It sounds like a plot right out of a 1980’s action movie: Russian warships patrolling the surface of the Barents Sea, hunting for traces of their lost experimental nuclear-powered cruise missile that Vladimir Putin himself described as capable of out-maneuvering any missile defense system on the planet. Meanwhile, deep beneath the surface, a stealthy behemoth lurks about, hoping to snatch the Russian prize away in the name of the United States Navy.
Cinematic as it may sound, this may well be a reality for the American and Russian navies in the coming months. Three Russian vessels have been dispatched to the Barents Sea, north of Russia and Norway, tasked with that very mission. Russia has made four attempts at launching their much-touted nuclear-powered cruise missile, a platform with supposedly near limitless range, but thus far, every attempt has been met with failure. Three of those launched missiles have been recovered — but one disappeared into the northern waterway. Little is known publicly known about the condition of the missing weapon, but regardless of its state, the United States could feasibly gain some valuable intelligence on the program by getting to the intact platform, or even its debris, before the Russians do.
The question, of course, is how could American forces get their hands on this missile technology demonstrator before the Russians get there. If the missile broke up before making contact with the water, its general location could be fairly easy to determine using radiation “sniffer” aircraft like the WC-135 Atmospheric Reconnaissance plane. However, if it is still intact somewhere in the waterway, it may be harder to hunt down. Satellite imagery or data collected by America’s defense intelligence apparatus about the launch’s location and trajectory could also narrow down the search — but there’s no question, locating this missile (or what’s left of it) is an undertaking best compared to finding a needle in a sea of haystacks. That could, however, work to America’s benefit if the U.S. Navy is indeed on the case. The harder it is to find, the longer it will take for the Russians to do so.
If America does mount such an effort, the Navy would likely turn to the USS Jimmy Carter, perhaps America’s most secretive submarine. As Joseph Trevithick points out on The War Zone, the Jimmy Carter’s unique design could make it particularly well suited for a recovery operation of this sort. While all Seawolf-class submarines like the Carter are stealthy, the submarine named after a president that once served on submarines himself received specialized modifications to its construction that makes it America’s go-to submersible for secret missions ranging from espionage to clandestine kinetic operations. Unlike other submarines in its class, the Jimmy Carter has a 100 foot long, 2,500-ton displacement module called the Multi-Mission platform that can be used to deploy any number of undersea assets ranging from drones, to sensor arrays, to Navy SEALs.
Last year, the Jimmy Carter returned to port flying the Jolly Rodger flag, symbolizing a notably successful secret mission had been a success. Likewise, in 2013, the Jimmy Carter conducted another secret operation listed only as “Mission 7” in its official chronology. That mission, which remains classified, has been characterized as being “performed under a wide range of adverse and extremely stressful conditions without external support,” and was later referenced in a Presidential Unit Citation awarded for, among other things, “extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy.”
There has been no official word from the U.S. government regarding any effort to recover the missing nuclear-powered cruise missile, but then, there wouldn’t be. Even if America recovers it, the world at large will likely never know.