It Looks Like Russia’s Nuclear-Powered Cruise Missile Test Program Is Back In Business

Recent satellite imagery suggests that Russia may be working to resume testing of its 9M730 Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile program in Novaya Zemlya, an archipelago above the Arctic Circle. This highly controversial missile, which is codenamed SSC-X-9 Skyfall by NATO, has suffered a number of mishaps during development work in the past, including a deadly explosion last year.

CNN was first to report that work might have resumed at the test site, drawing upon satellite images from Planet Labs that had been analyzed by researchers Michael Duitsman and Jeffrey Lewis at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Two U.S. officials also told CNN that they were aware that Russia “has been preparing to test missiles as part of its advanced weapons program.”

The images of Novaya Zemlya from September 2020 show that new structures have appeared at the Pankovo site, a test facility that experts believe previously hosted the weapon for at least one live flight trial in late 2017. Recent “high levels of activity” suggests that further weapons trials are now planned here. 

“The activity and new construction are consistent with a resumption of test flights of the Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile,” Duitsman and Lewis contend.

In their own blog post about the developments, the two researchers point to activity at three different locations at the Pankovo site.

The work includes the reconstruction of a launch pad that is believed to have been used for previous missile launches. It now appears to have been reconfigured to fire the Burevestnik in a different direction. According to The Barents Observer, in the November 2017 test, the missile headed toward a weapon range at Sukhoy Nos, north of the Matochkin Shar. This area had previously hosted Soviet-era nuclear weapons tests, including “Tsar Bomba,” the world’s most powerful nuclear detonation.

Second, “large numbers” of shipping containers have appeared at different support areas around the site, one of which the researchers identify as the likely missile checkout building. The arrival of these containers seems also to be linked to increased activity by cargo vessels in local waters.

Finally, a new helicopter pad has been built, which would allow for the transporting of crews and payloads around the site. 

The first known test flight of the Burevestnik at Pankovo reportedly took place in November 2017 and U.S. intelligence sources claimed the missile had crashed in the Barents Sea. Duitsman and Lewis say that at least four Burevestnik tests took place between then and February 2018, but none were considered successful. The limited information to have emerged about the results of those four tests was discussed in more detail here.

Russia test-fired four Burevestniks in total between November 2017 and February 2018, according to the new information. The longest test flight reportedly lasted over two minutes and saw the weapon travel a total of 22 miles, while the shortest experiment saw the missile fail within seconds, but it still managed to cover a distance of five miles. The missile reportedly uses a nuclear reactor to power its propulsion system, giving it theoretically unlimited range.

In March 2018, Russia released a purported video of a Burevestnik test that showed a launch from what appeared to be the Pankovo test site. President Vladimir Putin also released details of the weapon to the Russian parliament, saying it had “unlimited range” and was “invincible against all existing and prospective missile defense and counter-air defense systems.” 

However, it appears that the Burevestnik work at Pankovo came to an end the same year and the test site was dismantled. Testing then moved to Nyonoksa, also written Nenoksa, in the northwestern Russian region of Arkhangelsk on the White Sea. 

In August 2019, what may have been efforts to raise a Burevestnik missile from the seabed near the Nyonoksa test site resulted in an explosion that killed five scientists and injured three more from Russia’s state-run nuclear corporation Rosatom and left a radioactive cloud over the city of Severodvinsk. The Russian Ministry of Defense attributed the accident to the explosion of what it called a liquid-propellant rocket engine and denied that any dangerous substances were released. Rosatom later admitted its employees had been working on an experimental “isotope power source” when it exploded.

Whether or not the Burevestnik test effort has simply switched from Nyonoksa back to Pankovo or if testing is occurring at multiple locations is unclear.  

A map showing the location of the Pankovo test site on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago., GOOGLE EARTH

Overall, little is known about the exact design of this nuclear-powered cruise missile, but it’s thought to employ a nuclear-powered ramjet engine. Reportedly, the weapon uses rocket boosters to accelerate it to an optimal speed, after which the fast-moving air blows over the hot reactor, emerging from an exhaust nozzle to generate thrust.

Whatever way it works, a fully functional Burevestnik — should it prove technically feasible — offers the advantage of virtually unlimited endurance, making it extremely hard to defend against. On the downside, the missile will carry a potentially hazardous radioactive payload whether it’s flying with a warhead or unarmed. Its emissions could also be hazardous. 

A capture from the official video released in 2018 showing a Burevestnik test round in its launch canister, plus others under tarpaulins in the background. , RUSSIAN MINISTRY OF DEFENSE SCREENCAP

It may not be entirely coincidental that renewed work at Pankovo comes as Russia and the United States are negotiating the future of the  New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) that is due to expire in February 2021. The Kremlin has indicated it would be willing to extend the deal for a year without preconditions, while the United States is seeking a freeze in the total number of nuclear warheads on both sides. There are conflicting reports about what the two countries may have agreed to so far.

Regardless, Moscow has argued in the past that the Burevestnik does not fall within the New START framework, which is focused on limiting each country’s arsenals of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), and heavy bombers. At the same time, the Kremlin had also suggested previously that its nuclear-armed Avangard hypersonic boost-glide vehicle, which is launched using a converted ICBM rocket booster, would also not be subject to this agreement, but subsequently changed its position and allowed American officials to inspect at least one of these weapons under the auspices of the treaty.   

While the exact status of the test program for Russia’s Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile remains unclear, the latest imagery and analysis does at least indicate that work on the missile is very much ongoing.

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