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WASHINGTON — An underwater drone armed with a nuclear warhead is slated to join Russia's arsenal no earlier than 2027, people familiar with a U.S. intelligence assessment told CNBC.
In November, the Kremlin carried out the 11th and last-known test of the nuclear-powered weapon, dubbed "Poseidon," which can navigate autonomously and travel continuously after launching from a submarine.
"What we are basically dealing with is a Russian submarine, that is difficult to detect, launching a drone, that is difficult to target, equipped with a nuclear warhead," said one person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The Russians have ambitions of using the nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered autonomous underwater vehicle as a retaliation device if their legacy nuclear weapon launch capability is neutralized during war."
While the strategic nuclear weapon is expected to join the Kremlin's arsenal as early as eight years from now, the Russians have yet to successfully test the system's nuclear propulsion heart, which guarantees the device's everlasting power.
Russian state media has previously announced that the Russian navy will place at least 30 Poseidon drones on combat duty. The U.S. Navy does not have a similar weapon.
The underwater drone was one of the six weapons Russian President Vladimir Putin bragged about during a national address in March 2018. Of those weapons, CNBC learned that two of them, a hypersonic glide vehicle and an 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.
Previous intelligence reports, which were curated last spring, calculate that Avangard is likely to achieve operational capability by 2020, a significant step that would enable the Kremlin to surpass the U.S. and China in this regard.
The air-launched 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.
Last week, 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.