According to H I Sutton, there are clear signs that Russia is preparing to test the Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile at the Pankovo test site, located on Novaya Zemlya.
As noted by independent defense analyst Tony Roper, author of the specialized publication Janes Fighting Ships, increased activity at the Russian facility has been recorded on satellite images for some time. According to the expert, the analysis of commercial satellite images of Airbus confirms the preparation for testing.
The trials are supported by three cargo ships and a fleet of smaller vessels. The first of the large ships was identified as the nuclear-powered cargo ship Sevmorput, which left Murmansk on 10 September and sailed for Pankovo.
Rosatomflot, which owns the ship, is a subsidiary of Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear corporation, also responsible for testing and developing small nuclear reactors used in the Burevestnik missile.
The Barents Observer notes that, according to Earth ShipView, the Sevmorput has been running since August between Murmansk and the waters near Pankovo and Rogachevo on the southern coast of Novaya Zemlya. By Sunday, September 18, the Sevmorput was marked anchored near Rogachev.
Another of the merchant ships appears to be a general cargo ship around 137 meters long. The imagery matches 3 Dutch-built vessels operated by the Arctic shipping company (ASCO) which are currently at sea. These are the Teriberka, Tibola, and Turukhan. Indications are that it is Teriberka.
The last vessel is smaller, and about 85 meters long. It may be a general purpose vessel. A ship corresponding to this size and colors is the refrigerator Geologist Pechkurov, which was recorded by AIS in the White Sea on September 11–12.
According to Mr. Roper, the study shows a comprehensive build-up of the nuclear missile test site at Novaya Zemlya. The photo shows that the Burevestnik missile container is installed in front of the launch rail, which is used only for transportation. He posted several satellite images on his , detailing the various infrastructure improvements made to the site this summer and fall. The scale of the work is much more comprehensive than last year’s construction, which was aimed at supporting nuclear missile test launches, he said.
A new pier has been installed on the shore, where equipment is unloaded from ships, the road is being improved, helipads are being built, new buildings are being erected, shelters and concrete platforms with rails are being assembled. However, Tony Roper’s from an analysis of a satellite image taken by Airbus on September 16 prove that Burevestnik is indeed present at Pankow.
A launch canister, similar to the one previously seen in the Russian Defense Ministry video, is now located next to the rails on the launch pad, partially hidden by a retractable shelter.
For the first time, the appearance of this missile weapon was announced by the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin in his message to the Federal Assembly on March 1, 2018. During the president’s speech, video footage of the test of the missile system was shown.
It is known that in November 2017, at least one test flight of the Burevestnik, known in NATO as the SSC-X-9 Skyfall, was carried out. The missile, touted by the Russian media as unparalleled and unlimited in range, has been tested several times.
Reports of test results are conflicting. In May 2018, the American television channel CNBC stated that, according to a US intelligence report, “the missile tests were unsuccessful.” In September 2019, CNBC cited intelligence sources as reporting five failed nuclear missile tests between November 2017 and 2019. In turn, Viktor Murakhovsky, a member of the Expert Council of the Collegium of the Military-Industrial Commission of the Russian Federation, said that the sources of the publication mistook the stage of throw tests for accidents.
However, the rocket has already earned the nickname “flying Chernobyl” because its engine is powered by a small nuclear reactor that is cooled by outside air passing through the uranium core, leaving behind radioactive isotopes as it travels. That is why weapons testing is now taking place in one of the world’s most remote locations, hundreds of miles from the nearest civilian population.
According to Russian media, an accident is also tied to the tests of the Burevestnik, as a result of which five people died. The explosion occurred on August 8, 2019 near the village of Nyonoksa and the village of Sopka in the Arkhangelsk region. The Ministry of Defense then stated that a liquid-propellant jet engine, which used a radioisotope power source, exploded at the test site.
Western experts, based on satellite photographs, suggested that the accident occurred precisely during the tests of the Burevestnik. Later, this version was publicly supported by US President Trump.
There have also been speculations that the numerous low-level measurements of radioactive isotopes in northern Scandinavia in recent years have been linked to Russian testing of secret nuclear weapons systems.
That is why the idea of a rocket with a nuclear power plant is fiercely criticized abroad because of the obvious environmental danger.
“A nuclear cruise missile is an outrageous idea that the United States has long considered and dismissed as a technical, strategic and environmental nightmare. Vladimir Putin’s Russia, however, thinks otherwise.”wrote Geoffrey Lewis , director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies.
In August 2019, Amy McKinnon , a national security and intelligence reporter for Foreign Policy, published an article in which the director of Russia studies programs at the American Center for Naval Analysis (CNA) Michael Kofman and the deputy director of the missile defense project at the Center for Strategic and International Researcher Ian Williams was critical of Russia’s ability to complete the project due to technical and financial problems. They were also skeptical about the feasibility of the technology.
“It’s just new. No other country even considers this kind of thing. This is the most technologically unproven, probably the most expensive project in the long run,” Williams said.
As the Barents Observer points out, last year the Norwegian Intelligence Service warned of the testing and deployment of new nuclear weapons technologies in Russia’s northern regions. The purpose of such systems may be penetration through air defense or compensation for the inferiority of conventional weapons of the Russian Federation.
“We are concerned that the New START Treaty is not enough to cover new technological developments,”Vice Admiral Nils Andreas Stensönes, head of the Norwegian Intelligence Service, told the Barents Observer .