A missile running on nuclear energy could run for days, flying around the globe if necessary.
Russia's nuclear-powered cruise missile, a throwback to crazy-sounding Cold War weapons tech, is back. Whether it'll ever work is a separate issue.
The Burevestnik (“Storm Petrel”) is designed to evade U.S. defenses, flying for hours or even days to exploit holes in missile defense networks that most weapons can’t reach. Russia hadn't tested the weapon in nearly a year—until last week, that is.
According to The Diplomat, the test took place on January 29 at Kapustin Yar, one of Russia’s major weapon-testing grounds. The website quoted anonymous sources in the U.S. government with knowledge of the weapons program. The missile is known to the U.S. intelligence community as the KY30, or the SSC-X-9 “Skyfall.”
In November 2017, a "moderately successful" test of Skyfall from the Pan’kovo test site on the Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya resulted in several Russian ships fishing debris and nuclear materials from the Barents Sea. The Diplomat’s sources describe the most recent test as “partially successful.”
A nuclear-powered cruise missile could fly for much longer, perhaps staying aloft for days.
Russian President Vladimir Putin officially announced this weapon's existence back in March 2018. Putin stated, “The launch and the set of ground tests allow [Russia] to get to creating a radically new type of weaponry—a strategic nuclear weaponry complex with a missile fitted with a nuclear powered engine." Putin further described the missile, later named Burevestnik via a poll of the Russian public, as having “unlimited range and unlimited ability to maneuver.”
This technology has a long history. In the early 1960s, the United States attempted to build a similar nuclear-powered missile. Known as Project Pluto, the program was working toward a weapons system named the Supersonic Low Altitude Missile (SLAM). SLAM was supposed to fly at Mach 3.5 at low altitude and eject a payload of H-bombs over enemy targets over the course of a long flight. But Project Pluto was killed off, doomed by the advent of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and the fact that there was no way to practically test it without spewing radiation everywhere.
Russia’s missile may not fly at Mach 3.5 or carry racks of H-bombs, but it would have one of the major advantages that inspired Project Pluto: unheard-of range for a powered flying object. Modern cruise missiles use turbojet or turbofan engines and typically have ranges of 1,000 miles or so, a limit that is dictated by their fuel supply. A nuclear-powered cruise missile could fly for much longer, perhaps staying aloft for days and flying intricate routes to exploit holes in enemy air defenses.
If Burevestnik becomes operational—and that’s a big if given the complexity and danger of nuclear-powered engines—Russia could launch cruise missiles from the Asian mainland, program them to cross the Pacific, go around South America, and penetrate U.S. airspace from the Gulf of Mexico. Superlong, previously impossible flight paths would become a reality. This would force the U.S. to fund a number of expensive upgrades to its air defense network, which has always assumed an air attack would come from the north, west, or east, but not the south.
For now, Burevestnik is nowhere near such flights. With 13 test flights and only two partially successful ones, the nuclear-powered cruise missile is still in what will likely be a long developmental period. It may never enter service and could even be bargained away in some future arms control agreement. Whatever the case, we’re sure to hear more of “Skyfall” in the near future.