The US observed Russian naval vessels preparing for a possible test of a new nuclear-powered torpedo in recent weeks, a senior US official with direct knowledge told CNN.
Among the vessels which took part in the preparations was the Belgorod, a cruise missile submarine modified for special operations that is able to launch unmanned underwater vehicles including the Poseidon torpedo.
In the last week, the vessels were observed leaving the testing area in the Arctic Sea and heading back to port without carrying out a test. The US believes the Russians may have encountered technical difficulties.
“This can be seen as part of the bigger picture and Russia’s recent military practice, sending ill-trained and under-equipped troops to Ukraine,” a Western diplomat told CNN. “Russia’s military industry is going through difficult times, and we can also see that Western sanctions on high-tech military goods are having an effect and must continue.”
US officials said Russia could attempt to test the torpedo again but note the waters in the testing area will soon begin to ice over, limiting the window for operations.
A test of the torpedo would likely have inflamed tensions with the US even further at a time when Washington and its allies have been carefully monitoring for any sign Russia might be preparing to use nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine. The US has also been paying particular attention to any possible tests of the Poseidon torpedo.
The Poseidon torpedo is a nuclear-powered unmanned underwater vehicle capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear munitions. Its nuclear propulsion system gives the Poseidon virtually limitless range.
The US does not believe any test would have involved detonating a nuclear device. Any potential danger would come from a malfunction of the nuclear propulsion system, which could pose risks from radioactivity.
President Vladimir Putin first announced the existence of the Poseidon system during his State of the Nation address in 2018, touting it as an “innovative” new weapon.
“The nuclear power unit is unique for its small size while offering an amazing power-weight ratio. It is a hundred times smaller than the units that power modern submarines but is still more powerful and can switch into combat mode, that is to say, reach maximum capacity, 200 times faster,” Putin said at the time.
The Belgorod is the longest submarine in the ocean today and was turned over to the Russian Navy in June.
At more than 608 feet, it is longer even than the US Navy’s Ohio class ballistic and guided missile submarines, which come in at 569 feet.
The Belgorod was floated in 2019 and was expected to be delivered to the Russian Navy in 2020 after trials and testing, but those were delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, Russia’s state-run TASS news agency reported. No timeline for the sub’s first deployment was given.
TASS previously reported that the sub will carry the in-development Poseidon nuclear-capable torpedoes, which are being designed to be launched from hundreds of miles away and to sneak past coastal defenses by traveling along the sea floor.
In November 2020, Christopher Ford, then assistant secretary of state for international security and non-proliferation, said Poseidons are being designed to “inundate US coastal cities with radioactive tsunamis.”
A US Congressional Research Service (CRS) report in April said Poseidons are intended as retaliatory weapons, designed to hit back at an enemy after a nuclear strike on Russia.
According to the CRS report, the Belgorod would be capable of carrying up to eight Poseidons, though some weapons experts say its payload is more likely to be six torpedoes.