Jeffrey LewisRussia Resumes Burevestnik Testing

Some of our analysis is the subject of a CNN story (“New satellite images show Russia may be preparing to test nuclear powered ‘Skyfall’ missile“) by Zach Cohen. The analysis used synthetic aperture radar (SAR) images provided by Capella Space to detect what looks like another attempt by Russia to test its nuclear powered cruise missile. Cohen, along with Nicole Gaouette and Oren Liebermann, got a source briefed on the matter to confirm that “US officials are aware that Russia could be preparing another test” of the system.

The formal write-up is below. Huge thanks to Steven De La Fuente, Michael Duitsman, and Ben Mueller, who helped with the analysis. I wrote a much less formal account as a Twitter thread as well and will probably post some pretty pictures on Instagram.

Russia Resuming Testing of “Skyfall” Nuclear Powered Cruise Missile

New satellite images taken by Capella Space and analyzed by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies‘s Center for Nonproliferation Studies  (CNS/MIIS) show signs that Russia was preparing on August 16 to conduct a test of its nuclear powered cruise missile.  Russia calls this missile “Burevestnik”; the United States calls it the SSC-X-9 “Skyfall.”

Russia conducts test launches of the “Skyfall” from a launch site on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, near the Arctic Circle, located at: 73.11532° N, 53.27224° E.  This site was recently renovated. According to Russian officials, the “Skyfall” is designed to use a small nuclear reactor to sustain its flight.  Efforts to recover a “Skyfall” missile that had crashed into the White Sea near ​​Nyonoksa in August 2019 resulted in an explosion that killed five Russian technical personnel. The missile has previously been called a “flying Chernobyl.”

In recent months, open source information indicated that Russia might be preparing to conduct another test of the Skyfall from the Novaya Zemlya site.  Satellite images taken by Planet over the summer showed cargo ships visiting this location and supplies piling up at a support area.  More recently, Russia issued a “notice to mariners” warning of hazardous operations to be conducted between 15-20 August near the known Burevestnik test site near Pankovo on Novaya Zemlya  

Researchers at CNS/MIIS had been monitoring this site over the past few months, but the area is extremely cloudy which prevented satellites from successfully imaging the site more than a handful of times.  Novaya Zemlya typically experiences 25 days of cloud cover a month during August and September, making it a very difficult location to monitor with optical satellites.

MIIS worked with Capella Space, a US company that operates a fleet of small satellites that image the ground using Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR).  Radar penetrates through clouds, producing an accurate image no matter the weather or time of day, enabling nighttime monitoring.  A high resolution image taken on August 16 showed strong indications that Russia was preparing to test a nuclear-powered cruise missile (See image below).  Russian personnel had erected a large environmental shelter to protect the missile and the crews preparing the launch from the harsh weather.  This shelter was retracted revealing a large object on the launch pad which is a possible SSC-X-9 Skyfall launcher.  There are also a significant number of objects next to the launch pad that are likely vehicles and shipping containers.  None of these signatures were present the last time the site was imaged optically in June.

Interpreting radar images can be extremely difficult.  We processed the images taken by Capella in L3 Harris’s ENVI software suite to identify the areas of maximum change.  This process makes the new objects stand out, which is especially useful in identifying the outline of the environmental shelter.

The “Skyfall” is one of a number of new Russian strategic weapons designed to defeat U.S. missile defenses.  Using a nuclear reactor would, in principle, give the cruise missile unlimited range to fly under and around US missile defense radars and interceptors.  There are substantial questions, however, about whether the system can be made to work successfully, to say nothing of the threat that testing this system may pose to the environment and human health.