The United States and Russia are entering a new arms race, and the costs aren’t just monetary. On August 8, Russian civilians around the remote village of Nyonoksa found themselves downwind of a military nuclear propulsion experiment gone wrong in the White Sea, just outside the Arctic Circle. According to the Russian ministry of defense, a liquid propellant rocket engine had gone awry and exploded.
This by itself was alarming, but not unprecedented: Liquid propellants, long preferred in many Russian missiles, are volatile and have exploded when prematurely brought into contact with oxidizing agents. What made this month’s explosion more significant was Russia’s acknowledgement that a “nuclear isotope power source” was involved. Seven people—including five scientists from Sarov, one of Russia’s secret nuclear complexes—were killed in the explosion. Russian state weather monitors reported heightened background radiation levels around the site and beyond. A press release from a Norwegian monitoring agency a week after the incident noted that “tiny amounts of radioactive iodine”—a common byproduct of the sort of nuclear fission that might take place in a reactor—had been detected in northern Norway.
The exact sort of weapon Russia may have been testing is unknown, but the balance of evidence points to a probable culprit: the Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile. Nuclear nonproliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis and his team of researchers out in Monterey, California, have done much of the work in compiling this evidence, which includes the presence of a nuclear fuel carrier ship that was known to have been involved in recovery efforts after a previous failed test of the missile. Known in NATO countries as the SSC-X-9 SKYFALL, the Burevestnik’s atomic propulsion is said by Russian state media to give the missile “almost unlimited range, non-predictable trajectory and high air defense penetration capacity.”
Why might anyone want such a weapon? There’s an ostensible strategic rationale, even if it’s unconvincing. The Burevestnik represents what might be called a second-strike weapon. These are a big deal for any nuclear nation, as they deter first strikes: the kind where an adversary gets the best of you and uses its nuclear weapons to destroy all of yours before you can use them. The United States, for instance, relies on 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines hidden in the ocean depths as a deterrent to a first strike. There’s simply no way any nuclear adversary, including Russia, could destroy all of America’s land-based intercontinental-range ballistic missiles and nuclear weapon-toting bombers without facing the wrath of at least one Ohio-class submarine and its 24 Trident missiles. A first strike is not something we really worry about today, but it’s something that kept people awake during the early years of the Cold War.
Is Russia worried about an American first strike today? Not likely. Vladimir Putin’s main concern—he said this when he publicly unveiled the Burevestnik in a March 2018 address to the Russian federal assembly—is missile defense. Russia and China worry that their second-strike capabilities may not constitute a credible-enough future deterrent. The primary driver for that is concern that American missile-defense technology might experience a huge qualitative leap, rendering the U.S. largely impervious to a ballistic-missile attack. (American homeland missile defense technology today is thoroughly mediocre, but Russian planners would be negligent to assume that this will always remain the case.)
Enter Burevestnik and its experimental siblings in Russia, including an autonomous thermonuclear warhead-toting “apocalypse torpedo,” a highly maneuverable ICBM-launched hypersonic glider, an intercontinental ballistic missile that can fly all the way around the earth, and an air-launched ballistic missile that travels at ten times the speed of sound. These weapons are designed to give missile defenses a hard time, ensuring that even in a future where American ships and land batteries could shield their territory from most current nuclear missiles, Russia could still prevail.
Burevestnik is likely designed to leverage its killer app—unlimited range—in a particular way. In a crisis, or even during peacetime, multiple Burevestnik missiles could remain in flight at low altitudes, lingering where they can be seen. If most of Russia’s nuclear arsenal were to be destroyed, a low-flying Burevestnik could theoretically stay low and work its way around American sensors.
This concept is dubious: Russia today possesses more than a handful of ways to reliably ensure that its nuclear weapons could hit the United States if needed. Burevestnik is less useful at winning a war, or maintaining peace, than at putting an exclamation point on a theoretical global thermonuclear apocalypse. Its strategic value also has ICBM-sized holes in it: Cruise missile defense has long been a major preoccupation for American war planners, and the U.S could theoretically check Burevestnik’s threat by deploying existing short-range missile defenses on sea and land. In the end, much of what may be driving investment and research on this weapon—beyond Putin’s chest-thumping—may be the sprawling and influential Russian defense bureaucracy. (Overspending on exotic military systems is not an exceptionally American trait.)
That’s the shaky strategic logic behind it. But the common-sense logic, as the radioactive Nyonoksa explosion shows, is even less kind. If a nuclear-powered cruise missile sounds exotic and a little dangerous, that’s because it is. Missiles go boom—usually intentionally, but often enough not—and whatever nuclear power source they might be using onboard wouldn’t be immune. There’s still little consensus among American experts about how exactly the Burevestnik might leverage nuclear power for propulsion. If you thought nuclear fission weapons were complex, nuclear rocket propulsion is more arcane and mysterious still. In the 1950s and 1960s, U.S. scientists drafted fanciful plans to give missiles nuclear engines, on the assumption that they’d be able to fly longer and farther than any weapon yet conceived. But the Americans eventually gave up; the technical challenges and environmental risks weren’t worth it. The Russians haven’t given up just yet, but they may someday.
The Burevestnik appears to matter greatly to Putin, however. His official remarks about the missiles at last year’s grand unveiling are worth reading: They sound like something out of a Silicon Valley product pitch to gormless investors. For the Russian leadership, a weapon like Burevestnik is a prestige project, a way to set Moscow apart from its competition. Claiming it had been successfully tested prior to his speech—a claim that U.S. intelligence agencies deny—Putin noted that “no other country has developed anything like this.” He added: “There will be something similar one day, but by that time our guys will have come up with something even better.”
Of course, Donald Trump couldn’t stomach another head of state flaunting his fancy rocket. The president tweeted on August 12 that the United States has “similar, though more advanced, technology.” As nuclear chemist Cheryl Rofer observed, this was a rare tweet by Trump’s standards: one that criticized Russia. “And of course, it’s a dick-measuring contest,” Rofer added. (Trump’s done this before, chiding North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un on Twitter over the size of his “nuclear button.”) To the extent he grasps the salient issues, it’s likely the president has already asked Pentagon officials why the United States doesn’t have a nuclear-propelled cruise missile of its own.
A spokesperson for the Kremlin was blasé about the Nyonoksa explosion, stating that “accidents happen.” Yes, they do, but nuclear-powered cruise missile programs don’t just happen. They represent dangerous and unnecessary choices to goose a nation’s theoretical military supremacy, incentivizing other nations to follow suit, risks be damned. The arms control regimes that once moderated U.S. and Russian decisions are already crumbling, and another big one—the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START—may expire in 2021. What exactly transpired in the White Sea on August 8 may remain fuzzy, but what is becoming increasingly clear is the risk to life associated with a new generation of nuclear arms proliferation between the U.S. and Russia. With ultranationalist leaders and weapon fetishists in control of Washington and Moscow, buttressed by military yes-men and mercenary defense contractors, there’s little to stand in the way of a new, irrationally exuberant buildup of bizarre new nuclear forces.