Russia’s slew of ongoing missile initiatives have seen mixed success during the past few years. Some platforms, like the Zircon hypersonic cruise missile, have apparently performed well enough to soon enter service. Others, like their nuclear-powered Burevestnik cruise missile, have failed at every turn. But even the programs that have met some level of success are straying too far from reality to have any real strategic value—and that’s not the assessment of Western intelligence or journalistic analysis, it’s the opinion of Russian defense experts.
On January 29, Russia restarted testing of their much-touted Burevestnik cruise missile, which uses an onboard nuclear reactor to provide propulsion. If proven viable, the platform would have a significant advantage in range over traditional missiles, allowing the Burevestnik to loiter and maneuver as much and for as long as it needs to avoid missile defenses. In theory, it’s a potentially advantageous weapon system, but in practice, it offers little in the way of real strategic benefit in the era of hypersonic missile platforms, which experts agree are all but impossible to defend against with current technology. The truth of the matter is, however, none of that matters because the platform has failed to function in every test.
January’s launch (the first in more than a year) was referred to as “partially successful” by U.S. intelligence, though no further details have been provided to the public. In all previous tests, the nuclear reactor failed to fire and come online at all, so it’s safe to say a “partially successful” test may have included the reactor actually firing, but likely little else. The last time the missile was tested, it not only failed to fire, but was lost at sea—forcing the Russian Navy to deploy ships to hunt it down. It’s unclear if that missile platform was ever recovered.
The Burevestnik (known in American intelligence communities as “Skyfall”) isn’t the only missile program steaming ahead on the Kremlin’s dime without any clear direction. Russia’s much-touted Kalibr cruise missile is, in actuality, a family of missiles built for varying duties throughout the Russian military. Recently, work began on a new version of the 3M-14 Kalibr, which could be compared to America’s workhorse Tomahawk cruise missile family. Like the Tomahawk, the 3M-14 travels at subsonic speeds, allowing for increased agility throughout its estimated 1,000- to 1,500-mile range. The Russian Navy has plans to arm nearly every vessel with these platforms, and because they are nuclear capable, that has become a real concern for American defense officials. The new missile being developed under the 3M-14 moniker will supposedly boast a range that’s nearly three times that of its predecessor, able to strike targets as far away as 2,800 miles.
The new variant of the 3M-14 has one significant drawback: It won’t fit in most Russian vessels. The increased size required for that extended range and what is said to be a one-ton warhead simply makes it too large for the missile tubes with which most Russian ships are equipped.
“The creation of the Kalibr-M rocket will cancel all efforts to improve the strike potential of the Russian Navy, since none of the above types of ships, let alone submarines, will be able to use SLCMs [sea-launched cruise missiles] of such dimensions,” wrote Russian experts Nikolai Novichkov and Vasily Kostin in a recent edition of the Military-Industrial Courier, a Russian defense publication.
“Creating an SLCM with a range of more than 4,500 kilometers and a warhead of about a ton will lead to the emergence of the next super-expensive ‘monster-weapon,’” Novichkov and Kostin wrote. “Such megalomania was a characteristic feature of the Soviet military-industrial complex.”
Objectively, Russia’s missile programs do pose the most realistic threat to American interests abroad of any of Moscow’s highly publicized but often ineffectual weapons programs. With their fifth-generation fighter, the Su-57, all but dead in the water, orders being rolled back on their new T-14 Armata tank, and the nation’s only aircraft carrier out of commission indefinitely, Russia has benefited from a concerted media effort to keep their name in the conversation among global military powers. However, it appears that even their more successful missile endeavors are aimed not at true capability, but rather at garnering headlines for the sake of advertising to the international arms market.
And advertisements tend not to win wars.