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

16 hours ago
Originally published on September 25, 2018 1:24 pm

It's a terrifying weapon: a nuclear-powered cruise missile that can fly anywhere on the planet, possibly spewing radioactivity as it goes. In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his nation had successfully tested just such a machine.

But new satellite imagery of a remote Russian test site suggests that the missile may not be working as well as claimed.

The imagery, shared exclusively with NPR by academic researchers, shows ships removing equipment from the site where the missile was tested on a remote, arctic archipelago. Between July and August, blue shipping containers and structures vanished, implying that testing has stopped, at least for now.

"Russia seems to be closing up shop," says Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in California who led the new analysis. "That suggests to me that the program may be experiencing some developmental challenges."

Lewis says that satellites also spotted several ships loitering in waters north of the site in late July and early August. That could have been an effort by the Russians to recover the remains of a test missile that reportedly crashed after flying briefly in late 2017.

Both the U.S. and Russia have possessed nuclear-armed missiles for decades, but a nuclear-powered missile is different. Such a missile would fly using thrust from a small nuclear reactor.

"It essentially has an unlimited range because it'll fly as long as the reactor is going," Lewis says.

But a nuclear-powered missile also comes with more than a few problems. The U.S. briefly looked into the idea in the 1950s and 1960s. But a prototype engine produced exhaust that was highly radioactive.

"It was spewing lethal amounts of radioactivity the entire time," Lewis says. In the end, he says, the U.S. decided it was a "crazy idea."

"The Russians have apparently decided that it's not a crazy idea," he adds.

Russia's nuclear-powered missile was unveiled to the world in March during Putin's annual address to the nation. Putin boasted that the missile had "unlimited range" and could not be intercepted by U.S. missile defense systems. A graphic shown during the speech depicted the new missile flying southward over the Atlantic, and around the tip of South America, then turning north in the Pacific and striking what appears to be Hawaii.

He also claimed that the missile had a successful test launch in late 2017.

The U.S. intelligence community quickly disputed that claim. According to reports leaked to the press, the Pentagon believes that after a test in November the missile flew for just a few minutes before crashing into the sea. Several other tests also ended in failure.

Russia tested the missile in its old nuclear weapons testing ground, a chain of barren islands known as Novaya Zemlya. During much of the year, "it's just covered in ice in the satellite images," says Anne Pellegrino, a research associate at the Middlebury Institute. "It's actually quite beautiful when you look at it."

Pellegrino, Lewis and colleagues used photos from Putin's speech to locate the precise site of the launch. They then observed the area using commercial satellites from the company Planet. Combined with ship-tracking data, the team was able to watch as the missile site was being decommissioned in July and August. They also saw ships, including one used to handle nuclear fuel, in the same area where the cruise missile likely went down.

The evidence is circumstantial, but it's enough to make Pellegrino believe the missile test was a bust. "I think that it was a spectacular failure and fell into the ocean," she says.

Failure or not, Lewis says the test should be concerning. "This is a resumption of the arms race," he says. The U.S. and Russia would be better off if they could "negotiate an arms control treaty that covered a lot of these weird systems that belong only in science fiction."

There are, of course, other possibilities for what's happening at the missile site. Lewis and Pellegrino say that it's possible that testing is moving to another location, although neither believes other test sites would be safe enough, given the radioactive nature of the weapon.

Winter is also coming to the island chain, and Russian officials may have just decided to clean up ahead of the snow, says Pavel Podvig, an arms control expert who runs a blog called Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces.

Even if the missile did fail, Podvig says, the program likely lives on. After being mentioned by Putin himself, Podvig says, there would be enormous pressure to push through failure.

"I would guess, given the high profile," Podvig says, "that the system will return in some shape or form."

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Also in all Tech Considered, we continue our look this month at the many ways tech can be used to influence or undermine democracy. Today - deep fake videos.


The Defense Department considers them enough of a concern that it's working with outside experts on ways to detect them and prevent them from being made. Hany Farid is a computer science professor at Dartmouth College involved in the project. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

HANY FARID: It's good to be here.

CORNISH: We're talking about videos on the radio, so I'll need a little explanation. And here is a clip of a video that you've chosen for us. And we'll play it first, and then you can tell us what's going on.


JORDAN PEELE: (As Barack Obama) We're entering an era in which our enemies can make it look like anyone is saying anything at any point in time, even if they would never say those things. So, for instance, they could have me say things like - I don't know - Killmonger was right. Ben Carson is in the sunken place. Or how about this? Simply - President Trump is a total and complete dip-[expletive].

CORNISH: So that sounds a little bit like President Barack Obama. But what were we really looking at?

FARID: And if you watch the video, it very much looks like President Obama. So what that is is a very sophisticated and technically new type of fake that we are seeing come out and that is being generated not by a talented artist sitting down frame by frame manipulating content but allowing a computer to generate the fake content for you. So what that video is is actually the actor Jordan Peele doing a very good Obama impersonation. And then the computer synthesizes the video, in particular the mouth of President Obama, to be consistent with what is being said.

CORNISH: How much of an expert do you need to be to make a video like this?

FARID: If we were having this conversation two years ago, I would tell you you had to be a fairly sophisticated, very good tools, lots of money and lots of expertise. And what's happening - we're simply making it easier and faster. And so today, lots of people who don't have access to the most sophisticated technology can now do that because all of the source code is available for download. And the expectation is that within the next year or two, it's going to be easier and easier and easier. That's the trend. And the output, the videos that we actually see, are going to be more and more and more sophisticated.

CORNISH: Is this why DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is working on this issue? Do they consider it a national security priority?

FARID: I think it's a priority on many levels. And I should mention that DARPA started working on this before these types of, what we call, deep fakes really emerged on the scene. I think you're absolutely right that this is a national security issue. You can now create a video of the president of any country saying I've launched nuclear weapons against another country. That content can go viral online almost instantly, and you have a real threat to security. I think it's also a threat to democratic elections when anybody can create video of politicians saying and doing just about anything.

CORNISH: And that you expect to see in upcoming elections.

FARID: I think there's almost no question that we're going to see it in the midterms, and we're already seeing issues in other parts of the world with elections. I think almost certainly we're going to see this unfold in the next two years. There's almost no question about it.

CORNISH: In the meantime, most of us are not digital forensics experts. What can we do to tell the difference?

FARID: Today, I would say that many of the fakes can be detected visually because they have artifacts, but that's not easy, and it's very easy to mistake an authentic video for a fake video.

CORNISH: And you said artifacts, meaning little visual glitches.

FARID: Yeah, like things don't look quite right. But the problem is that all video has glitches in it because of the compression that is inside of the videos already. So it's a very tricky business. And in many ways, the consumer of digital content should not rely on simply looking at something and being able to tell if it's real or not. We have to rely on good, old-fashioned fact-checking. We have to do our due diligence until people like me get our act together and really are able to distribute forensic techniques that work at scale, but we're not there today. I don't think we'll be there in the next few years. And in the interim, I think we simply have to change the way we consume digital content and become more critical.

CORNISH: Hany Farid, thank you so much for speaking with us.

FARID: It's good to be here. Thank you.

KELLY: Hany Farid is a computer science professor at Dartmouth College. He is working with the Defense Department on ways to stop deep fake videos. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.