In early December, Russian news sources reported that further development work on the Barguzin railroad combat complex (BZhRK), a train armed with a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), was being terminated. Apparently, the nuclear missile train had not been added to the State Armaments Program (GPV) to 2027 for financial reasons (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, December 2).
The ongoing crisis in the Russian economy has now also been affecting defense spending. First due to the unstable economic situation, the adoption of the next GPV was moved back from 2015 to 2017. Second, the Ministry of Defense has reduced its GPV budget requests from 55 trillion to 19 trillion rubles ($928 billion to $290 billion) (TV Zvezda, November 21), the third such reduction so far. Unlike the BZhRK, the Sarmat and Rubezh intercontinental ballistic missiles (see EDM, October 25), the development of which began simultaneously with the Barguzin, are still included within the GPV.
Nuclear missile trains were withdrawn from Russian inventories back in 2005. Thus, rail-mobile ICBMs have not been part of Russia’s nuclear strategy for 12 years now. In addition, no ready infrastructure exists for this missile complex, which means it was less critical to abandon its development and creation than any of the other strategic nuclear projects.
The development of the BZhRK was begun in 2012 by the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology. At the end of 2014, the schematic design of the complex was approved; and the development of design documentation started in 2015. At the end of October 2016, in Plesetsk, the first and only drop test of the missile was carried out (Novye Izvestia, December 3).
The flight development tests of the Barguzin ICBM should have started in 2017, and it should have been deployed by 2019. However, as early as the end of 2015, all development dates were moved back by at least one year due to the complicated domestic financial situation. Nonetheless, in May 2016 a “defense source” was cited saying that development of the Barguzin missile’s design documentation had been completed and work had begun on other elements of the overall rail-mobile ICBM system (TASS, December 6). It appears that this report was meant to put pressure on political leaders by suggesting that production had started and that it would be inconvenient to abandon the BZhRK at its current stage. In July 2017, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin continued to insist that Russia was ready to adopt new rail-mobile nuclear missiles (RIA Novosti, July 3). This information pressure campaign seemed to be motivated by the fact that, at the time, the president of Russia should have been presented with a report evaluating the prospects for the deployment of the BZhRK. But apparently, military leaders failed to satisfactorily prove the Barguzin’s operational effectiveness.
Indeed, the project had come under skepticism from multiple sources for many years. In 2011, the general designer of the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology, Yuriy Solomonov, admitted that it was necessary to create new infrastructure for the BZhRK from scratch. Moreover, he criticized the Barguzin’s relatively weak resistance to potential terrorist attacks (VPK, February 28, 2011). For example, the system would require the construction of special depots as well as reinforced railway tracks. The physical protection of the missile-carrying train cars is also problematic while in motion: not only would the BZhRK be vulnerable to derailment but could be blocked by natural obstacles such as landslides, etc. Effective security and protection of the Barguzin against unauthorized access would also be an issue, and deploying additional security forces would negatively affect the level of its secrecy and inconspicuousness—the project’s major raison d’être.
The Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology general designer’s pointed criticism of the Barguzin BZhRK suggests that the idea of again using rail-mounted nuclear weapons must have originated from the military. This is confirmed by the fact that, at the time, the commander of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces, Colonel General Sergey Karakayev, tried to make the case for developing a new BZhRK because the Soviet-era “Molodets” rail-mobile ICBM used train cars that were longer and heavier, with a larger number of wheel sets than those generally found in Russia—thus making the missile easy to spot for trained intelligence analysts (RIA Novosti, December 18, 2013). However, this assertion is wrong: freight wagons of the sizes used for the Molodets missile system existed in the Soviet Union and still exist in Russia. Obviously, the “negative characteristics” of the Molodets BZhRK were fabricated or exaggerated simply to provide justification for the development of a new rail-based missile.
The usage of the BZhRK to carry light-duty RS-24 ICBMs is also in doubt. In the Soviet Union, BZhRKs were used as a carrier for the heavy-duty 15Zh61 missile, as it could not be transported by truck. Presumably, the newly developed rail system would take on a similar role.
Another challenge for the implementation of a new BZhRK would have been the New START treaty of 2010. The United States Senate’s ratification resolution on New START specifically stipulates that, in the event Russia developed a working rail-mobile missile, all relevant provisions of the treaty should apply to it. In other words, upon the creation of a BZhRK, Russia would have had to include it in its quantitative restrictions and allowed for regular inspections, which would have deprived the Barguzin of its disguise in order to remain treaty-compliant.
Nonetheless, there are supporters of the BZhRK as well. Immediately after the announcement that further development work was being terminated, the editor-in-chief of the magazine National Defense and a member of the Public Council under the Ministry of Defense, Igor Korotchenko, stated that the Barguzin project should be continued (I-korotchenko.livejournal.com, December 3).
Considering the questionable effectiveness of the BZhRK, the quest for its serial production seems more tied to the defense ministry’s efforts to maximize its budget than to any practical expediency. The Molodets BZhRK was one of the most expensive weapons projects in the Soviet Union, so its Russian successor will likely also not come cheap, despite Russia’s previous experience with building and maintaining this type of system. Until Russia’s economic situation is rectified, this project has little to no chance of coming to fruition.