Recent reports have stirred anticipation and concern as satellite imagery and aviation data indicate Russia’s potential preparations for an experimental nuclear-powered cruise missile test, with a theoretical range spanning thousands of miles.
The activities observed involving aircraft and vehicles in a remote Arctic base align with past preparations for tests of the missile, codenamed Burevestnik or SSC-X-9 Skyfall, dating back to 2017 and 2018. A comprehensive analysis by The New York Times corroborates this pattern.
Historically, Russia embarked on 13 documented tests of the missile between 2017 and 2019, all of which ended in failure, as reported by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit organisation specialising in arms control. It is essential to note that these mishaps can have dire consequences. In 2019, a missile launch resulted in a crash followed by an explosion during a recovery attempt, tragically claiming the lives of seven individuals, according to U.S. officials. This latest development raises questions and concerns about the continued pursuit of this advanced and potentially hazardous technology.
What is it about the Burevestnik missile?
Hidden within the realm of publicly available data lies a tantalising glimpse into a world of cutting-edge military technology – the Burevestnik. This enigmatic creation is an experimental, nuclear-powered cruise missile, shrouded in secrecy and developed for the formidable Russian Armed Forces. What sets it apart is its claimed limitless range, a characteristic that elevates it into the echelons of next-generation weaponry.
But the intrigue doesn’t stop there. The Burevestnik is just one piece of a larger puzzle unveiled by Russian President Vladimir Putin on that fateful day, March 1, 2018. This arsenal of innovation includes:
- Avangard Hypersonic Glide Vehicle: Picture a technology that can move at mind-bending speeds while gracefully evading missile defence systems.
- 9M730 Burevestnik Nuclear-Powered Cruise Missile: The missile in question, designed to be nuclear-powered and possessing an extraordinary range.
- 3M22 Zircon Scramjet-Powered Anti-Ship Hypersonic Cruise Missile: A marvel of engineering, this missile races across the seas at hypersonic velocities, posing a formidable threat.
- Kh-47M2 Kinzhal Hypersonic Air-Launched Ballistic Missile: A weapon of precision, launched from aircraft, designed to strike with devastating accuracy.
- Poseidon Unmanned Underwater Vehicle: Imagine a submersible, unmanned, and armed with nuclear capabilities, ready to navigate the depths for various purposes.
- RS-28 Sarmat Liquid-Fueled, MIRV-Equipped Super-Heavy ICBM: The stuff of science fiction, a super-heavy intercontinental ballistic missile, with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), now a reality and recently deployed.
Since the 1980s, Russia has grappled with uncertainty regarding the effectiveness of its ICBM nuclear arsenal due to the United States’ anti-ballistic missile system, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), known as the Star Wars program. Recent reports suggest that Russia is developing weapons designed to evade ballistic missile defences, adding a layer of complexity to global security dynamics and President Putin’s strategy to enhance Russia’s nuclear strike capabilities. These developments raise questions about the evolving landscape of international relations and strategic stability.
Russia’s defence industry embarked on a groundbreaking endeavour, crafting an intercontinental-range nuclear-powered cruise missile designed to outsmart any interceptor-based missile defence system. This missile is believed to possess an unlimited range and the capability to elude existing missile defences. In a significant milestone, the testing of the nuclear power unit for the Burevestnik complex’s cruise missile was successfully accomplished in January 2019.
Why do they fear it?
Experts have provided intriguing insights into the Burevestnik missile’s design and capabilities. At launch, it measures 12 metres in length, but in flight, it contracts to 9 metres. The distinctive elliptical nose spans 1 metre by 1.5 metres. Some reports suggest that the Burevestnik dwarfs the Kh-101, being one and a half to two times larger. Notably, its wings are situated atop the fuselage, distinguishing it from its predecessor.
Given that the missile houses a nuclear reactor, it must outweigh the Kh-101 considerably. This rules out aircraft like the Tu-160 or Tu-95MS as viable carriers, pointing towards the potential deployment on ships. Ground-based Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) vehicles, like the MZKT-7930 on an 8×8 chassis, have also been identified as potential carriers for this advanced weapon.
Unlike conventional cruise missiles, the Burevestnik’s nuclear-powered engine grants it an unprecedented range, effectively allowing it to traverse unlimited distances. Moreover, conventional missiles often grapple with design trade-offs, such as balancing speed and stealth. Achieving both simultaneously is challenging, as high-speed demands more fuel, resulting in a larger profile and increased detectability by enemy air defence systems. The Burevestnik, with its nuclear propulsion, may potentially overcome these limitations, representing a leap forward in missile technology.
Indeed, conventional missiles often face a challenging trade-off between evading radar detection and maintaining their effectiveness. When prioritising stealth, compromises are made in terms of fuel, warhead size, and overall weight, resulting in slower speeds, limited range, and reduced lethality.
However, the game changes with a nuclear-powered missile. This technology allows for a compact size to minimise radar detection while enabling incredibly high speeds and virtually limitless endurance.
The unlimited range of a nuclear-powered missile adds another layer of complexity. It can easily outmanoeuvre enemy air defence systems by refusing to follow predictable trajectories. With the capability to alter its course continuously, it can strike from unexpected directions, maximising the chances of a successful mission. This unique combination of attributes marks a significant advancement in missile capabilities, reshaping the strategic landscape.
This tantalising lineup of weaponry not only piques curiosity but also raises profound questions about the shifting dynamics of global security. What secrets lie behind these advancements? How will they shape the future of warfare? The journey into the world of these innovations has only just begun, and the implications are nothing short of riveting.