The morning after Putin revealed that Russia had developed a nuclear-powered cruise missile, I was riding in a car with two nuclear weapon subject matter experts. . In fact, when we read about Russia’s nuclear-powered cruise missile, we were all sure that this had been a mistranslation or misprint. Surely, Putin was revealing that there was simply a new nuclear armed cruise missile variant. But as I scanned through the material that came out of Putin’s press conference, it became obvious that there was no misprint.
We were not alone in our disbelief. This wasn’t just due to technological shock and awe, but emanated from a disbelief that a state would actually field a nuclear-powered cruise missile. The environmental impact of testing and employing the system, including possible test failures, is one of the many reasons we don’t see “flying reactors” in the nuclear age.
While many of the articles following Putin’s speech focused on the implications of the high technology of the hypersonic1 glide vehicles (HGV), hypersonic cruise missiles (HCM) and the apocalyptic reported yield of the Status-6 torpedo, fewer have focused on what some of the more unique nuclear delivery systems say about Russian strategic logic.
The nuclear-powered cruise missile deserves additional attention, because it could have important implications for how we should view Russia’s strategic position. First, this missile’s development may point to a Russian defense industry that is still very capable of deploying asymmetric responses to perceived American advances in defense technology. Second, the nuclear-powered cruise missile points to the weaknesses of Russian conventional power projection and its lack of real allies, globally and regionally, as Russia’s pursuit of a “limitless” range cruise missile highlights its sense of strategic isolation and technical anxieties. Third, the dangers of developing and employing a nuclear-powered cruise missile may portend additionally extreme developments in the emerging fields of conventional and unconventional military technology, such as cyber, artificial intelligence (AI), and robotics.
Blast from the Past
The concept of a nuclear-powered cruise missile is not new. The United States labored to field a similar technology in a nuclear-powered ramjet codenamed “Project Pluto”, in the years when ballistic missile technology was still nascent and its effective fielding uncertain. Yet, with the rise of the ballistic missile, the need to field a nuclear-powered cruise missile in the form of the Super Sonic Low Altitude Missile (SLAM) disappeared. This seemed to have been a good thing, because between the size, sound, and radioactivity produced by the low flying nuclear ramjet engine, the SLAM was a dirty, cruise missile irradiating, at speeds above Mach 3, whatever land it didn’t vaporize with its payload.
If it is true that Russia has not only developed a nuclear-powered cruise missile, but supposedly made it small enough to fit on the equivalent of US Tomahawk or Russian air launched X-101, it represents an impressive engineering breakthrough. The US SLAM was over 28 meters long, while a US Tomahawk is 5.56 meters long (or 6.25 meters with its booster).
Still, this technological breakthrough is steeped in the type of research and development (R&D) that was commonplace in the Cold War; risky and costly, but with potential for maintaining deterrence in a tense geopolitical environment characterized by rapid, seemingly stochastic advances in military-technical capability. In the case of the nuclear-powered missile fielded by Russia today, Putin’s boast that “no other country has developed anything like this” points as much to its military utility as to its technical novelty. While Russia is fully capable of using its current systems to bring unacceptable harm to the United States, it is surprising that such an investment in resources would be necessary.
Maybe, the thought that no other country would develop it is a part of the nuclear powered cruise missile’s asymmetric deterrence impact. Unlike in the field of HGVs and HCMs, Russia will likely be the only country fielding a nuclear powered cruise missile for some time to come, maybe indefinitely. As some commentators have observed, “it’s just crazy” that the missile has been field-tested, much less will be deployed. But perhaps that’s the point. To the Russians, being the only country to field this capability serves as a sort of nuclear weapons PR “win” while simultaneously striking fear in those who believe the fielding of the system to be unnecessary or reckless.
Weaknesses in Conventional Power Projection
Another aspect of Russia’s strategic position highlighted by fielding a nuclear-powered cruise missile is its fear of NATO and U.S. power projection. Russian power projection is affected by both its technological issues and dearth of real allies.
While Russia has flown airstrike sorties out of Iran, and has security relationships with its “near abroad” and regional states through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Russia does not have a significant military presence in Western Europe, Africa, or the Americas. Also, as endlessly acknowledged when discussing Russia’s strategic position vis a vis the West, Russian anxieties about U.S. and NATO missile defenses in Europe heighten this sense of “encirclement” and vulnerability.
This exacerbates Russia’s technical issues related to consistently threatening assets between short / medium ballistic and cruise missile ranges and ICBM ranges without putting its capabilities to protect its own territory at risk2 or hazarding strategic nuclear escalation. A nuclear cruise missile with nearly unlimited range could alleviate some of the difficulties associated with this medium / long range challenge, helping the Russians navigate around pockets of NATO aerospace and sea control to strike at assets supporting NATO and U.S. force projection.
The Future of Russian Cyber, AI, and Robotics Employment
Finally, the Russian nuclear-powered cruise missile should give military futurists and conflict ethicists pause. The US and other Western powers are grappling with the implications of new cyber, AI, and robotic capabilities, as well as how to mitigate some of the less palatable second order effects. Meanwhile, Russian employment of a system that may be toxic to utilize, much less test, could pose interesting questions about what tradeoffs the Russian defense industry and military will make when it comes to utilizing these new technologies for conventional deterrence and warfighting purposes. In the development of General AI that would offer a military advantage, would Russian scientists and policy makers be willing to overlook some of the complex questions surrounding the “control problem” in order to accelerate development? Would collateral damage associated with the employment of any of technologies listed above mean less to Russia than other countries? Could that possible collateral damage be a part of the appeal? These questions, and their relationship with the development of Russia’s nuclear cruise missile, deserve additional thought and dedicated analysis.
The Russian employment of a nuclear-powered cruise missile is certainly technically interesting and points to a Russian defense industry still capable of surprises in complex systems. However, it also reveals that Russia faces a number of serious strategic challenges, and that it is willing to overcome those by referencing the Cold War playbook and not bounding its R&D too tightly by second order effects concerns.
Ryan Kuhns is a Program Analyst with the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) Defense Programs (DP). His educational background is in Political Science, Security Studies, and International Commerce with interests in defense economics, grand strategy, and war gaming. The views in this blog are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Energy (DOE), NNSA, or any other agency of the United States Government.