WASHINGTON – Russian President Vladimir Putin bragged a year ago that his country had a new nuclear-powered missile with unlimited range. But the Kremlin will only produce a few of them because the weapon has yet to complete a successful test and is too expensive to develop, according to sources with direct knowledge of a U.S. intelligence report on the weapons program.
Russia's cruise missile Burevestnik, referred to as "Skyfall" in American intelligence reports, was tested once earlier this year. Prior to that, the weapon was tested four times between November and February in 2018, each resulting in a crash, according to sources who spoke to CNBC on the condition of anonymity.
The U.S. assessed that the longest test flight lasted just more than two minutes, with the missile flying 22 miles before losing control and crashing. The shortest test lasted four seconds and flew for five miles. The tests showed that the nuclear-powered heart of the cruise missile failed to initiate and, therefore, the weapon was unable to achieve the indefinite flight Putin had boasted about.
The weapon, which has been in development since the early 2000s, is believed to use a gasoline-powered engine for takeoff before switching to a nuclear-powered one for flight, sources explained.
One U.S. intelligence report assesses that the Burevestnik will not be combat-ready for another decade, despite Putin's claim that the "invincible" weapon has a proven capability.
Putin's push to develop weapons of this caliber has sparked concerns of a budding arms race among China, the U.S. and Russia.
What's more, the latest revelations come a little more than a year after the Russian leader touted his nation's growing hypersonic arsenal. Of the six new weapons Putin unveiled last March, CNBC learned that two of them, a hypersonic glide vehicle and air-launched cruise missile, will be ready for war by 2020.
The hypersonic glide vehicle, dubbed Avangard, is designed to sit atop an intercontinental ballistic missile. Once launched, it uses aerodynamic forces to sail on top of the atmosphere.
One U.S. intelligence report, according to a source, noted that the hypersonic glide vehicles were mounted to Russian-made SS-19 intercontinental ballistic missiles — and one test featured a mock warhead.
Previous intelligence reports, which were curated last spring, calculate that Avangard is likely to achieve initial operational capability by 2020, a significant step that would enable the Kremlin to surpass the U.S. and China in this regard.
The hypersonic cruise missile dubbed "Kinzhal," which means "dagger" in Russian, has been tested at least three times and was mounted and launched 12 times from a Russian MiG-31 fighter jet.
Additionally, work is underway to mount the weapon on a strategic bomber.
On Thursday, CNBC reported that nearly 20 of these Russian missiles were recently moved to a military testing site, signaling another milestone for the Kremlin's hypersonic weapons program.
Currently, the United States does not have a defense against hypersonic weapons, which can travel at least five times the speed of sound, or about one mile per second.