Back in February 2019 when Russian news websites posted the first articles about the new Burevestnik “nuclear powered cruise missile”, I almost wrote about how ridiculous the idea was, since clearly nobody would be silly enough to build a nuclear powered cruise missile. The whole thing was surely just Russian propaganda exaggerating the abilities of a new project, like they had with the PAK-TA back in 2015.
Fast forward to August 2019 and an apparent explosion during an engine test killed at least five people and spewed radiation into the atmosphere. I’m no longer so sure, maybe the Russians really could be that crazy?
Let’s take another look at why anyone would want a nuclear powered cruise missile.
What are the Advantages?
The cruise missile would have almost unlimited range. However our planet isn’t that big, and there is nowhere that is more than 2-3 days flying away, even if you take the most convoluted route to get there. Considering Russia (the world’s largest country) already has the geography to launch missiles at the US from two directions, owning a missile that can fly for months on end doesn’t seem much more useful than developing a very long range conventionally powered missile.
What are the Disadvantages
Obviously a nuclear reactor is far more complicated and expensive to build than a simple rocket motor. Furthermore, although engineers in the US and USSR experimented with nuclear powered aircraft and missiles during the cold war, nobody has successfully built a nuclear powered missile yet. So the development costs would eat away at the defence budget for several years, and the cost of each missile would be far above a conventional alternative.
And don’t forget that other countries along the route may be less than happy about dealing with the plume of radioactive air left behind by the missile.
So What is Going on?
As this article from Vox points out, there are some compelling reasons to think that the accident was related to the testing a nuclear propulsion system. So apparently the simple answer is, yes, the Russians are most likely working on a nuclear powered cruise missile. So why build an incredibly expensive missile that has no advantage over a cheaper alternative?
The only way I can conceive for a nuclear powered cruise missile to make any sense for the Russians is if they can create a motor powerful enough to propel the missile to supersonic speeds. This would be something really unique since no conventionally powered missile could sustain supersonic flight for several days, and high speeds do provide a real advantage by making it harder for enemy air defences to shoot down the incoming missile.
Which leads to the next conclusion; none of the missiles shown in the photos and videos are large enough to house a powerful nuclear engine or have the aerodynamic finesse to reach supersonic speeds. Most likely somewhere in Russia there is another, rather large and very pointy missile in development that has not been photographed yet.