The Poseidon nuclear-powered, nuclear-tipped underwater drone. Photo from video by the Russian Defense Ministry

Norway intelligence warns about new nuclear weapons technology developed by Russia

Technology runs ahead of international arms treaties and several of the new systems are tested and will be deployed near Norwegian territory in the north.
February 08, 2021

Objectives with such tailored weapons could be to easier penetrate missile defense systems, or to compensate for conventional inferiority, according to the annual report from Norway’s Intelligence Service (NIS).

Several of the new weapons do not fit into the traditional framework of arms control treaties.

Last week, Russia and the United States in a last-minute call agreed to extend the New Start Treaty by another five-year period. The treaty is a successor to previous negotiations on the reduction and limitation of strategic offensive arms between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Although the global stockpile of nuclear weapons has been substantially reduced, the picture is way more complex than during the Cold War, the NIS report presented on Monday said.

In a phone interview, Chief of the Norwegian Intelligence Service, Vice Admiral Nils Andreas Stensønes, elaborated.

“It is our worry that the New Start Treaty is not sufficient enough to cover the new technological developments,” Stensønes said and added the agreements should be updated.

Two nuclear weapon systems of particular worry are the Poseidon and the Burevestnik.

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The Poseidon is a nuclear-powered, nuclear-tipped underwater mega-drone. Burevestnik, which NATO designates as SSC-X-9 Skyfall, is a nuclear-powered cruise missile with global reach and the ability to counter future missile defense systems. 

None of the systems are yet ready, but testing and development take place in northern Russia, areas the Norwegian Intelligence Chief defines as “near Norwegian territory,” that be the Barents Sea, White Sea, Kola Peninsula and Novaya Zemlya.

The Barents Observer has previously reported about the 2019 disastrous test in the White Sea when a Burevestnik explosion outside Nenoksa test range was followed by a radiation spike in Severodvinsk, a city 40 kilometers to the east. The missile was reportedly tested at Novaya Zemlya in 2017, 2018, and possibly also this winter.

It has been unclear where and how testing of the Poseidon nuclear-powered drone takes place, but a previously published photo shows the Akademik Aleksandrov, a ship sailing special missions for the Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research, en route out of Severodvinsk with the mega-drone onboard. Nuclear submarines to carry the Poseidon, like the Belgorod and the Khabarovsk, are currently under testing and construction at the yards in Severodvinsk. 

Significant risk 

Nuclear activities in Norwegian neighboring areas constitute a significant risk, the Norwegian intelligence report reads.

Vice Admiral Nils Andreas Stensønes. Photo: Torbjørn Kjosvold / Forsvaret

Vice Admiral Stensønes said the new weapons are difficult to counter as “they fly low or travel underwater.”

The report points to three reasons why Russia feels threatened, making the country’s nuclear deterrence more important.

Firstly, Russia claims NATO has changed patterns from normal patrols and intelligence gatherings to simulated attacks on Russian targets, including with strategic bombers. Part of the Russian narrative is that NATO is coming closer to its borders. Secondly, Moscow accuses NATO of introducing new areas of warfare, like the use of digital operations and militarization of the space, potentially being used to attack Russian ballistic missiles before launch. Thirdly, Russia blames the United States for undermining the global security balance and arms control treaties, by that pushing the world towards a new nuclear arms race.

The Norwegian Intelligence Service rejects the above listed misguided narrative that NATO is causing insecurity. 

Moscow, however, considers an undermining of the strategic balance as an “existential threat” that could justify the use of nuclear weapons.

Tactical nukes 

Last year, Kremlin for the first time published a policy paper on nuclear deterrence policy guidelines. The paper hints that should Russia face the prospect of being defeated in a conflict with NATO, the use of tactical nuclear weapons could be an option aimed for the purpose of escalation for de-escalation.

The Norwegian annual intelligence report is spelling out the shift in policy: “Russia has no self-imposed restriction on non-first use” [of nuclear weapons].

Okolnaya Bay near Severomorsk in the Kola Bay holds one of the naval storages for nuclear weapons. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

Newspaper Izvestia on Sunday listed Russia’s new strategic weapon systems aimed to ensure the country’s security from potential threats. Most of the weapons are either under testing or deployed in the north. Novaya Zemlya, the White Sea and the Barents Sea are Russia’s most important testing areas for these new weapons. 

On the Kola Peninsula are nuclear warheads stored at a large national-level facility and at several smaller base-level facilities.

These storages hold a large number of nuclear warheads to both non-strategic and strategic nuclear weapons, according to the Norwegian intelligence report.

“The storages are adequately secured, but transport of nuclear warheads by train and on-road pose a risk of incidents that could cause releases of radioactivity.”

In peacetime, the report says, is it only the strategic forces that normally have nuclear warheads deployed. “The majority of nuclear weapons are in storage and will first be transferred to military units in times of possible conflict.”

 

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