Russia Tests RS-24 Yars ICBM and then BMD Goes Silent on the Hwasong-12

On September 12 Russia conducted a reliability test of the RS-24 Yars ICBM, which serves as a reminder that the established nuclear weapon states do so to maintain the credibility of their deterrent forces. North Korea, naturally, does and will continue to do the same.

I remember very well the night the RS-24 Yars ICBM was first tested, which kind of blind sighted me and had me not getting much by way of sleep. The Yars (NATO designation SS-29 or SS-27 Mod 2) is basically a MIRVed version of the Topol-M (SS-27) three stage solid fuelled missile. The Yars is reputed to carry 3-4 150-200KT warheads. The single RV Topol-M is reputed to carry one 550KT warhead. Assuming 3x200KT warheads one reaches an EMT of 1 megatonne against soft targets.

The RS-24 Yars tested on 12 September was launched from a silo.

There was a Russian Defence Ministry statement, widely reported, stating that the September 12 tested featured a MIRV or MIRVed warheads and “experimental warheads.” This has prompted much speculation, including regarding the much hyped “manoeuvrable hypersonic warhead.” I rather suspect this expression is reflective of something more mundane, namely that “experimental” and “test” are being used to mean the same thing. That is the test employed the usual dummy RVs, rather than nuclear armed ones hence usage of “experimental.” The test comes at a time when multiple road mobile ICBM units are on combat patrol, and Russia is conducting the Zapad-2017 combined arms exercises with Belarus. A little bit of diplomatic license goes a long way domestically in this context.

Let us wait and see just what “experimental warheads” means.

The interesting thing about the RS-24 Yars is that it was, partly, developed in response to Ballistic Missile Defense. I say partly because MIRVing nuclear launchers is a cost effective way for Russia to maintain a relatively large number of operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads. The Topol-M featured one warhead only because of the START II treaty, which eliminated land based MIRVs. Russia signed and then ratified START II, but continued adherence was made subject to US adherence to the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty. As we know the US withdrew from the ABMT, and so Russia walked from START II. Russia then subsequently developed a modified MIRVed version of the Topol-M, RS-24 Yars, to maintain the credibility of its strategic rocket forces as more warheads is seen as complicating the task of the BMD architecture.

As we know, to no small degree, BMD was long justified by the North Korean missile threat. On September 15, North Korea again tested a Hwasong-12 IRBM on a standard MET trajectory that saw it “over fly” Japan and land in the Pacific. Twice North Korea has done this, and twice BMD was silent. The second launch was almost as predictable as Kim Jong-un could make it.

Former US Defence Secretary, right at the tail end of the Obama administration, Ashton Carter stated that the US might attempt an intercept of a North Korean missile test if it appeared to threaten the US or its allies (read Japan and South Korea). North Korea tested its Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14 missiles on high angle lofted trajectories to avoid such concerns, but that no longer really applies for the Hwasong-12. Despite millions reportedly engaging in good old fashion “duck and cover” in Japan on September 15 we saw no BMD intercept attempt.

That’s a publicity problem right there. Washington has not been shy in taking any opportunity to advertise BMD’s wares, the most famous example being the Bush administration’s all too eager shooting down of a wayward satellite with an SM3 interceptor fired from an Aegis naval vessel. The obvious publicity problem has just seen the current US Defence Secretary, Jim Mattis, issue a corollary to the Carter criteria. Let us call it the Mattis corollary.

Mattis states that if a North Korean MET test is “aimed” at Guam or the US then an intercept will be attempted. Kim Jong-un might call Mattis’ bluff, as it were. There hasn’t been an intercept attempt because Washington understands BMD does not work as well as it has been telling the people of the United States that it works for all these years.

So there you have it. On September 12 Russia tests a MIRVed 3-4x 150-200KT ICBM developed in response to BMD. On September 15, North Korea tests a Hwasong-12 IRBM “over flying” Japan and BMD is asleep at the wheel. BMD was justified because of North Korea, but Pyongyang is calling BMDs bluff.

We humans have this concept called “rationality.” We like to see ourselves as nature’s embodiment of it. Need I complete the thought?