In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a national address with international ramifications; touting new advanced missile platforms that were meant to usher in a new era of Russian military strength. These new platforms, of course, weren’t new to defense experts who had been following the development of these weapons systems, but raised concerns throughout the world nonetheless, and with good reason. Among Putin’s touted platforms were the RS-28 Sarmat, also known as the “Satan II,” a nuclear ICBM designed specifically to circumvent America’s existing missile defense apparatus, as well as the Status 6 submersible nuclear drone that has been called a doomsday weapon by some in the Pentagon, and of course, the hypersonic Kinzhal, which could feasibly become a carrier killer.
But one missile that drew a great deal of attention in the media despite the collective sound of experts scoffing at their keyboards was the nuclear-powered cruise missile Putin said would have nearly unlimited range and, as such, incredible maneuvering capabilities. Perhaps these claims didn’t ruffle many feathers within the defense industry because, like so many other “modern” Russian endeavors, the concept is just a repackaged Soviet project with a fresh coat of paint and Putin’s stamp of approval. The United States was experimenting with similar propulsion designs as far back as the 1950s, but had long ago dismissed the concept because the risks associated with a nuclear fueled missile, likely sputtering radioactive particles throughout the entirety of its flight path, simply made the concept illogical. The benefits just don’t outweigh the risks.
Maybe Putin had never heard of America’s nuclear ramjet engines that were being tested when he was just a kid, because according to the Russian president, their nuclear cruise missile “is unheard of and no one has this system in the world.”
He’s go on to say that the nuclear-powered cruise missile doesn’t “use ballistic trajectory at all, which means that missile defense will be useless against it.”
There’s some truth to the idea that a limitless fuel system would allow a missile to adopt unusual trajectories that would make it incredibly difficult to intercept — like throwing a curveball that shifts the flight bath of a baseball just before the batter can swing — the problem is, the missile just doesn’t seem to work.
“It has unlimited range, so it can keep going like this forever,” Putin said, showing an animation of the missile in flight. However, according to emerging reports, the perpetually-powered cruise missile has fallen a bit short of that “forever” mark — with its longest successful flight to date lasting just longer than two minutes and covering just over 22 miles before crashing back to earth. Three other tests were also conducted, but each of them fell short of even reaching that 22-mile mark.
Worse still, the nuclear-propulsion system in the missile may still be failing to function at all. It is assumed that the platform utilizes a traditional fuel engine for launch, to avoid irradiating Russian military personnel tasked with firing the missile. At a certain point in its flight path, the liquid or solid fuel stores will be exhausted, and the missile will need to transition over to the onboard nuclear reactor — the short duration of each missile tests seems to indicate that the reactor has failed to produce sufficient thrust, or to engage at all, in every test of the platform.
Development is likely to continue on this missile platform that, in truth, may be more novelty than a practical endeavor, and once it becomes operational, it may offer a legitimate challenge to missile defense systems. However, with more than one hypersonic missile platform in the Russian arsenal, which the United States is already scrambling to find ways to defend against, this nuclear-powered cruise missile will likely be little more than a drain on the already stifled Russian defense budget, rather than a threat worth losing any sleep over.
Image courtesy of the Associated Press