Russia courting disaster with Skyfall nuclear missile project, experts say

Russia courting disaster with Skyfall nuclear missile project, experts say

U.S. Strategic Command

“The Cold War is over but Cold War thinking survives.” — Sir Joseph Rotblat, Polish physicist

In 1955, amid the Cold War, the United States Air Force conceived a nuclear weapon project that involved a low-flying, nuclear-powered missile that carried a thermonuclear warhead. The Supersonic Low Altitude Missile (SLAM) was decades ahead of its time.

The proposed missile would use a built-in terrain contour matching radar to reach its target at supersonic speed. The propulsion system was designed to draw air in through a dorsal vent, heat and compress the air with a nuclear reactor and propel it through the exhaust, providing thrust for the missile. A type of ceramic was developed to handle the intense heat and weight that the SLAM demanded, allowing the weapon to boast a range of 181,000 kilometers, roughly 4 1/2 times the circumference of the Earth.

This innovative concept was scrapped in 1964 because development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) was completed, and the U.S. could not guarantee the safety of testing a reactor that would disperse substantial amounts of radioactive emissions.

In 2018, Russia unveiled a prototype nuclear engine based on the technology used in the SLAM project. This updated model, the 9M730 Burevestnik — dubbed the SSC-X-9 Skyfall by NATO — is intended to offer the ultimate nuclear advantage. The Skyfall missile is built to fly at astounding speeds using a nuclear reactor that propels compressed air. In theory, the missile would be hypersonic with virtually unlimited range. Unlike a traditional ICBM, which is launched on a generally transparent flight path into the stratosphere and down to its target, the Skyfall will fly at low altitude, masking it from radar tracking. Furthermore, this weapon of terror could strike without warning when fully developed and deployed.

Russia may be readying for another Skyfall test, according to CNN. Satellite images captured in mid-August 2021 offer “strong indications Russia was preparing to test a nuclear-powered cruise missile” at a launch site near the Arctic Circle, according to experts at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies’ Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

There are “substantial questions, however, about whether the system can be made to work successfully, to say nothing of the threat that testing this system may pose to the environment and human health,” Jeffrey Lewis, a researcher at the center, told CNN.

So far, Russia’s development efforts have been less than successful.

Over the past 10 years, Russia has dedicated U.S. $150 billion toward research and development of nuclear-capable weapons. Although it has seen some success, it has also seen disaster. The worst failure was in August 2019, when a missile exploded during a test in Nenoska, Russia, killing five scientists and two military members. While the loss of life was terrible, the fallout of the blast raised the radiation levels in the surrounding area to nearly 200 times above normal.

This information was withheld from residents for days while the radiation could have sickened them or left them with long-term illness. When the information was finally made public, the news report lasted 36 seconds — an indication of how Russian leadership values human life versus military testing. During the ceremony honoring those killed in the explosion, Russian President Vladimir Putin, pictured, said that the “weapon is to be perfected regardless of anything.” Putin is willing to sacrifice more lives if it means he can threaten the world with this weapon.

If Russia continues developing this project, it risks more loss of life among the scientists and developers working on the missile. Russian leaders are also gambling that the weapon does not explode again and send massive amounts of radiation into nearby towns or even neighboring nations. If the missile does get off the ground, it will spew radiation across everything it flies over, including people, wildlife and entire ecosystems.

Even a “successful” test is a bad outcome for the world. A nuclear-powered missile that can fly indefinitely is an ever-present risk to international air travel, and the consequences of inflight failure, nuclear exhaust and unanticipated outcomes cannot be overstated.

The world has experienced enough nuclear accidents. Developing and fielding the Skyfall weapon system only demonstrates an unwillingness to learn. Bad ideas do not improve over time, and the international community must condemn this irresponsible venture before it is too late.