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Russia's Nuclear Cruise Missile Is Struggling To Take Off, Imagery Suggests

Sep 25, 2018
Originally published on September 25, 2018 2:24 pm

It's a terrifying weapon: a nuclear-powered cruise missile that can fly anywhere on the planet, possibly spewing radioactivity as it goes. In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his nation had successfully tested just such a machine.

But new satellite imagery of a remote Russian test site suggests that the missile may not be working as well as claimed.

The imagery, shared exclusively with NPR by academic researchers, shows ships removing equipment from the site where the missile was tested on a remote, arctic archipelago. Between July and August, blue shipping containers and structures vanished, implying that testing has stopped, at least for now.

"Russia seems to be closing up shop," says Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in California who led the new analysis. "That suggests to me that the program may be experiencing some developmental challenges."

Lewis says that satellites also spotted several ships loitering in waters north of the site in late July and early August. That could have been an effort by the Russians to recover the remains of a test missile that reportedly crashed after flying briefly in late 2017.

Both the U.S. and Russia have possessed nuclear-armed missiles for decades, but a nuclear-powered missile is different. Such a missile would fly using thrust from a small nuclear reactor.

"It essentially has an unlimited range because it'll fly as long as the reactor is going," Lewis says.

But a nuclear-powered missile also comes with more than a few problems. The U.S. briefly looked into the idea in the 1950s and 1960s. But a prototype engine produced exhaust that was highly radioactive.

"It was spewing lethal amounts of radioactivity the entire time," Lewis says. In the end, he says, the U.S. decided it was a "crazy idea."

"The Russians have apparently decided that it's not a crazy idea," he adds.

Russia's nuclear-powered missile was unveiled to the world in March during Putin's annual address to the nation. Putin boasted that the missile had "unlimited range" and could not be intercepted by U.S. missile defense systems. A graphic shown during the speech depicted the new missile flying southward over the Atlantic, and around the tip of South America, then turning north in the Pacific and striking what appears to be Hawaii.

He also claimed that the missile had a successful test launch in late 2017.

The U.S. intelligence community quickly disputed that claim. According to reports leaked to the press, the Pentagon believes that after a test in November the missile flew for just a few minutes before crashing into the sea. Several other tests also ended in failure.

Russia tested the missile in its old nuclear weapons testing ground, a chain of barren islands known as Novaya Zemlya. During much of the year, "it's just covered in ice in the satellite images," says Anne Pellegrino, a research associate at the Middlebury Institute. "It's actually quite beautiful when you look at it."

Pellegrino, Lewis and colleagues used photos from Putin's speech to locate the precise site of the launch. They then observed the area using commercial satellites from the company Planet. Combined with ship-tracking data, the team was able to watch as the missile site was being decommissioned in July and August. They also saw ships, including one used to handle nuclear fuel, in the same area where the cruise missile likely went down.

The evidence is circumstantial, but it's enough to make Pellegrino believe the missile test was a bust. "I think that it was a spectacular failure and fell into the ocean," she says.

Failure or not, Lewis says the test should be concerning. "This is a resumption of the arms race," he says. The U.S. and Russia would be better off if they could "negotiate an arms control treaty that covered a lot of these weird systems that belong only in science fiction."

There are, of course, other possibilities for what's happening at the missile site. Lewis and Pellegrino say that it's possible that testing is moving to another location, although neither believes other test sites would be safe enough, given the radioactive nature of the weapon.

Winter is also coming to the island chain, and Russian officials may have just decided to clean up ahead of the snow, says Pavel Podvig, an arms control expert who runs a blog called Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces.

Even if the missile did fail, Podvig says, the program likely lives on. After being mentioned by Putin himself, Podvig says, there would be enormous pressure to push through failure.

"I would guess, given the high profile," Podvig says, "that the system will return in some shape or form."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Earlier this year, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia had tested a new kind of nuclear missile. Putin declared it a success. But satellite images shared exclusively with NPR suggest the missiles testing may have had a different outcome. Here's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: People usually say a missile is nuclear when it carries a nuclear warhead. But this is something else. It carries a nuclear warhead, but it's also nuclear-powered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through interpreter) This is what I'm going to tell you about now, this new kind of weapon...

BRUMFIEL: In a speech in March, Putin claimed a small nuclear reactor on board can let the missile fly indefinitely. He showed a graphic of it zigzagging across the globe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PUTIN: (Through interpreter) It has unlimited range, so it can keep going like this forever, maneuvering...

BRUMFIEL: Putin claimed a nuclear-powered prototype took off and flew in late 2017. But U.S. intelligence was also watching with surveillance. And after his speech, they told the press that based on what they saw, the missile test had failed. Now, civilian arms control experts here in the U.S. didn't have access to military spy planes or satellites, but they got to wondering - could they figure out anything about what was going on? They started looking for clues in Putin's speech. Putin showed some video of what he says was the missile's launch.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISSILE LAUNCH)

BRUMFIEL: There were a few visible features in the video - a small building, some shipping containers. Putin also said the test happened in a place where Russia used to test its nuclear bombs, a remote chain of islands in the far north. So these experts started looking, scanning commercial satellite images of the islands from a company called Planet.

ANNE PELLEGRINO: It's actually quite beautiful when you look at it when it's just covered in ice in the satellite images.

BRUMFIEL: That's Anne Pellegrino, one of the researchers at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies who looked at the satellite pictures. The team eventually pinpointed the spot the missile launched from using clues in Putin's presentation. And then they started monitoring the satellite photos, day after day. A lot of times, there wasn't much to see. It's usually cloudy, so the satellites can't pick up much. But Pellegrino didn't mind.

PELLEGRINO: No. It's not boring at all. It's extremely fascinating.

BRUMFIEL: Then in July, the team noticed something unusual - a ship showed up, then another ship, this one for handling nuclear fuel. The ships went north to a spot in the ocean near the islands and parked themselves there. Now, according to U.S. intelligence reports, the missiles had flown for a couple of minutes and crashed. Pellegrino and the team did a few quick calculations and figured out where the missiles would have gone down.

PELLEGRINO: It would put it smack in the ocean just off the coast.

BRUMFIEL: Right where these ships were lurking. Was this a salvage operation? The ships eventually moved away, and then something else happened. The Russians packed up their missile test site and left. Jeffrey Lewis headed the team at the Middlebury Institute.

JEFFREY LEWIS: That suggests to me that the program may be experiencing some developmental challenges.

BRUMFIEL: If the Russians have challenges, they wouldn't be alone. The U.S. actually tried to develop its own nuclear-powered missile back in the 1960s. The government went so far as to build a test engine on the ground. Sure enough, it seemed like it could fly forever.

LEWIS: The downside, at least in the early U.S. designs, was it was spewing lethal amounts of radioactivity the entire time.

BRUMFIEL: In the end, the U.S. gave up on its version, but the Russians may have stuck with it. Paul Schwartz is with CNA, a defense think tank based in Virginia.

PAUL SCHWARTZ: I don't think you can definitively say that the program has been canceled.

BRUMFIEL: He says that it's pretty normal after testing like this to take a pause.

SCHWARTZ: It may just be that there are some additional results that now need to be taken back and worked on.

BRUMFIEL: Jeffrey Lewis says this is about more than whether the missile worked. The fact that the Russians are designing such an unusual weapon is a sign that they are returning to an old way of thinking.

LEWIS: You know, this is a resumption of the arms race. You know, these are the kinds of crazy systems that really mark to the most intense periods of U.S.-Soviet competition.

BRUMFIEL: He hopes the U.S. and Russia will consider new treaties, one that would ban unusual weapons like this nuclear-powered missile. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "WUDAO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.