Russia's Nuclear Cruise Missile Is Struggling To Take Off, Imagery Suggests Earlier this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed his nation had successfully tested a nuclear-powered weapon. Satellite imagery suggests it may not have gone so well.

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

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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.

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