsed nuclear response and conflict escalation up to global conflict. It is particularly interesting to note the involvement of intermediate systems, represented, in particular, by the Iskander-M. Reportedly, these launched 9M729 cruise missiles—one of the issues that had precipitated the collapse of the INF treaty. It may well be that Moscow is presently using such exercises to grapple with the implications of a future arms control regime that, at best, remains unclear (Mil.ru, October 17).