Russia has carried out a test of its little-known experimental long-range nuclear-powered cruise missile, President Vladimir Putin said, although this “wouldn’t alter the nuclear balance of power” to Russia’s advantage, one analyst has told Newsweek.
“We have now virtually finished work on modern types of strategic weaponry about which I have spoken and which I announced a few years ago. A final successful test has been held of Burevestnik—a global-range nuclear-powered cruise missile,” the Russian leader said on Friday, addressing the audience.
Little is known about how far Russian engineers have got with the missile’s development, but it appears to be still far off being a useful and operational capability, according to Fabian Hoffmann, a doctoral research fellow at the University of Oslo, Norway.
But even if the Burevestnik was deployed operationally, “it wouldn’t alter the nuclear balance of power,” he told Newsweek. “It’s intended as a second-strike weapons that is not going to increase Russia’s first-strike capability,” he added.
“It is really only intended to deter the United States from striking first, by assuring Russia’s guaranteed second-strike capability,” Hoffmann said.
Because it would not tip the balance of power in Moscow’s favor, it could work to the advantage of Western countries and Ukraine for the Kremlin to continue pouring resources into the Burevestnik, Hoffmann added.
“Development will continue to eat into scarce Russian resources, both in terms of material and the people working on the project,” he said.
Putin’s admission comes just days after the Kremlin denied Western media’s reports that Russia has carried out, or was on the verge of carrying out, tests of the nuclear-capable missile in the Arctic.
Satellite imagery and aviation data analysis indicated movement around an Arctic Russian base that was “consistent with preparations” made in 2017 and 2018 for tests of the 9M730 Burevestnik cruise missile, The New York Times reported on Monday. U.S. surveillance aircraft have also flown around the area of the test site in the past few weeks.
The Burevestnik, which has been given the codename SSC-X-9 Skyfall by NATO, is a nuclear-powered cruise missile. It was unveiled by Putin in March 2018 with a host of other next-generation weapons. These included the much-touted ‘Doomsday device’ Poseidon, a nuclear-powered, nuclear-tipped torpedo.
Although the development of the nuclear-powered missile began years ago, the war in Ukraine has prompted an increase in bellicose nuclear rhetoric, particularly from Russian state media.
Russia has both alluded to the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons and cautioned against the suggestion that the war could turn nuclear, while Ukraine’s Western backers have been hesitant at times about potentially escalating the conflict through further military aid packages.
Prominent Russian officials, such as former President Dmitry Medvedev, and state television commentators regularly raise the prospect of nuclear war. Some hosts and guests on state TV shows have suggested that Moscow should launch nuclear strikes on countries that support Kyiv’s war effort, such as the U.S. and U.K. Margarita Simonyan, a Russian news anchor, floated the idea of Russia detonating a thermonuclear weapon over Siberia, in a comment that drew outrage from Russian officials and fellow Putin allies.
The Burevestnik’s development is thought to have started in 2011 and tests likely began in 2016. Before 2019, Russia had tested the Burevestnik a probable 13 times “with two partial successes,” according to the U.S.-based nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI).
In February 2019, Russian state media reported that authorities had completed a “major stage of trials” for the Burevestnik.
“In terms of concept and design, this cruise missile looks as if it was taken straight from a Cold War-era playbook and is rather similar to the US Air Force’s Project Pluto weapon concept,” a NATO Energy Security Centre of Excellence (ENSECCOE) 2021 report stated.
The report noted that while little has been revealed about the weapon, based on Russian military‘s statements the missile is “likely around 12 meters in length and up to 1.5 meters in diameter.”
It is said to have an “almost unlimited range” and cannot be intercepted by any existing air defense system, according to the Kremlin-backed Tass news agency.
In early 2021, the U.S. Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center classified the missile as a developmental, nuclear-capable and ground-launched cruise missile, but with an undetermined range.
The NTI said in 2019 that the missile has a range of approximately 14,000 miles, and is “a second-strike, strategic-range weapon of a type that has not been deployed by any other nation.”
There is “some limited speculation” that the missile could also be released from a Russian MiG-31 BM jet, according to the NTI. A variant of the MiG-31 supersonic interceptor launches Russia’s Kinzhal, or “Dagger” missile, which was also announced by Putin in 2018 and has been deployed widely in Ukraine.
“This program was one of Putin’s supposed “wonder weapons” that were supposed to provide Russia with a technological edge over the West (others were Zircon and Kinzhal, for example, or Russia’s nuclear-armed torpedo Poseidon),” Hoffmann said. “We have seen in Ukraine that Kinzhal is not very special at all, and actually quite vulnerable to Ukrainian missile defense,” he added.
The Burevestnik is thought to be powered by solid fuel, with the motor starting to propel the missile during flight and air heating around the nuclear reactor up to 1600°C to propel the missile, according to Russian media reports.
ENSECCOE’s report also speculated that the missile has a small nuclear reactor, which carries it to its target,” though it is unclear whether it employs a “nuclear ramjet” or a “nuclear turbo engine.”
“Regardless of what the engine is, it is thought that Burevestnik could fly at a subsonic speed, maintain an altitude of 50-100 meters [165 feet to 350 feet] throughout most of its flight and cover distances as long as 20,000 km,” ENSECCOE report concludes.
On Tuesday, the Kremlin dismissed the report in the Times, saying the newspaper’s journalists should “study satellite imagery more properly.”
Precedent suggests that testing of such weapons can prove very dangerous. Five scientists were killed in an explosion in northern Russia in August 2019, which was reportedly triggered during efforts to recover a Burevestnik from the ocean floor.
“This was not a new launch of the weapon, instead it was a recovery mission to salvage a lost missile from a previous test,” a source with direct knowledge of U.S. intelligence into the missile told CNBC at the time.
However, in late September Russia announced plans to hold nationwide exercises in preparation for “the danger of armed conflicts involving nuclear powers,” according to Baza Telegram channel, which is linked to Russia’s security services.
If confirmed, it would mark the first time that Moscow has held such drills, which will imagine that Russia is at least partially under martial law and that up to 70 percent of the country’s housing facilities have been destroyed, the outlet reported.
The exercises will also include the scenario that general mobilization has ended, and there is the possibility of radioactive contamination, Baza reported.
Newsweek reached out to the Russian defense ministry for comment via email.
Update 10/08/2023 at 11:50 a.m. ET: This article was updated with additional comment from Fabian Hoffmann.