- Russian leadership claims the country is developing an unstoppable nuclear-powered cruise missile, which NATO calls the Skyfall.
- The weapon conceptually has ties to projects from the Cold War aimed at developing nuclear-propelled missiles and aircraft, projects that were ultimately abandoned because they were too expensive, too complicated, too dangerous, and too unnecessary.
- A leading defence expert characterised a nuclear-powered cruise missile as “an act of desperation.”
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Russia claims to be developing an unstoppable nuclear-powered cruise missile, a weapon with roots in technology the US considered too expensive, too complicated, too dangerous, and too unnecessary to pursue.
Little is known about Russia’s doomsday weapon, as it has been described, but the missile has links to systems the Americans and Soviets looked at during the Cold War, systems that both sides eventually gave up on.
During the Cold War, both the US and the Soviet Union “were looking at every possible idea for how to solve this problem of assured destruction,” John Pike, founder of GlobalSecurity.org, told Insider, explaining that they pursued ideas that while theoretically possible sometimes failed to close the important gap between possible and militarily useful.
In a time of renewed great power competition, the US and Russia, as nonproliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis wrote recently, “seem to be drifting into a new arms race, either out of some bizarre nostalgia or because no one can think of anything better to do.”
Last year, Putin revealed a handful of weapons, some of which have been described as “doomsday weapons.” Among them was the Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile, which NATO calls the SSC-X-9 Skyfall. The Russian president has stated that the aim is to defeat American missile defence systems.
“A nuclear-powered cruise missile is an outrageous idea, one the United States long ago considered and rejected as a technical, strategic, and environmental nightmare,” Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, wrote in an article for Foreign Policy.
In the 1960s, the US looked at developing its own nuclear-powered cruise missiles, but Project Pluto, as the program was called, was ultimately abandoned. “It’s a bad idea,” Pike, a leading expert on defence, space, and intelligence policy, said. “It’s a stupid idea,” he added, further explaining that traditional ICBMs, like the Minuteman, were a “much simpler, much cheaper, and much more effective way to incinerate” an adversary.
Pike, who is deeply sceptical of Russia’s claims, characterised a nuclear-powered cruise missile as “an act of desperation.”
‘Expensive, complicated, dangerous, unnecessary.’
Hans Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, toldTask & Purpose recently that the US gave up on developing a nuclear-powered cruise missile because “it was too difficult, too dangerous, and too expensive.”
The Americans and the Soviets also looked at the development of nuclear-powered aircraft in hopes of fielding bombers with unprecedented endurance, but these projects never panned out. For the US, these planes were going to be the Air Force equivalent of a ballistic missile submarine, Pike explained, noting that “these things could be on continuous patrol.”
The problem was that nuclear-powered aircraft, like nuclear-powered cruise missiles, were “expensive, complicated, dangerous, unnecessary,” Pike said, calling such technology “hazardous.” He told Insider that mid-air refuelling eventually made this project pointless.
Yet, here Russia is purportedly trying to revive this troubled idea to threaten the US. “A lot of technology has developed,” Kristensen toldT&P. “It could be some of what the Russian technicians are taking advantage of, but so far it seems like they’re not doing a good job.”
Indeed, testing hasn’t gone very well. There have been around a dozen tests, and in each case the weapon has not worked as intended. A recent explosion at the Nyonoksa military weapons testing range that killed a handful of people is suspected to be linked to the Burevestnik, although Russia has not been particularly forthcoming with the details of what exactly happened.
Russia has indicated that it was working with new weapons, and recently-released data on the cloud of inert radioactive gases created by the blast suggests that a nuclear reactor was likely involved, giving support to the theory that this may have been part of testing for a nuclear-powered cruise missile.
As for Russia’s Skyfall, expert observers suspect that Russia is either bluffing and that the weapon’s stated development is a deception or that Russia is covering up its failings as it tries to get a Cold War-era bad idea to fly.
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