Satellite imagery and aviation data suggest that Russia may be preparing to test an experimental nuclear-powered cruise missile — or may have recently tested one — with a theoretical range of thousands of kilometres.
Movements of aircraft and vehicles at and near a base in Russia’s remote Arctic region are consistent with preparations that were made for tests of the missile, known as the Burevestnik or SSC-X-9 Skyfall, in 2017 and 2018, according to a New York Times analysis.
US surveillance planes have also been tracked in the area over the last two weeks, and aviation alerts have warned pilots to avoid nearby airspace.
Russia previously conducted 13 known tests between 2017 and 2019, all of which were unsuccessful, according to a report from the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a non-profit group focused on arms control. And mishaps can be deadly. A missile launched in 2019 crashed and eventually exploded during a recovery attempt, killing seven people, according to US officials.
“It is exotic — it is dangerous in its testing and development phase,” said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. Whether the Burevestnik has been tested again since 2019 isn’t clear, but even with a successful launch, the missile would still be years away from “operational deployment”, Kimball added.
In previous tests, the missile failed to fly a distance anywhere close to the designed range, estimated to be around 22,530km. US officials assessed that during its most successful test flight, lasting just more than two minutes, the missile flew 35km before crashing into the sea. In another test, the missile’s nuclear reactor failed to activate, causing it to go down only a few kilometres from the launch site. For a test to succeed, the missile’s nuclear reactor would need to initiate in flight, so that the missile can cover much more ground.
According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative report, the missile is a “second-strike, strategic-range weapon”, intended to be launched after a wave of nuclear strikes have devastated targets in Russia. The missile could carry a conventional warhead but, in practice, would likely carry a nuclear payload, albeit a smaller one than most other nuclear-capable weapons. If used in wartime, the missile could have the potential to destroy large urban areas and military targets, experts say.
While Russia has shared little about the Burevestnik’s specific design, President Vladimir Putin has said it is nuclear-powered. The missile is thought to be launched by a solid-fuel rocket motor before a small nuclear reactor activates in flight, theoretically allowing the missile to stay aloft indefinitely.
The Burevestnik is one of six strategic weapons, along with others such as the Kinzhal ballistic missile and the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, that Putin introduced in a 2018 speech. He asserted that the weapons could overpower and outmanoeuvre existing US defences. Addressing the West, he said, “You have failed to contain Russia.”
On August 31, Russian authorities issued an aviation notice for a “temporary danger area,” advising pilots to avoid part of the Barents Sea off the coast and 12 miles from the launch site, known as Pankovo. The notice has since been extended several times and, as of Sunday, was scheduled to be in force through Friday. Russia issued a similar notice before a Burevestnik test in 2019.
Additionally, two Russian aircraft specifically used for collecting data from missile launches were parked about 100 miles south of the launch site in early August, at the Rogachevo air base.
New York Times News Service