#PutinAtWar: Russia’s Big Guns on the Move

Analyzing Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces in Novosibirsk Oblast

Left: (Source: VK); Right: (Source: VK).

Just as Zapad 2017 ended and the last troops withdrew from Belarus, Russia announced another military exercise, this time to the south. On September 29th, a message appeared on Russia’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) website that a Strategic Missile Forces exercise took place near Novosibirsk. Over 400 pieces of hardware and over 4,000 troops participated in the exercise.

According to the Russian MoD, Strategic Missile Forces deployed approximately 20 RS-24 Yars missile systems (NATO reporting name: SS-29) in battle ready status. The message stated that these units drilled placing missile systems on combat patrol routes, repositioning, camouflaging, and screening patrols; however, the message did not mention the time period of the exercise. @DFRLab took a deeper look into the exercise, noting that more than 20 units of intercontinental ballistic missile systems also participated.

Novosibirsk Missile Base

The message posted by Russian MoD contained very little information about the exercise. On September 27th a video appeared on VKontakte (VK) and YouTube providing additional details. A Russia-1 (Россия 1) news anchor introduced the Strategic Missile Forces exercise taking place in Novosibirsk Oblast in a video, which also revealed some details about the exercise and the Strategic Missile Forces itself.

https://vk.com/video39906330_456242744

The 33rd Guards Missile Army’s 39th Guards Missile Division is based just outside of Novosibirsk. According to various sources, this unit includes 27 Yars missile systems, which coincides with the MoD’s official statement regarding the exercise of “over 20 pieces of Yars systems.” The base near Novosibirsk consists of multiple facilities in the area: a main base, barracks, driver training facilities, and hangars for the equipment.

33rd Guard Missile Army’s 39th Guards Missile Division’s deployment location near Novosibirsk. Left: (Source: Google Earth); Right: (Source: Google Earth)

By cross-referencing satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe with available Russian media footage, we can glean more about the equipment and activity at the base around the time of exercise. To start, the hangar area of the base consists of two main types of facilities — Yars ICBM launcher hangars and Iskander SRBM launcher hangars.

Close-up of 39th GMD Hangar area. (Source: Google Earth)

The video footage revealed that the rectangular, dark-khaki colored hangars house Yars ICBM mobile launchers. Satellite imagery also shows launchers visually similar to the Yars parked next the hangar both with and without camouflage.

The background image likely shows the 39th GMD Yars ICBM Launchers’ hangars (Source: Google Earth); The two, more detailed images overlayed at left is DigitalGlobe imagery from June 3, 2017 near Novosibirsk, Russia (Source: © 2017 DigitalGlobe, Inc.); At right, an image from the Russia 1 video footage (Source: VK).

The RS-24 Yars (NATO reporting name: SS-29) ranks as one of the best and most up-to-date Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles. It is essentially an improved version of the previous Topol-M, which uses the same 16×16 wheeled chassis as the Topol-M. Both rockets look very similar externally. However, the Yars is heavier and more powerful than the Topol-M and carries at least six independently targetable warheads with a yield between 100–300 kiloton as opposed to the Topol-M’s single 550 kiloton warhead. The Yars’ range of 12,000 km enables effective reach of all NATO territory from its strategically located Novosibirsk base.

Topol-MR ICBM Launcher. Left: (Source: Military-Today); Top Right: (Source: VK); Bottom Right: (Source: VK)

Although the Russian official statement focused mainly on the Yars missiles, the video footage shows Iskander missiles participating in the exercise, as well. Cross-referencing the news report with satellite imagery suggests that the rectangular hangars with light-green colored rooftops shelter Iskander SRBM launchers. Satellite imagery also showed equipment visually similar to Iskander launchers parked adjacent to the hangers, both with and without camouflage.

39th GMD likely Iskander SRBM launchers’ hangars. Background: (DigitalGlobe imagery from June 3, 2017, near Novosibirsk, Russia: Source: © 2017 DigitalGlobe, Inc.); Two Left: (DigitalGlobe imagery from June 3, 2017, near Novosibirsk, Russia: (Source: © 2017 DigitalGlobe, Inc.); Top Right: (Source: VK); Bottom Right: (Source: VK).

The Iskander (NATO reporting name: SS-26 Stone) is a short-range ballistic missile, considered to be the most advanced missile of its kind. As of 2017, the Russian Army reportedly has 112 of these missile systems operational. The Iskander mobile launcher system carries two short-range ballistic missiles. The missile has a maximum effective range of fire of 400 km and can also carry nuclear warheads. Russia esigned the Iskander to overcome air defense systems.

Iskander SRBM Launcher. Left: (Source: Military-Today); Top Right: (Source: VK); Bottom Right: (Source: VK).

Conclusions

The exercises that took place in Novosibirsk until September 27th did not gain much traction on social media or media coverage. Only formal statements of Russian MoD and brief news reports shed light on the exercises, without providing the exercises’ actual time frame. Even though no surprises came of the exercises, maintaining transparency over some of the world’s most sophisticated weapons system remains a necessity, particularly in this case, as the 39th GMD has the ability reach any NATO territory and went on combat-alert status. @DFRLab will continue to monitor and provide open source information on different military exercises.


Lukas Andriukaitis is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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