The failed test of a nuclear-powered cruise missile at a military facility in Nyonoksa, Russia has put a spotlight on the country’s new array of so-called ‘Invincible’ weapons. One of these, the 9M730 Burevestnik missile, dubbed “Skyfall” by NATO, was first showcased in March of 2018. A failed test of the 9M730 on Aug 8th caused an explosion that killed seven atomic scientists.
The explosion caused radiation levels to spike briefly, and induced panic across Russia as the plume spread. You can see the model of particles dispersing from Skyfall below provided by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO). The bullet points in blue are CTBTO testing stations. Four of these monitoring stations in and around the plume mysteriously went offline a few days after the explosion.
To requests on #IMS detection beyond #CTBT, data in, or near the path of potential plume from the explosion are being analyzed . We’re also addressing w/station operators technical problems experienced at two neighboring stations. All data are available to our Member States. https://t.co/pHL4WrHU23 pic.twitter.com/9aO5cQTlls
— Lassina Zerbo (@SinaZerbo) August 18, 2019
If fully developed, the missile would be capable of flying unlimited distances at very high speeds, and because a cruise missile skims the surface and hugs the terrain, it could avoid detection by Anti-Ballistic Missile shields. At the National Interest, Sebastian Roblin discusses whether the development of such a weapon is worth the risk. He writes (abridged):
[…] Why on earth is Russia seeking to develop such a peculiar and complicated weapon in the first place? […]
A nuclear-powered cruise missile could—theoretically—have practically unlimited range, and sustain supersonic speeds, making it hard to intercept, and allowing it to circumnavigate bubbles of radar coverages and leverage terrain to minimize the chance of interception.
The Russian claim that a “liquid-fuel” booster was being tested may not in fact be inaccurate. The most likely scheme for a nuclear-powered missile involves a ramjet engine, in which the reactor would heat onrushing air at speeds exceeding twice the speed of sound. This expanding heated air would be squeezed out the engine’s rear nozzle, resulting in sustainable supersonic propulsion.
However, conventional booster would be required for the missile to move fast enough for the ramjet to work. Therefore, The Drive’s Joe Trevithick argues it’s possible scientists were testing the robustness of the missile’s reactor when exposed to the heat and physical stress caused by the rocket boosters—with explosive results.
Another issue is that the Burevestnik’s unshielded reactor core could potentially leave behind a trail of radioactive emissions and contaminants over everything it overflies. In fact, in the early 1960s, the United States’ Project Pluto developed a nuclear ramjet-powered missile that was canceled in part due to concerns over its extreme radioactive pollution—though not before its designers considered whether its extreme radioactive emissions could be weaponized! The problem remained that the trail of sickness-inducing radiation would begin over friendly territory.
Western intelligence had already been keeping tabs on Skyfall prior to Putin’s speech. Around a dozen tests have been held since 2016, first at Kapustin Yar (near Volgograd), then the Pan’kovo test site on Yuzhny island. Only two were successful. However, Pentagon snooping of the latter by WC-135 weather reconnaissance planes used to measure radiation may have led to the program’s relocation to Nyonoksa, which is distant from international airspace.
In the most successful test in November 2017, which can be seen in a video released by Putin, the Skyfall missile flew little more than twenty miles before crashing into the sea. The nuclear refueling ship Serebryanka, which was also present at the accident in August 8, was dispatched to recover the possibly irradiated debris.
These results suggest the program is far from mature. Thus, Pranay Vaddi argues in a piece on Lawfare that Burevestnik should not have any impact on renewal of the New START Treaty regulating deployed strategic nuclear weapons, as it is unlikely to enter service in the next decade.
Clearly, Russia is still far from solving the daunting challenges of developing a practical and functional nuclear-powered missile. Even if the Skyfall is eventually developed into an operational system, deploying dozens of strategic missiles each with their own miniature nuclear reactors would be extremely expensive and pose costly political, safety and security risks—as was amply demonstrated by the tragic incident on August 8.
Read the full article here.
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