Votkinsk Machine Building Plant.

Portal at VMBP (click image to enlarge)

Portal at VMBP (click image to enlarge)

Located about 8.5 km to the east of the birthplace of Pytor Illyich Tchaikovsky, in the Russian Federation Republic of Udmurtia, is an industrial facility whose name, in typical Soviet fashion, obscures the products made there. It is a name unfamiliar to most outside of the arms control, intelligence or strategic planning communities, yet promises to figure prominently in the upcoming finalization and ratification of the START I follow-on treaty.


Because up until December 2009 (expiration of START I) the US maintained a relatively robust inspection and verification outpost at the portal to the facility. At one time or currently in production at this facility were/are the:

  • Pioneer (INF: RSD-10 DoD/NATO: SS-20 Sabre) mobile IRBM,
  • RT-2PM Topol (START: RS-22 DoD/NATO: SS-25 Sickle) road mobile ICBM,
  • RT-2PM2 Topol-M (START: RS-12M2 DoD/NATO: SS-27) and
  • the 9K720 Iskander-M (DoD/NATO: SS-26 Stone) SRBM

All solid-fuel, mobile missiles designed by the Moscow Thermotechnical Institute for production at Votkinsk.

SS-25 on mobile TEL (Image from START documentation requirements)

SS-25 (in launch canister) on mobile TEL (Image from START documentation requirements)

Mobile Missiles and Inspection Regimes

As part of the INF Treaty and later, START I, an intrusive inspection regime was established to provide and facilitate onsite inspection of production facilities and deployments by both the US and the Soviet Union (later Russian Federation). Given Votkinsk’s central role in producing the most difficult missiles to monitor for treaty “breakout” reasons, the US established a monitoring facility manned by Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) employees and contractors to monitor missile production via inspection of production units passing through the portal. Perimeter inspection, via a concrete road around the perimeter of the facility, was also conducted to ensure portal inspection wasn’t being thwarted. Indeed, inspection under the INF Treaty included passing units through a cargo inspection facility to be x-rayed to ensure that the banned SS-20 was not being hidden in the mobile launch canisters used for the SS-25. Upon the completion of destruction of the last SS-20, that facility was decommissioned.

Where mobile missiles are concerned, a rigorous, verifiable inspection regime is a must. It has been said that a long-term collection effort to create a sound intelligence base and target familiarity is essential for missile monitoring in peace or targeting during war1 — hard experience learned by the US following SCUD-hunting in Desert Storm. An example of that kind of rigor is found in the Mobile ICBM provision (Article VI) of START I:

1. Deployed road-mobile launchers of ICBMs and their associated missiles shall be based only in restricted areas. A restricted area shall not exceed five square kilometers in size and shall not overlap another restricted area. No more than ten deployed road-mobile launchers of ICBMs and their associated missiles may be based or located in a restricted area. A restricted area shall not contain deployed ICBMs for road-mobile launchers of ICBMs of more than one type of ICBM.

2. Each Party shall limit the number of fixed structures for road-mobile launchers of ICBMs within each restricted area so that these structures shall not be capable of containing more road-mobile launchers of ICBMs than the number of road-mobile launchers of ICBMs specified for that restricted area.

3. Each restricted area shall be located within a deployment area. A deployment area shall not exceed 125,000 square kilometers in size and shall not overlap another deployment area. A deployment area shall contain no more than one ICBM base for road-mobile launchers of ICBMs.

4. Deployed rail-mobile launchers of ICBMs and their associated missiles shall be based only in rail garrisons. Each Party shall have no more than seven rail garrisons. No point on a portion of track located inside a rail garrison shall be more than 20 kilometers from any entrance/exit for that rail garrison. This distance shall be measured along the tracks. A rail garrison shall not overlap another rail garrison. (more)

and Article XI (Inspections):

14. Each Party shall have the right to conduct continuous monitoring activities at production facilities for ICBMs for mobile launchers of ICBMs to confirm the number of ICBMs for mobile launchers of ICBMs produced. (emphasis added)

Concern, however is growing that the above provision (continuous monitoring) may not be part of the START follow-on treaty currently being finalized between US and Russian negotiators.


Follow-on Verification?

Late in 2009 hints about a major concession on the part of the US began to emerge, both in the general press and in the arms control blogsphere. In essence, in Nov 2008 the bush Administration presented a proposal to Russia (one year out form expiration of START) that rolled back the verification regime under START I to a more informal one that dropped monitoring while allowing verification visits to “START sites.” The rationale behind this approach evidently lays in a change in focus — away from launchers and towards deployed warheads themselves. It appears some form of this approach has been accepted by the Obama Administration now if the following item from a Ria Novosti from earlier this month:

Russia will submit new ballistic-missile test data in exchange for a U.S. agreement not to monitor mobile missile production. Russian presidential aide Sergei Prikhodko and negotiators claim that while technical discrepancies remain, the document could be signed in March or April.

A White House spokesperson said Russia had agreed to provide telemetry data on new intercontinental ballistic missile tests under the new treaty, and that the START-I Treaty which expired in December 2009 included a similar clause. The United States undertakes not to monitor production of ballistic missiles at the Votkinsk Engineering Plant in the Republic of Udmurtia, Russia. U.S. inspectors were permanently based at the plant under the START-I Treaty.

So — in order to get an agreement, negotiators agreed to a Russia providing something that was already part of START I (telemetry data) while foregoing a critical means of monitoring mobile missile production? Some will argue that 15+ years of data collection alleviates the need for maintaining the portal monitoring. The article goes on to note that while a signing may be set for Prague sometime in the spring (ignoring the irony of linking Prague and spring) the really difficult part will be getting ratification in the US Senate.

Indeed, that nut may be a tough one to crack, but not for the necessarily obvious reasons. Jeffery Lewis, over at ArmsControlWonk has some interesting analysis based on Senator Lugar’s comments at the Strategic Weapons in the 21st Century conference. In essence, Lugar, who has been an important presence and force in the post-Cold War arms control world, has weighed in with his concern:

I have been a strong advocate for extending START I verification procedures. Unfortunately, a choice was made to informally act in the spirit of the treaty after its expiration on December 5, 2009, rather than to extend it by formal agreement. I am hopeful that a successor for START I will be successfully concluded in the coming months and that it will contain strong verification procedures.

Lugar, a moderate, is generally not regarded as a partisan firebrand, but the gist of his remarks had better give the Administration pause to consider its approach to ratification of a START follow-on treaty. On the one hand, refusal to ratify the treaty (and here I note that again, we have not seen the final draft) would play into the Russian’s hands as they clearly wanted the intrusive monitoring stopped. A post-START world absent a follow-on treaty would enable the Russians to pursue a changes to their land-mobile force without having to provide the US telemetry on new or modified missiles (e.g., the RS-24 a MIRV’d Topol-M).

On the other hand, agreeing to dropping the intrusive inspection and monitoring at the chief production facility for mobile ICBMs and SRBMs may have been the price the Administration was willing to pay to keep the Russians from arguing a quid-pro-quo between providing ballistic missile telemetry and the US providing telemetry from its missile defense tests. This item has been particularly a complaint on Putin’s part for the better part of the past half-year. The assertion lacks substance though when one considers the handful of GBIs that constitute the BMDS vs. even the new lower limits of 1100 launchers per side reportedly agreed to under the new format. The only other interceptor with an counter-ICBM capability, the SM-3 Blk IIb is a paper design only and won’t see IOC until mch later in the decade.

It remains then to see (a) what the final wording of the new treaty offers and more importantly, (b) how the Administration justifies the negotiating position it took if the START I monitoring provisions are not included. If it isn’t included, and if there are no apparent provisions that balance the lack of that monitoring (and clear delineation from the Administration why), then mustering 67 votes for ratification may well be a bridge too far.

Not like we haven’t been down that road before either…


1 Jermano, Jill L. and Springer, Susan E. Monitoring Road-Mobile Missiles Under START: Lessons From the Gulf War. Parameters 23:70-80 Spring ’93

(cross-posted at http://steeljawscribe.com)

Posted by SteelJaw in Foreign Policy, History
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  • RADM (Ret) Ben Wachendorf

    Many good points in the posted piece on US-Russia nuclear arms control. Here are a few other points to consider:

    1. As the number of nuclear arheads comes down, the significance of warheads not included in a US-Russia Strategic Nuclear Weapon Treaty goes up. These include a large number of what previous arms control treaties described as tactical nuclear weapons which were not included in START inspections and verifications. Note that under those previous definitions, a W-80 warhead on a nuclear Tomahawk launched from an SSN was a “tactical” nuclear weapon, while the identical warhead launched from a B-52 on an ALCM was a “strategic” nuclear weapon. In both cases, the weapons effects are the same and except for initial boost phase, so were the flight profiles.

    2. From the Russian perspective, the nuclear weapon capabilities of UK, France, Israel, Pakistan, India and China which are not included in a bilateral US-Russia nuclear arms treaty take on greater significance as the number of nuclear weapon systems is reduced.

    3. In previous arms control treaties, the total number of strategic nuclear weapons allowed by the treaties used sometime bizarre counting rules that attributed a maximum number of warheads per launch vehicle. These treaties also verified compliance with treaty limits by monitoring the destruction of strategic weapon launchers, but not the warheads themselves. If you fly over the boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB, the hundreds of B-52’s with wings cut off by diamond circular saws is an example of this. The point here is both sides were allowed to retain the very large number of warheads which were not required to be destroyed by previous arms control treaties. That said, there was a program to recycle Russian warheads for nuclear fuel, but that was not part of the START/SALT/Treaty of Moscow language.

  • Adm:

    Concur re. total warhead count – in fact, it seems that the last adminstration basically threw overboard interest in launchers to concentrate exclusively on total warhead count, which may account for some of the tardiness in getting a follow-on treaty. The point about relevance of 3rd party forces is especially important as we approach a presumed ceiling/floor of ~1100 warheads. Do we (Russia and the US) attempt to bring them into a larger consortium? Will there be interest on the part of the Chinese, Indians, etc. to participate in such an establishment (or, conversely, will the Russians or ourselves for that matter be favorably inclined to the implied presumption of equivalence/near equivalence in nuclear forces such a forum might foster)?
    It brings to mind several questions I’m currently looking at in terms of new forms of deterrence, the role of nuclear weapons and missile (cruise and ballistic) proliferation.
    Not on my day job either…
    I’ll be down your way later this summer at your former stomping grounds for a conference on related topics – I’ll email offline to touchbase with you prior to see about joining up.
    v/r, SJS

  • Derrick

    Given the numerical manpower advantage the Chinese and Indians would have in a conventional conflict, I would imagine they would be very interested in strategic weapons controls and reduction treaties. After all, don’t nuclear weapons negate their numerical advantage? I thought that was the primary driver for building so many of them during the 1950s: because the USSR at that time had a bigger army, the only way to effectively deter that army using fewer US troops would be to use tactical nuclear weapons designed to destroy entire divisions/groups of troops?

    Does that make sense? I’m an ignorant civilian trying to understand the complex nature of peace keeping…

  • RADM (Ret) Ben Wachendorf

    SJS, Glad to meet at mutual convenience. I am in the Suffolk phone book. The counting rule changes don’t make a lot of sense to trigger pullers, but you are correct in all you say. A lot of political correctness and positive spin in the past here.

    Derrick, You are also correct in what you say. Just my opinion, but interesting to consider the long term strategic relationship between China-India-Russia-US. There are of course other players, some with nuclear weapon capability. There is also the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction beyond nuclear weapons to consider. Biological warfare has in some scenarios greater lethality than thermo-nuclear attacks. This strategic relationship also needs to consider other factors beyond nuclear weapons or conventional military capabilities between these countries. These factors include Information Operations, energy dependence, immigration, and I expect before too long access to clean water.

    One final observation is that SSBNs play a unique role in deterrence and arms control. One the one hand, they are the most survivable leg of the sub-ICBM-manned bomber triad. They also tend to be the most expensive way to deliver strategic weapons. Proposals to dual use SSBNs are being considered. My advice in this area is “Be careful what you ask for, you might get it.” I illustrate that by a hypothetical example of a US SSBN launch of an SLBM with conventional warheads in a crisis from the Pacific open Ocean to say a Tae-Po-Dong on the launch pad in North Korea. Do we really expect Russia and China with military forces very close to North Korea which are likely to include missile offensive and defensive systems to believe us when/if we tell them just before or after SLBM launch that the SLBM does not have a nuclear warhead package and the SLBM is not aimed at them? Before you answer that, remember what our own US Army missile defense batteries did against US and UK friendly aircraft in combat conditions in Iraq. Another observation on SSBNs is it is not obvious who is responsible for an SSBN launch as would easily be determined in the case of an ICBM launch. A scenario I am thinking of here is any international crisis involving US, China and Russia. If an SLBM is launched aginst any of the three countries, how certain can the target nation (or other nuclear powers) be about which nation initiated the attack? Note that US and UK are in the process of making multi-billion dollar decisions on next generation SSBN. Hmmmm…..

  • anon

    START limited the number of warheads deployed on mobile ICBMs. Because we were directly limiting that number, we created, in the treaty, a “birth-to-death” monitoring regime for mobile ICBMs. Perimeter monitoring at Votkinsk was the birth, and it was important because we had no other way to count the number of missiles coming out of the facility (lots of daily activity made it difficult to use NTM).

    Things have changed. New START will not limit mobile ICBMs or their warhead numbers. Activity levels at Votkinsk have dropped off sharply in post-Soviet era and other U.S. montoring means can track activity there. We no longer fear Russian “break-out” with hundreds of hidden missiles secretly produced at Votkinsk. They can barely get 6-8 per year out of the facility; it would be decades before they could hide a break-out force. Hence, portal monitoring is no longer needed to have confidence in compliance with new START. It may still be nice for intel purposes, but our confidence in compliance will only be marginally affected by its absence.

    Oh, and by the way, the Moscow Treaty did not actually count warheads. It limited “warheaads” but it didn’t define them or count them. Each side has simply declared how many “deployed warheads” it has, without any means to verify that number. Monitoring at Votkinsk was irrelevant (as was all other monitoring) because the treaty was (is) unverifiable and unenforceable.