Russia held its annual Grom (Thunder) strategic nuclear forces exercise on October 15–17 (see EDM, October 21, 22). About 12,000 service personnel; 213 launchers of the Strategic Missile Forces; up to 105 aircraft, including five strategic missile carriers; as many as 15 surface ships; 5 submarines; and 310 units of combat and special equipment were engaged (TVZvezda, October 14). Grom 2019 was constructed around a standard scenario: the world is locked in a tense situation, and a high-intensity non-nuclear conflict begins in one of Russia’s main strategic directions. Then, the scenario envisages a first strike by the enemy’s strategic nuclear forces against Russia as well as a counter or retaliatory strike. As usual, the start of the exercise was practiced at military headquarters using maps; subsequently, troops were put on alert and moved out to training ranges, where they could practice firing various tactical nuclear weapons (including simulated warheads carried by cruise missiles) in demonstration strikes, counterattacks, preventive strikes, second strikes or multiple volleys (Argumenti, October 15). The objectives of the exercise were to test the actions of overhead and operational personnel to organize coordinated management of all parts of the nuclear triad. This is only possible once a year, in the autumn.
The exercise conducted in mid-October 2019 was notable for its slightly greater openness compared to past years. In particular, Major General Yevgeny Ilyin, the acting head of the Russian defense ministry’s main directorate for international military cooperation, held a press conference for foreign military attachés the day before Grom 2019 kicked off. He reported that the exercise is not directed against other countries: “The maneuvers’ scenario envisages the escalation of a situation in which there remains the potential for conflict along Russian borders that would pose a threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state” (TASS, October, 14). However, General Ilyin’s statement in fact contradicted the much higher bar set by the Russian Military Doctrine, which states that nuclear weapons could only be used in response to a nuclear attack or “aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy” (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, December 30, 2014).
Also seemingly contradictory was the official statement that Grom 2019’s “exercise scenario is not directed against any specific state or group of countries” (TASS, October 15). In fact, the exercise purposely involved Special Operations Forces units tasked with identifying (simulated) conventional enemy forces. And second, as in previous years, this latest iteration of the strategic nuclear drill was conducted immediately after a similar exercise held by the United States, which provides a direct hint as to who is the main adversary in these Russian maneuvers.
Seeking to demonstrate nuclear self-sufficiency and to distance itself from the Vostok 2018 and Tsentr 2019 exercises, when other nuclear powers (China, India and Pakistan) were involved, the Grom 2019 strategic nuclear forces exercise was explicitly held only at Russian test ranges and without the participation of any foreign contingents (RIA Novosti, October, 14).
The Grom nuclear triad exercise was first held in 2012, and this year’s iteration was the largest so far. The exercise only lasted a day in previous years, not three days as in 2019. Also, naval surface ships and submarines from all four Russian fleets and its flotilla were notably involved—operating in the Barents, Baltic, Black, Caspian and Okhotsk seas. Whereas, during Grom 2018, only two fleets took part in the nuclear exercise.
Additionally, the total number of ballistic and cruise missile launches has continued to increase year after year. In 2018, R-29RMU-2.1 (Sineva-2) and R-29RKU-02 (Stantsia-02) submarine-launched ballistic missile (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 mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (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. This year, one R29-R (SS-N-18 Stingray) ballistic missile was launched toward the Chizha test range (the second scheduled launch did not take place due to a technical failure of some of the submarine’s systems that transmit the launch command) (Lenta.ru, October 21); moreover, RS-24 Yars (SS-29) and R-29RMU2 Sineva (SS-N-23 Skiff) missiles were fired at the Kura test range in Kamchatka. Ships of the Northern Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla also launched Kalibr cruise missiles from the Barents and Caspian seas, toward shore-based targets; and the Iskander theater mobile missile-launch system was used to fire cruise missiles toward firing ranges in the Southern and Eastern military districts (TV Zvezda, October 17). During the previous years’ exercises, there were no Kalibr or Iskander launches. This, and the greater number of cruise missile launches (about 12) in general, was a response to the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. That is, Moscow wished to demonstrate to the US and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies that Russia has already included intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles in its nuclear strategy and that Russia’s non-nuclear weapons are capable of fulfilling strategic roles.
Interestingly, prior to the start of Grom 2019, residents of the Arkhangelsk region were informed about possible unusual meteorological phenomena associated with the passage of experimental Russian missile technology in the lower atmosphere (EADaily, October 2). These somewhat cryptic alerts probably referred to hypersonic weapons, which was indirectly confirmed by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who announced the use of weapons based on new physical principles (TV Zvezda, October 17).
As last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin took a direct part in the missile launches. This active role for the commander-in-chief will probably remain a permanent fixture of future exercises of this type. Putin’s publicized presence highlighted that Russian nuclear exercises are not solely a military but also a political event. Furthermore, his direct involvement underscored the level of importance the Kremlin attaches to the successful conduct of these exercises as a means to preserve the existence of the state. Massive strategic nuclear exercises like Grom 2019 are designed to demonstrate Russia’s strength and, thus, deter potential aggressors. At the same time, however, the widely broadcast video footage of missile launches (TV Zvezda, October 18) and the growth of military forces involved in this year’s Grom nuclear exercise indicate the declining potential of other diplomatic mechanisms Moscow could use in its standoff with the West.