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Defence & Arms Last Updated: Aug 17, 2019 - 11:32:15 AM

Mystery explosion at Nenoksa test site: itís probably not Burevestnik
By Michael Kofman, Russia Military Analysis, 16/8/19
Aug 16, 2019 - 4:01:28 PM

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I was going to stay away from this because there simply was not sufficient information out there, and the hot take factory had already run away with the story on the basis of close to nothing. Here is the most likely scenario as I see it. The explosion was not a missile launch test, and it was not Burevestnik, no matter how much arms control wonks want to think it was. It's just unlikely based on the limited information available.

I have a different view from Jeffrey Lewis here. The notion that Russian Burevestnik program was in major trouble after moving from Novaya Zemlya test site is also probably incorrect. I think Lewis' own commercial satellite imagery confirms the story that VNIIEF, the Russian nuclear research institute in charge of this work, basically tried to tell but couldn't get out in time because people already piled in with speculation.

Jeffrey Lewis paid for this image
courtesy of Jeffrey Lewis and his institute who paid for this lovely image

They were testing the system on a platform at sea. According to some accounts the explosion blew the scientists into the water, which is why it took time for an accurate casualty count to come in as they were looking for their own people. It was not a missile launch, as such launches are easily detected by national technical means, and it was not on a rail launcher since we can clearly see one affixed on land at the test site. Why would they rail launch it from a platform at sea when they can fire it over the bay from the coast?

Let's ask first order questions. Why did five leading researchers die? If it was a missile test why would they be near the missile? I know I'm always standing next to experimental missiles I'm testing, it's the best way to see the explosion. If it was an experimental nuclear reactor, why were they standing next to it at the time of the mishap? I know I always stand next to experimental nuclear reactors I'm testing. Typically when people stand around things, it is because they don't expect them to explode or massively irradiate them. If this is a likelihood, the researchers are usually quite far away from the device when it is being tested. VNIIEF stated they had spent a year preparing for this test, so probably they had thought about their own safety for some time.

The explosion was caused by a liquid fueled engine - why would there be a liquid fuel engine in Burevestnik? Ok here is the last question for Burevestnik theory enthusiasts. Imagine they are conducting a missile test on a small platform out at sea, and you believe that this is a missile powered by an unshielded reactor. I mean, kind of hard to shield a reactor on a relatively small cruise missile. In this theory Russia's leading nuclear researchers are standing around an unshielded nuclear reactor on a barge, with the intent to turn it on. Forgive my skepticism.

Some in Russia have combined the two theories, suggesting that Burevestnik has a nuclear power component, but there is a separate liquid fueled engine for maneuverability. While interesting, its still unclear how either system actually powers Burevestnik and why a subsonic missile with maneuvering surfaces would remotely need liquid fueled thrusters to maneuver. I'm raising this here to dismiss it because it doesn't make much technical sense. We will get back to Burevestnik later.

VNIIEF's statement, in classic Russian style, alluded to two types of projects without saying exactly what it was, a novel Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator or a novel reactor type akin to U.S. Kilopower project. In my view they were indeed testing a novel Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator with a liquid fuel engine combo. The idea being to use the RTG as a long term electrical heating solution to maintain thermostatic temperature inside the various components of a liquid fueled engine, either in a booster phase, or the canister itself, of a missile that needs to get up to speed very quickly from launch. Basically an atomic battery for a liquid fueled engine where the components have to be kept at a certain temperature in prolonged storage, otherwise the weapon has to be permanently connected to a power source. This is certainly not as sexy as a nuclear powered missile, but it's much more probable as the real story behind what happened. That's the story IZ eventually went with and it's probably closer to the truth than all the Burevestnik mania.

RTG wikimedia
RTG design from wikimedia commons

If we ask which secretive missile the Russian military is working on, that is principally for the Russian Navy, has most likely a high power liquid fuel engine - it's could well be Tsirkon. Since Tsirkon has to be canister stored, and get up to high speed for its scramjet to activate, most likely this missile uses some kind of† †a Some have also suggested Skif, a SLBM designed to be fired from the ocean seabed, even though that would violate a treaty banning such weapons. I'm skeptical on Skif and leaning towards Tsirkon, because the latter is likely to have a powerful liquid fueled engine/scramjet combo.

While we're in the speculation business, it might also be a maneuvering satellite. That sort of weapon could use a sustained power source, in space, and possibly have liquid fueled thrusters. Just working through the non-Burevestnik list here. If the radiation emitted sounds too high for a RTG, and I'm not an expert here so I don't know how much radiation you get if you blow one up, I suppose it varies considerably depending on the type of material used and how much of it they were using. RTGs are fairly simple in design, but perhaps this RTG was novel and therefore more powerful. Perhaps it was a novel nuclear power source, but again it begs the question as to the cause of an explosion, and why leading researchers would ever be standing around such a thing on a platform at sea.

Back to Burevestnik

I wonder why people assume that Burevestnik is an open air flow reactor/ramject powered missile? Just because in 1960s U.S. project Pluto used this combination on a large supersonic missile, then that's what Russia is working on as well. So this is what the U.S. tried to build 1957-1964, and it makes total sense that it is what Russia would try to build in 2019. Even though the former was a large supersonic missile, with rocket boosters and multiple warheads, and the latter is a subsonic single warhead cruise missile. Pluto was a supersonic low altitude missile (SLAM).

project pluto
This is project Pluto in concept

Burevestnik clearly doesn't look like a supersonic low altitude missile with those wing surfaces.

Burevestnik 2

this is burevestnik

Given Burevestnik appears to be a subsonic, or at best a transonic missile, not meant for supersonic flight and therefore not utilizing a ramjet which is better suited for mach 2+ it is probably not an open air flow system. Ramjets are highly inefficient at slower speeds and the wings on the missile don't exactly look like a mach 2+ weapon. Also I don't think its index is 9M730, although it was initially reported as such. There are still too many assumptions here about an experimental weapon without enough images or information, so in my view it is best to hold back on the guesswork.

Comments and feedback as always welcome. If you have alternative explanations please send them in. I do not know with any certainty what it was, but there's enough information to suggest that the hot take factory is wrong as usual.

Source:Ocnus.net 2019

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