Russian nuclear blast theories hint at no-holds-barred arms race

Bloomberg, AP, Reuters

Amid the mysteries surrounding a deadly blast at a Russian military facility that killed at least five researchers and caused a brief radiation spike, one thing is clear: The new arms race is going full speed.

The Aug. 8 explosion at a remote testing facility in the White Sea has remained a tightly guarded secret by the military, with Russian radiation-monitoring stations suddenly failing to send their data to international agencies in the days that followed. President Vladimir Putin would say only that the accident involved “work on promising weapons systems” that Russia is developing in response to “what our partners, including the Americans, are testing.”

U.S. President Donald Trump was more forthcoming in a tweet on the mishap, saying it involved a new nuclear-powered cruise missile known in the West as “Skyfall” but adding that the U.S. version is better. Putin’s spokesman insisted Russia’s is superior.

The U.S. tested a new weapon of its own this past week, a cruise missile that was banned under the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty until the Trump administration withdrew from the pact on Aug. 2. Each side blames the other for the collapse of the landmark Cold War deal, the first to eliminate an entire class of weapons.

On Friday, saying he wanted to avoid a “costly arms race that would be destructive to our economy,” Putin ordered top officials to come up with a “symmetrical response” to the latest U.S. test. He didn’t elaborate.

Some Moscow-based military experts have theorized that Russia could adapt the sea-launched Kalibr cruise missiles for use from ground launchers.

Speaking at a meeting of his Security Council, Putin charged that the U.S. has waged a “propaganda campaign” alleging Russian breaches of the pact to “untie its hands to deploy the previously banned missiles in different parts of the world.”

The U.S. said it withdrew from the INF treaty because of Russian violations. Defense Secretary Mark Esper asserted this past week that Russian cruise missiles violating the treaty might be armed with nuclear warheads.

Putin noted that Sunday’s test was performed from a launcher similar to those deployed at a U.S. missile defense site in Romania. He argued that the Romanian facility and a prospective similar site in Poland could also be loaded with missiles intended to hit ground targets instead of interceptors.

He said the use of the universal launcher means that a covert deployment is possible: “How would we know what they will deploy in Romania and Poland — missile defense systems or strike missile systems with a significant range?”

A Pentagon spokesman disputed this assertion, saying the Aegis Ashore system in Romania “does not have the capability to fire offensive weapons of any kind.”

Putin also said Russia will keep a tight lid on spending. “We will not be drawn into a costly arms race that would be disastrous for our economy,” Putin said, adding that Russia ranks seventh in military spending, after the U.S., China, Saudi Arabia, Britain, France and Japan.

Last year, Putin announced a series of new missile systems that Russia is developing in response to Washington’s 2002 withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, another bygone cornerstone of Cold War arms control.

“There is no military need for Russia to develop these weapons, as it already has more than enough fire power to overwhelm and destroy the U.S. defenses, and the same is true of American capabilities,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington. “The Cold War is 30 years in the past and this generation of leaders has forgotten the fact that there are no winners in a nuclear arms race.”

Given the lack of details about the White Sea accident in the northern Arkhangelsk region, experts have speculated that the mishap may be linked to a new generation of weapons Russia is developing as the Cold War arms control infrastructure crumbles.

Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear monopoly that lost five specialists in the accident, provided a clue on what the experiment involved. It has said the explosion took place on a platform at sea during a test of “isotope power sources” on a “liquid propulsion system.”

Some analysts have suggested the military was testing a device known as “Putin’s Battery,” a nuclear power source that relies on radioactive decay, not a chain reaction, to help keep missiles aloft for longer. The Skyfall missile, by contrast, uses a small nuclear reactor to power almost limitless flight, according to Putin.

Norway’s nuclear test-ban monitor said on Friday that the accident was followed by a second blast two hours later, the likely source of a spike in radiation.

The second explosion was likely from an airborne rocket powered by radioactive fuel, the Norsar agency said — though the governor of Russia’s Arkhangelsk region, where the blast took place, dismissed reports of another blast.

“We registered two explosions, of which the last one coincided in time with the reported increase in radiation,” Norsar Chief Executive Anne Stroemmen Lycke said. She added that this likely came from the rocket’s fuel.

The second explosion was detected only by infrasonic air pressure sensors and not by the seismic monitors that pick up movements in the ground, she added.

Norway’s DSA nuclear safety authority said on Aug. 15 it had found tiny amounts of radioactive iodine near Norway’s Arctic border with Russia, although it could not say whether it was linked to the Russian accident.

Some of the new weapons Russia is working on that may have been tested in the accident include:

Burevestnik/SSC-X-9 Skyfall: The tweet by Trump popularized speculation that the military was testing a cruise missile powered by a nuclear reactor to allow it to remain airborne for longer. Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Non-Proliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute in California, says satellite photos of the White Sea facility were a similar design to a site believed to be used for prior tests of the SSC-X-9.

Poseidon/Status 6/Kanyon: The Poseidon is an unmanned, nuclear-powered torpedo drone that was announced by Putin last year. Some experts have dismissed this and the SSC-X-9 as contenders because they are thought to rely on a reactor rather than an energy source that feeds off of radioactive isotopes such as Putin’s Battery, which would more closely fit Rosatom’s statement. However, military analyst Alexander Golts says that Russia may have developed an isotope power source powerful enough to propel the Kanyon.

Skif/SS-N-23: This ballistic missile is fired from the bottom of the ocean in order to make detection more difficult. Novaya Gazeta speculates the highly secretive SS-N-23 is a likely candidate because it uses a similar type of liquid propulsion system to the one that apparently exploded. Testing this missile could be a violation of a 1972 treaty banning nuclear weapons on the seabed.

Tsirkon/SS-N-33: This is an anti-ship cruise missile under development that Putin in February said will be able to reach speeds of up to Mach 9. Michael Kofman, a fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, says that this missile uses a high-power liquid-fueled engine and is being actively developed for the navy, therefore making it a candidate for the Aug. 8 test.