As Russia’s conventional military starts to crack, the country’s nuclear arsenal and long-range missile strike capabilities have been brought to the spotlight. With Western observers raising questions about the capabilities of the Russian military and Ukraine recently launching its first major offensive, Moscow increasingly feels pressed to show more powerful weaponry—like a cruise missile. One of the newest developments for the Kremlin’s threat and deterrence strategy is the 9M730 Burevestnik (NATO codename SSC-X-9 Skyfall). Western analysts believe this nuclear-powered cruise missile has almost unlimited range.

‘Flying Chernobyl’

Among the latest in keeping Western analysts up at night is the 9M730 Burevestnik, also called by more sensationalist sources as the Flying Chernobyl.” The moniker, however, is well-earned as the missile is powered by a small nuclear reactor that poses a real threat to human health and the environment, even for non-targets. Thomas Nilsen of The Barents Observer attributes the threat to size and weight considerations with regards to the design of the missile, which severely limits options for a closed cooling circuit and increases the likelihood of (what should be) unwanted release of radioactive isotopes spewing from the missile during flight.

Ironically (or appropriately, considering humanity’s past with nuclear weapons development), the first victims of this threat may have been the Russian developers themselves, with the Burevestnik being linked to a nuclear explosion that killed five nuclear agency workers in Nyonokska in November 2019.

satellite image
Satellite image detailing the Nyonoksa radiation accident that caused five fatalities last August 8, 2019. Western observers have cited tests related to the Burevestnik cruise missile as the cause of the accident. Credit: CNN

Like all threats of radioactive fallout, however, Burevestnik’s leaking miniature nuclear power unit is only a side-effect of the need to maximize the weapon’s capabilities. In the case of the Burevestnik, the intended effect has become a cause for even more significant concern for military observers. Based on limited information gathered from various reliable sources, most analysts agree that the Burevestnik’s nuclear reactor allows it unlimited range in a way that no cruise missile has before. This new technology would theoretically allow it to bypass the United States’ national missile defense (NMDs).

Burvestnik cruise missile
Observers say a typical engagement scenario for US Missile Defense can be circumvented through Burevestnik’s cruise missile range capabilities. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Incredible cruise missile with supersonic capabilities

Cruise missiles are a series of design compromises.  To go really fast and avoid detection and shorten the reaction time of defense systems you have to carry lots of fuel, which makes the missile larger and easier to detect.  Carrying more fuel also means your payload will be smaller.  If you want to make a small missile harder to see on radar, it will have to fly slower and lower to conserve fuel. A missile that is nuclear powered can be small, very fast, and still pack a punch at long range, but they are very expensive to build.

However, the Burevestnik flies in the face of (or under) conventional design through its nuclear reactor. Middleburry Institute weapons expert Jeffrey Lewis said, “Using a nuclear reactor would, in principle, give the cruise missile unlimited range to fly under and around US missile defense radars and interceptors.While it is unclear if the missile truly has supersonic capabilities, UK Chief of Defence Intelligence James Hockenhull cites the missile’s “near-indefinite loiter time” as the primary threat, as this allows for both global reaches as well as enables attacks from multiple, unexpected directions.  It also means the missiles could be launched and loiter around waiting to build a swarm of additional launches then all proceed at the target together.  Although it takes a lot of nerve to have 100 nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed missiles all circling over your own country for an hour while you get all your missiles launched.

There is also a question of metallurgy.  The skin on a hypersonic missile at speed is at a sizzling hot temperature and it is difficult to shield the internal electronics and components from temps over 400 degrees. Internally, the nuclear ramjet in the missile is operating at 2,500 degrees.  Of course, the exhaust of a jet engine on afterburner can be even hotter, but that exhausts is exiting the aircraft, while this 2,500 degrees is the internal temperature of the missile. It will take some pretty clever design work and materials to keep the missile from just melting in flight. At these speeds plasma also forms on the outer skin that can block guidance and navigation signals from reaching the rocket.  Not being able to guide or control the rocket after it is launched is a rather frightening prospect.

There is also the matter of the missile spewing out large of amounts of ionizing radiation when the rocket motor starts at launch. That stuff doesn’t just blow away like smoke afterward. It will make the launcher and everything within a radius of 100-200ft dangerously radioactive for some time unless the initial boost is given by a conventional rocket motor that falls off after the nuclear engine starts.

The US worked on developing its own Supersonic Low Altitude Missile(SLAM) powered by a nuclear ramjet in the 1950s. It proved so outrageously dangerous just to test these missiles that we abandoned the project.

While Putin has continuously flexed the Burevestnik, intended to be deployed in 2027, as one of the six in Russia’s new strategic weapons suite, the West remains skeptical, with a US military official casting doubts that the weapon will be anywhere close to operational. NATO, in particular the US Air Force and UK’s Royal Air Force, have also conducted several missions over the Baltic and Barents Seas to monitor Burevestnik’s development. Neither, however, has formally published information regarding the matter.

Regardless of the status of the Burevestnik, its existence serves as a sufficient threat to Russia’s Western rivals – a technique consistent with the country’s military policy. In light of failures in Ukraine, Moscow has been scrambling to prove that a paper tiger can still have claws. With the Burevestnik and the threat of nuclear war as a bluff that only the crazy can call, Russia may have just what it needs.