How Russian Stormbringer Nuclear Cruise Missile Can Bankrupt US War Machine

Dmitry Kornev, the creator of the MilitaryRussia.ru portal, said that the Russian nuclear cruise missile called ‘Burevestnik’, which translates to “Stormbringer,” can bankrupt the US war machine.

How Russian Stormbringer Nuclear Cruise Missile Can Bankrupt US War Machine 1

The “Burevestnik” (“Stormbringer”), a Russian nuclear-powered, nuclear-capable cruise missile unlike anything in any other country’s arsenal, was successfully tested, according to President Putin. What is known thus far about the weapon? What effect will it have on the strategic balance throughout the world? Sputnik contacted a renowned specialist to learn more.

The Burevestnik, a long-range cruise missile with a nuclear propulsion system, has undergone its most recent successful test, Russian President Vladimir Putin said to the audience of the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi on Thursday.

In reference to his March 2018 address to lawmakers, during which the president unveiled the Burevestnik and other new strategic weapons intended to ensure global strategic stability in the face of US moves to surround Russia with missile defenses with offensive capabilities and Pentagon planning aimed at neutralizing the Russian nuclear deterrent, Putin said, “Today, we have almost finished work on the modern types of strategic weapons which I announced and spoke about several years ago.”

Putin reaffirmed that under current Russian nuclear doctrine, Moscow would only use its strategic weapons in response to enemy aggression, but he added that due to Russia’s guaranteed response capabilities, any possible aggressor would suffer “absolutely unacceptable” losses.

What Prompted the Burevestnik’s Development?

The Poseidon nuclear-powered torpedo, the Avangard hypersonic boost-glide vehicle, the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, the Kinzhal air-launched hypersonic quasi-ballistic missile, and the Peresvet laser complex were all developed alongside other cutting-edge strategic weapons. The Burevestnik is one part of Russia’s multifaceted response to the Bush administration’s decision to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002.

Russia dusted off blueprints and prototypes of sophisticated aerospace and rocketry systems and ideas that were created in strict secret throughout the second half of the 20th century until the end of the Cold War as a result of Washington’s shortsighted decision. In the case of the Burevestnik, this entailed building a nuclear thermal rocket engine using liquid hydrogen propellant by following a path established by the Voronezh-based Chemical Automatics Design Bureau.

The idea for a nuclear-powered engine was developed in the late 1940s, at the inception of the Soviet rocketry and nuclear programs, with support from legendary rocket scientist Vitaly Ievlev, Igor Kurchatov, the inventor of the Soviet atomic bomb, and rocket scientists Sergey Korolev and Mstislav Keldysh, who worked on theoretical research to develop such an engine. The state quickly saw the enormous potential of the idea of a nuclear-powered engine being used by spacecraft to perform long-distance travels across the solar system, including to Mars, but work on the program first concentrated entirely on prospective military uses.

How Russian Stormbringer Nuclear Cruise Missile Can Bankrupt US War Machine 2
From left to right: Soviet rocket scientists and physicists Mstislav Keldysh, Alexander Leipunskiy, Vitaly Ievlev, Igor Kurchatov, Anatoly Alexandrov, and Yuri Treskin, 1959.

The RD-0410, the first and only nuclear-powered rocket engine built in the USSR, was eventually made possible by the work of Ievlev and his team. The project was started in 1966 at the Keldysh Research Center. Between the middle and late 1970s, there were numerous successful tests conducted there. By the middle of the 1980s, power generation capacity of up to 63 Megawatts had been reached. However, in 1988, the Gorbachev administration put an end to the project’s progress. Ievlev passed away in 1990, two years later.

During the same time period, American rocket scientists made their own significant advancements in the field. NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission jointly developed a design known as the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA), with the experimental, liquid hydrogen-propelled engine built and certified. However, in 1973, as Washington was winding down the US space program following the Moon landings, Richard Nixon’s administration decided to scrap the design.

The Soviet nuclear-powered rocket engine was intended to be able to produce up to 196 megawatts of energy utilizing 37 different fuel assemblies. It was also driven by liquid hydrogen, with heptane acting as a backup power source. However, neither the American nor Soviet designs would enable rockets or spacecraft to run continuously for extended periods of time; the NERVA’s burn time was approximately 45 minutes and required 24 restarts, while the RD-0410’s burn time required 60 minutes and 10 restarts.

How Russian Stormbringer Nuclear Cruise Missile Can Bankrupt US War Machine 3
RD-0410 nuclear-powered rocket engine.

What is the Burevestnik?

With its onboard nuclear power plant built to provide it with continuous power while operating within the Earth’s atmosphere for days, weeks, or even months at a time, the 9M730 Burevestnik cruise missile—NATO reporting name SSC-X-9 Skyfall—is unique. This gives the weapon what is essentially an unlimited range.

In December 2001, not long after the US revealed its intention to leave the ABM Treaty, development work on the Burevestnik started. The potential cruise missile’s moniker, “Burevestnik,” which translates to “Stormbringer,” “prophet of a storm,” or “petrel” in Russian, was chosen in an online public vote by the Russian Defense Ministry in 2018, a few weeks after its existence was made public.

The Burevestnik’s dimensions appear to be roughly similar to those of the Kh-101 series of ultra-long-range cruise missiles, although the Burevestnik appears to be up to two times larger, according to military footage of the weapon released to the public. However, most of the Burevestnik’s specifications, including its payload, are still classified. A further difference is that, unlike the Kh-101, the cruise missile’s wings are clearly seen dangling over the top of the fuselage.

The Burevestnik is said to have a nuclear air-breathing (ramjet) or turbojet engine for flight propulsion and a solid propellant-fueled starting engine. The missile’s length is around 12 meters when it is launched, but it decreases to 9 meters as it flies as the beginning engine shuts off.

The history and characteristics of the Burevestnik’s minor nuclear power facilities are likewise mostly unknown. The Burevestnik and the Poseidon both use modifications of the same power plant, according to a source who spoke to Russian media shortly after Putin’s speech in March 2018 introducing the weapon. The source also hinted that scientists had finished testing a power plant that could be used in cruise missiles and autonomous oceangoing underwater vehicles.

The Burevestnik has undergone testing in the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in northern Russia. The engine’s field testing was finished in January 2019. As early as June 2016, additional testing was reportedly being done, and it is expected that at least a dozen launches have been made thus far, with the most recent taking place in August 2023.

NATO Sounds the Alarm

“What this will give Russia a capacity for is to take a low-wielding potentially nuclear weapon and then use it to have it travel a greater distance, tens of thousands of miles,” retired US Army Major Mike Lyons told US media Thursday, several hours after Putin’s Valdai speech.

“This Burevestnik missile is normally a conventional cruise missile that’s used let’s say inter-theater. This provides a strategic view, though. Let’s say they have this in the Arctic, where they’re testing it right now. They could easily launch this missile from that platform and hit targets in the United States, not using ICBMs,” Lyons explained.

In 2020, then-UK Chief of Defense Intelligence Lt. Gen. Jim Hockenhull warned that the Burevestnik has what is effectively a “global reach and would allow attack from unexpected directions,” giving Moscow a weapon with a “near infinite loiter time.” Combined with the capabilities of the Poseidon, this would “allow the Russians to hold the UK and its allies’ civilian and military infrastructure at risk of both direct attack both with conventional explosives and nuclear weapons, limiting options or raising the stakes during times of crisis,” Hockenhull said.

The Burevestnik is a cruise missile, hence it should be able to replicate existing cruise missiles’ abilities to fly at altitudes as low as 50 to 100 meters, effectively obviating the need for enemy radar detection and limiting detection to satellites and only during launch.

Since the publication’s debut in 2018, Dmitry Kornev, the creator of the MilitaryRussia.ru portal, has kept track of the Burevestnik’s advancement.

The key selling point of the cruise missile as a general-purpose retaliation weapon is its almost infinite range, which is measured in “days, weeks, or months,” according to Kornev.

“This means that such missiles can be launched and remain in flight over a holding area for up to several months, and can alter these holding areas at will. In this state, it would be extremely difficult to catch and destroy them. At the moment, there are no systems that could reliably detect these missiles in their holding areas and destroy them. And in the event of ‘X hour,’ if an order was received providing information about targets…these missiles could proceed to their targets and strike them,” the observer explained.

Given recent US efforts to neutralize other components of the Russian nuclear triad, the Burevestnik’s unmatched range characteristics will allow the missile to easily maneuver around air defense systems and move toward targets “from a completely unexpected direction.” As a result, the missile will be a valuable new addition to Moscow’s strategic deterrent capability.

The Burevestnik differs from a conventional ballistic missile in that it has an extremely long range and is maneuverable, which makes it more difficult to intercept, according to Kornev. Generally speaking, cruise missiles “can perform maneuvers, bend around terrain, go around buildings, structures, islands, and continents.” There are no flight range restrictions in the case of the Burevestnik, therefore it can circumnavigate entire continents, entire oceans, and even the entire globe on its way to its goal.

“This is a completely new component of our nuclear deterrent force,” the observer stressed, saying it will effectively help turn Russia’s nuclear triad of ground-based, air, and submarine launched missiles into a quartet.

Powerful Trump Card for Arms Control

After the Burevestnik’s development and testing are complete, Moscow will have a choice, says Kornev: either put the system into operation or use it as a negotiating chip in arms talks with Washington. “This matter is still up for debate. No one is predicting the launch and employment of Burevestnik cruise missiles tomorrow, in other words. However, based on this advancement, a weapons system that no one else in the world possesses might be produced quickly.

“Systems providing guaranteed retaliation essentially put an end to the traditional strategic nuclear weapons systems arms race,” Kornev says. According to the observer, Russia’s possession of weapons like the Burevestink and the Poseidon could force the United States and other major nuclear powers to the negotiating table, and finally put an end to a situation – initiated by Washington over 20 years ago, in which there are now almost no agreements left to ensure effective arms control between the nuclear superpowers.

“Of course, the United States will work to figure out how to counter the Burevestnik,” Kornev said. If it is determined that the Russian nuclear-powered cruise missile program has been successful, “we must understand that the financial and technological capabilities of the United States are such that if they want to, they will be able to catch up,”

Could Burevestnik Help Bankrupt the Pentagon?

The observer underlined that the Pentagon currently lacks any means of thwarting the Burevestnik. They will undoubtedly bolster their air defenses. However, it won’t be a guarantee that these missiles won’t find their intended targets.

“It’s likely the United States will choose to create space-based means to detect such missiles. If one knows where such missiles are flying, it will be possible for any fighter jet to shoot them down…But then it would be necessary to create a detection system, to build a system for the transmission of information – to radically modernize the entire air defense system of North America, probably Europe and other countries threatened by such a weapons system. These are colossal costs in any case. And it may very well be the case that these costs significantly exceed the cost of creating Burevestnik-type missiles,” Kornev stressed.

Issues to Be Ironed Out

According to the military expert, “many questions remain” regarding the usefulness of nuclear-powered cruise missiles. “Will Russia create a weapons system on the Burevestnik’s basis? Because the ability to launch a missile is one thing, but actually creating a weapons system, training personnel, producing these missiles, accepting them into service, and operating them is another,” Kornev noted.

Kornev believes that there are a lot of problems that will need to be resolved, beginning with the fact that cruise missiles are not made to land safely without being destroyed. “This rocket could fall and be destroyed even while it’s being tested. In any scenario, the items onboard have the potential to contaminate radioactively, he said.

The Burevestnik being the first system of its sort in the entire globe is another problem.

“We have no experience, there is no experience anywhere in the world; we will be ‘on the front line’ here, so to speak, and it’s on the front line that problems often ‘arrive.’ So of course there are certain risks. But if we approach this question thoughtfully, carefully, and using all of our scientific potential, we will surely be able to create something unique,” the observer summed up.

Sheila Weir has taken photos of the Vanguard submarine as it arrives home, looking like a sea monster fully covered in algae.

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