Jeffrey LewisBurevestnik Testing To Resume

Russia Preparing to Resume Nuclear-Powered Cruise Missile Tests

Michael Duitsman and Jeffrey Lewis

New satellite photographs taken by Planet Labs and analyzed by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies show that Russia is preparing to resume test flights of its Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile at a launch site above the Arctic circle.

The images, taken by Planet Labs in September, show high levels of activity at a site previously used to test the nuclear-powered cruise missile.  The site is located at: 73.084°N, 53.275°E.

The activity is occurring at three locations on site:

  • Russia has rebuilt the launch pad where past missile launches were conducted.  The new launch pad has been reoriented to change the direction in which missiles are launched.
  • There are large numbers of shipping containers at two support areas, including the probable missile checkout building.
  • Russia has also constructed a new helicopter landing pad at the area with the probable missile checkout building.  (Helicopters are a common mode of transport at the test site.)

In addition to the appearance of shipping containers at the site, ship tracking sites show the presence of cargo ships nearby, in Gribovaya Bay.  Although some of these activities may be related to geological surveys at the Pavlovskoe ore field (30 km southeast of the launch site), this would not explain construction of a new launchpad.

Russia conducted at least one test flight of the nuclear-powered cruise missile from this site, near Pankovo on the archipelago of Novaya Zemlya, in November 2017. Russia reportedly conducted at least four tests of the system between November 2017 and February 2018.  None of the tests were considered successful.

In March 2018, Vladimir Putin released a video of a nuclear-powered cruise missile test, which allowed open-source researchers including analysts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies to identify the location.

Russian appears to have paused testing the nuclear-powered cruise missile after 2018, when it dismantled the test site.  An attempt in 2019 to recover a nuclear-powered cruise missile from the seabed near Nenoksa ended in disaster, with an explosion that was detected by seismic stations and that killed five Russian nuclear scientists.

The new satellite photographs indicate that the pause is over.  The activity and new construction are consistent with a resumption of test flights of the Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile.

This is the analysis cited in: Zachary Cohen, “Satellite images indicate Russia is preparing to resume testing its nuclear-powered cruise missile,” CNN, October 20, 2020. Cohen also reports that “Two US officials told CNN that they are aware that Russia has been preparing to test missiles as part of its advanced weapons program.”