On October 5, 2023, during a plenary session of the Valdai Discussion Club, Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed that the Burevestnik “nuclear-powered global-range cruise missile” had been tested successfully.
Work on the modern types of strategic weapons that “I announced” and discussed several years ago is nearly complete today, (approximate translation) Putin said, referring to his March 2018 address to lawmakers in which he unveiled the Burevestnik and other new strategic weapons intended to ensure global strategic stability in the face of offensive missile defences by the United States and Pentagon planning to neutralise the Russian nuclear deterrent.
Putin described in his 2008 address the years-long effort by Russia to convince the United States to reduce missile defence programmes that it considered an existential threat to its survival.
The primary concern of Russia was that the United States’ ongoing pursuit of missile defence capabilities, combined with a nuclear posture that considered preemptive nuclear war, could create the conditions for US nuclear war planners to believe that a first strike intended to neutralise Russia’s strategic nuclear capability could be effective. This belief was based on the idea that the US missile defence shield could intercept the majority, if not all, of any Russian missiles.
The Nuclear Powered Rocket Engine
The Burevestnik is part of Russia’s comprehensive response to the United States’ 2002 withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which also included the development of the Avangard hypersonic boost-glide vehicle, the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, the Kinzhal air-launched hypersonic quasi-ballistic missile, and the Peresvet laser complex.
Russia dusted off blueprints and prototypes of sophisticated rocketry, aerospace systems, and designs that had been developed in strict secrecy from the latter half of the 20th century until the end of the Cold War in response to a decision by the United States. Regarding the Burevestnik, this entailed emulating the approach taken by the Chemical Automatics Design Bureau of Voronezh, which utilised liquid hydrogen propellant to build a nuclear thermal rocket engine.
During the nascent stages of Soviet rocketry and nuclear programmes in the late 1940s, the notion of a nuclear-powered engine originated. The initial emphasis of the programme was solely on potential military applications. However, the state quickly recognised the immense potential that spacecraft could use a nuclear-powered engine to complete long-distance journeys throughout the solar system, including to Mars.
It resulted in the development of the RD-0410, the USSR’s first and only nuclear-powered rocket engine. The project commenced in 1966 at the Keldysh Research Centre. During the mid-to-late 1970s, numerous successful tests were conducted in Voronezh. By the mid-1980s, the facility had achieved a power generation capacity of 63 Megawatts. However, the development of the project was halted in 1988 by the Gorbachev administration.
American rocket scientists made progress in the domain during the same time frame. The Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA), a design developed by NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission, utilised liquid hydrogen propulsion. This experimental engine was built and obtained certification. It was subsequently discontinued by the Richard Nixon administration in 1973, as the United States phased out its space programme following the Moon landings.
The Soviet rocket engine was powered by nuclear power, liquid hydrogen, and heptane as a backup power source. It could make up to 196 megawatts of energy using 37 different fuel assemblies. However, neither the American nor the Soviet designs allowed rockets or spacecraft to work nonstop for long. The NERVA had a burn time of about 45 minutes and 24 restarts, while the RD-0410 had a burn time of about 60 minutes and ten restarts.
Burevestnik, a Russian nuclear-powered, nuclear-capable cruise missile
The 9M730 Burevestnik cruise missile, designated SSC-X-9 Skyfall by NATO, is powered continuously for days, weeks, or even months by a nuclear power plant operating within the Earth’s atmosphere. This enables the weapon to travel at a limitless distance.
The Burevestnik’s development commenced in December 2001, following the United States’ declaration of intent to walk away from the ABM Treaty. “Burevestnik,” which translates to “prophet of a storm,” “Stormbringer,” or “petrel” in Russian, was the name given to the future cruise missile in 2018 in an online vote made available to the public by the Russian Defence Ministry, several weeks after its existence was disclosed.
Although most of the Burevestnik’s attributes, such as its payload, are still unknown, military-released footage of the weapon has given experts a general understanding of some of its parameters. Its outlines resemble the Kh-101 series of ultra-long-range cruise missiles, albeit the Burevestnik appears to be up to twice as large. Moreover, unlike the Kh-101, the cruise missile’s wings are openly positioned atop the fuselage rather than beneath it.
It has been reported that the Burevestnik is equipped with a solid propellant-fueled starting engine, while propulsion during flight is supplied by either a turbojet engine or a nuclear air-breathing (ramjet). The missile’s length decreases from approximately 12 metres at launch to 9 metres during flight as the starting engine is ejected.
The development and properties of the small nuclear power facilities in the Burevestnik are also shrouded in mystery. A source informed Russian media shortly after Putin’s March 2018 speech introducing the weapon that scientists had completed testing of a power plant that could be used in autonomous oceangoing underwater vehicles and cruise missiles, suggesting that the Burevestnik and the Poseidon used modified versions of the same power plant.
The Burevestnik has been tested on the northern Russian archipelago of Novaya Zemlya, and the engine’s field trials were concluded in January 2019. Multiple sources have documented supplementary testing since June 2016, and it is estimated that at least a dozen launches have been conducted thus far, with the most recent occurring in August 2023.
Due to its classification as a cruise missile, the Burevestnik ought to possess the ability to emulate the operational capabilities of other cruise missiles by traversing altitudes ranging from 50 to 100 metres. This would render it virtually unnoticeable to adversary radar, requiring only satellite detection during launch.
For several months after launch, the missile will hover over a holding area from where it can make arbitrary changes. Detection and destruction would be exceedingly challenging under these conditions. There are currently no systems capable of detecting and destroying these missiles in their holding areas with any degree of dependability. If a target-engagement order is issued, the missile may advance towards the designated location and execute the strike.
As a result of the Burevestnik’s unmatched range characteristics, the missile will be capable of circumnavigating air defence systems with ease, approaching targets from an entirely unexpected angle, and thus bolstering Moscow’s strategic deterrence capabilities in response to recent US efforts to neutralise other elements of the Russian nuclear triad.
The Burevestnik is distinguished from conventional ballistic missiles by its uncommon ultra-long range and manoeuvrability combination. The former maintains a fixed trajectory, rendering it more susceptible to interception. Cruise missiles can manoeuvre, navigate by terrain and circumnavigate buildings, structures, continents, and islands. The Burevestnik, on the other hand, has no flight range restrictions; it can circumnavigate entire continents and oceans and even perform multiple revolutions of the Earth en route to its intended location.
Upon completing Burevestnik’s development and testing phase, Moscow will be presented with the decision of either operationalising the system or employing it as a leverage point in arms control negotiations with Washington.
The US will opt to develop space-based detection systems for such missiles. If known, the whereabouts of these missiles would enable any fighter jet to intercept them. In that case, it would be imperative to develop a detection system and an information transmission system to modernise North America’s entire air defence system fundamentally, and most likely, Europe and other nations that would be at risk from such a weapon system. Regardless, these are colossal expenditures. Furthermore, it is conceivable that these expenses substantially surpass the investment required to develop Burevestnik-class missiles.