* Putin reviews grand annual naval parade
* Says fleet’s capabilities are increasing
* Weapons are in final testing phase – defence ministry
By Andrew Osborn
MOSCOW, July 26 (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Sunday the Russian Navy would be armed with hypersonic nuclear strike weapons and underwater nuclear drones, which the defence ministry said were in their final phase of testing.
Putin, who says he does not want an arms race, has often spoken of a new generation of Russian nuclear weapons that he says are unequalled and can hit almost anywhere in the world. Some Western experts have questioned how advanced they are.
The weapons, some of which have yet to be deployed, include the Poseidon underwater nuclear drone, designed to be carried by submarines, and the Tsirkon (Zircon) hypersonic cruise missile, which can be deployed on surface ships.
The combination of speed, manoeuvrability and altitude of hypersonic missiles, capable of travelling at more than five times the speed of sound, makes them difficult to track and intercept.
Speaking in St Petersburg at an annual naval parade that showcases Russia’s best ships, nuclear submarines and naval aviation, Putin said the navy’s capabilities were growing and it would get 40 new vessels this year.
He did not specify when it would receive new hypersonic weapons, but suggested that day was drawing closer.
“The widespread deployment of advanced digital technologies that have no equals in the world, including hypersonic strike systems and underwater drones, will give the fleet unique advantages and increased combat capabilities,” Putin said.
In a separate statement released via Russian news agencies, the defence ministry said testing of the Belgorod, the first submarine capable of carrying the Poseidon drones, was underway and testing of the weapons systems was nearing completion.
“Work is being successfully completed to create modern weapons systems for the Navy,” it was cited as saying.
Putin last year threatened to deploy hypersonic missiles on ships and submarines that could lurk outside U.S. territorial waters if the United States moved to deploy intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe.
Washington has not deployed such missiles in Europe, but Moscow is worried it might. (Editing by Barbara Lewis)