Analysts at the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency closely monitored a recent Russian nuclear forces exercise that was one of the largest strategic drills of its kind since the Soviet era.
The unannounced war games were called strategic operation of nuclear forces and took place between Oct. 10 and Oct. 12 throughout Russia. The exercises appear to be the latest round of nuclear saber-rattling against the United States by President Vladimir Putin.
One official said the exercises, involving numerous launches of nuclear missiles, were gauged to be at levels that reached or exceeded the kind of Soviet strategic force exercises held during the Cold War.
“This resembled the days of the Soviet Union in both numbers and breadth of exercises,” said one official familiar with reports of the maneuvers.
The first test launch during the exercises was the firing of an SS-N-18 submarine-launched ballistic missile from a Delta III-class submarine in the Sea of Okhotsk in the Russian Far East. That launch was followed by the firing of a SSN-23 missile from the Barents Sea. Both carried multiple dummy warheads.
Then, on Oct. 12, a SS-25 road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile was launched from the Plesetsk missile launch facility in northern Russia.
“This launch aimed to confirm the extended service life of operating intercontinental ballistic missiles of this type,” the Russian Defense Ministry said of the SS-25 launch in a statement reported by the official TASS news agency.
“The missile’s warhead hit the notional target with the required accuracy at the practice range on Kamchatka Peninsula,” the statement said.
Although not part of the main exercises, on Oct. 25 a fourth ICBM test launch was carried out using an SS-19.
The blog Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces (https://russianforces.org/blog/) said the SS-19 test may have involved a flight test of a new hypersonic glide vehicle, although the hypersonic vehicle test could not be confirmed.
A Pentagon spokesman had no comment on the Russian exercises.
Former Pentagon nuclear policymaker Mark Schneider said it was unusual for the Russians to hold the large-scale nuclear exercises without publicizing them first.
“There was clearly an unannounced major strategic nuclear exercise centered on the announced Oct. 11 launch of three strategic nuclear missiles,” Mr. Schneider said. “They only do this during major strategic nuclear exercises.”
Mr. Schneider said the secrecy surrounding the exercise may have been an attempt by Moscow to avoid impacting the final days of the U.S. presidential election. Additionally, the Russians also held exercises involving the nuclear-capable Iskander missile before the long-range nuclear missile test firings, he noted.
“Iskanders, reportedly with longer ranges, were deployed to Kaliningrad,” Mr. Schneider said. “If this was part of the larger strategic nuclear exercise, it would be unprecedented.”
The Russians also recently conducted a large-scale civil defense evacuation exercise involving some 40 million people.
“This is unprecedented since the end of the Soviet Union,” Mr. Schneider said. “After the election, I expect to see strong nuclear threats from Moscow aimed at getting its way on missile defense, sanctions and Russian domination of Eastern Europe.”
Meanwhile, the Omaha-based Strategic Command, the military command in charge of nuclear forces, announced this week that it conducted an international nuclear drill involving U.S., Canadian and British strategic forces.
Details of the exercise, known as Global Thunder 17, remain secret. The command said in a statement that the nine-day nuclear exercise ended Tuesday and was aimed at assessing operational readiness and validating “the command’s ability to identify and mitigate attacks across all of U.S. Stratcom’s mission areas,” the statement said.
The strategic threats addressed were not identified.
“The exercise, and those previously conducted, ensure the resilience, redundancy and survivability of U.S. strategic deterrent forces, stressing U.S. Stratcom’s capabilities provided to geographic combatant commanders during a crisis or contingency,” the statement said.
Turkey terror attacks warning
The State Department recently warned Americans in Turkey that they face increased dangers of attack from terrorist groups throughout the country and ordered families of consulate staff in Istanbul to leave the country.
“U.S. citizens should avoid travel to southeast Turkey and carefully consider the risks of travel to and throughout the country,” the department stated in an Oct. 29 notice.
The warning coincided with the decision to order the departure of family members of U.S. consulate employees in Istanbul.
“The Department of State made this decision based on security information indicating extremist groups are continuing aggressive efforts to attack U.S. citizens in areas of Istanbul where they reside or frequent,” the notice stated, adding that the departure order is limited to families of officials in Istanbul.
Under the current state of emergency imposed following an attempted military coup in July, along with new terrorist threats against cities in Turkey, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has banned all demonstrations in the capital of Ankara until the end of the month.
“Foreign and U.S. tourists have been explicitly targeted by international and indigenous terrorist organizations in Turkey,” the notice says. “In the past year, extremists have carried out attacks in France, Belgium, Germany, Mali, Bangladesh, Tunisia and Turkey.”
New attacks in Turkey could be conducted at major events, tourist sites, restaurants, commercial centers, places of worship and transportation hubs, including aviation services, metros, buses, bridges, bus terminals and sea transport.
Terrorists also are threatening to kidnap and assassinate Americans and other Westerners.
U.S. government personnel in Turkey are restricted from traveling to 16 southeastern provinces.
Among the recent acts of violence was the Aug. 20 suicide bombing in Gaziantep, the Sept. 12 bombing in Van and the potential for reprisal attacks due to continued Turkish military activity in Syria. As a result, Americans are being urged to avoid travel to large urban centers near the Syrian border.
Turkey recently closed its border with Syria, a heavily used transit way for foreign fighters looking to join Islamic State.
China shows off stealth fighter
China conducted flight tests of its newest stealth fighter, the J-20, during an air show in Zhuhai on Tuesday, where two of the jets conducted a highly publicized fly-by.
The J-20s were a surprise at the air show and were not announced as part of the schedule, according to press reports from Zhuhai.
The Zhuhai air show featured an array of new military weapons and technology, part of China’s large-scale military buildup. Also shown were new assault vehicles, anti-aircraft missiles, drone aircraft and other fighter jets, including the J-10.
The Zhuhai show is a major propaganda operation by the Chinese government to show off its growing military might.
U.S. intelligence agencies since 2014 identified the J-20 as the major beneficiary of China’s cyberespionage operations against U.S. and Western defense firms.
U.S. defense officials said the cyberattacks against the F-35 jet took place since 2007 as part of what intelligence agencies code-named Byzantine Hades, a multiyear cybertheft program.
The Chinese military unit behind the intelligence coup was identified as People’s Liberation Army Technical Reconnaissance Bureau in the Chengdu province. The unit then supplied the F-35 secrets to the state-run Aviation Industry Corp. of China (AVIC), a subsidiary of the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group.
Intelligence analysis of the J-20 revealed that several features of the F-35 were incorporated into China’s new radar-evading stealth jet, including its targeting system.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz