Three ships from the Russian Navy, including one that is specially equipped to handle radioactive materials, have been dispatched to the Barents Sea in search of a high profile weapon Vladimir Putin recently touted as “invulnerable to all existing and future missile defense and air defense systems.” The nuclear-powered cruise missile was supposed to offer a near limitless operational range, granting it the ability to conduct complex maneuvers that could circumvent the ways American systems intercept inbound missiles.
The problem is, despite Putin’s grand claims about the platform, it doesn’t seem to work. The missing missile was tested in November, reportedly against the advice of the engineers tasked with its development, only to be lost at sea north of Norway and Russia. To date, the longest reported test flight of this new missile lasted only two minutes, with the platform covering 22 miles before it attempted to engage the nuclear drive system. The system, however, has failed to engage in any test to date, sending the missile sputtering to the ground after it expends its traditional fuel supply.
Thus far, four attempts have reportedly been made to get the missile platform to function, with none matching the 22 miles of its most successful test, and others lasting just seconds before failing or coming apart.
The ships dispatched to recover the missile may have their work cut out for them. If the missile managed to come down in one piece, the operation could be as simple as looking for a needle in the world’ largest haystack, but if it came apart upon impact, they could be faced with not only the daunting task of finding what’s left, but they’ll have to contend with risks of radiation exposure as well.
“It goes without saying that if you fire a missile with a nuclear engine or energy source, that nuclear material will end up wherever that missile ends up,” Hans Kristensen explained. He serves as the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. “If this missile was lost at sea and recovered in full, then you might hypothetically be able to do it without pollution, I would have my doubts about that because it’s a very forceful impact when the missile crashes. I would suspect you would have leaks from it.”
The concept of a nuclear-powered missile or aircraft is not new. In fact, the United States experimented with similar technology as far back as 1957 with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission’s “Project Pluto.” The concept behind this technology is fairly straightforward: air would be forced into the vehicle’s inlet as it traveled, that air would then be superheated by a small nuclear reactor, forcing it to expand and be expelled out through a nozzle at the rear of the apparatus. Ultimately, the endeavor was scrapped for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that it could potentially irradiate areas it flew over and the general safety concerns associated with attempted to use a weapon armed with nuclear power in conventional warfare.
Russia faces an incredible challenge in recovering their lost missile, but in the big picture, that challenge may be small compared to the effort to make this experimental technology into any kind of viable weapon.