Moscow has lost a new missile, one unlike any other. The missing missile is not only nuclear-armed but also nuclear-powered. Now, ten months after the crash the Russian government is going after the missile’s remains, scooping them up before someone else does.
In March 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled to the world a new cruise missile, the Burevestnik (“Storm Petrel”). The missile was part of a whole slew of new nuclear delivery systems Putin claimed Russia was developing in response to U.S.“resisting arms-control negotiations, developing new missile-defense systems, and adopting a more aggressive posture in its nuclear strategy.”
“No one listened to us,” Putin was quoted in The Washington Post as saying. “Listen to us now.”
Burevestnik is one of the most diabolical of Putin’s new wonder weapons, which is really saying something considering the weapons include a 100-megaton nuclear torpedo. Unlike most cruise missiles, which are typically powered by turbofan engines and have ranges of 800 to 1,000 miles, the new cruise missile is nuclear powered.
Nuclear power powered cruise missiles use a sustained nuclear reaction instead of jet fuel, resulting in theoretically unlimited range. So unlimited, in fact, that a missile like Burevestnik could theoretically be launched days or weeks before an attack, taking the long way around and infiltrating U.S. air space from unexpected angles. Want to take off from Siberia, fly to the Southern Hemisphere, and attack Houston from the Gulf of Mexico? A nuclear-powered engine can do that for you.
Or at least it could, if it worked. Russia has tested Burevestnik twelve times so far and according to U.S. intelligence only one flight was successful by any measure. A November 2017 test flight from Pank’ovo, a remote arctic base on Russia’s Yuzhny Island, flew for a little more than two minutes before crashing back down to Earth.
On August 8th, a Russian naval flotilla set off from Severomorsk. The eight ship task force is allegedly on a “safety of navigation exercise,” but the presence of the crane ship KIL-143 has raised suspicions the flotilla’s real purpose is to recover the lost Burevestnik. Another, according to The Diplomat, is probably the specialized nuclear fuel container vessel Serebryanka.
In the late 1950s, the United States began development on “The Flying Crowbar,” also known as Project Pluto, a nuclear powered ramjet missile that was basically an unmanned bomber. Designed to fly lower over enemy territory at Mach 3, Project Pluto would flatten structures below with sonic booms. The unmanned craft was designed to eject hydrogen bombs over targets as it flew a preplanned route before finally crashing a final target, one last middle finger gesture as its nuclear engine broke apart on impact.
Project Pluto was killed by the advent of the intercontinental ballistic missile. It was also too dangerous to test—airborne nuclear propulsion designs spew enormous amounts of radiation in their wake. While this may sound like a minor quibble against the backdrop of full-scale nuclear war, it’s a showstopper in peacetime. Or at least it was. The Russians may want to salvage the missile’s remains to piece together what went wrong.
Or they could be preparing to recover the missile before someone else does. As open source submarine analyst HI Sutton, author of the World Submarines: Covert Shores Recognition Guide told Foxtrot Alpha that “both Russia and the United States have submarines which could attempt to recover the wreckage covertly. During the Cold War specially modified US Navy submarines were used to recover Soviet missile fragments from the seafloor for analysis. The intelligence gained provided better understanding of soviet technological capabilities as well as the weapons themselves, and could prove of strategic value.“
If the U.S. does launch a covert recovery effort, the nuclear attack submarine USS Jimmy Carter could be a major player. A Seawolf-class attack submarine designed to operate in arctic conditions, Jimmy Carter is unique in having been built also built with a 100 foot insert designed to accommodate undersea divers, remotely operated vehicles, and even manned submersibles. The possibility that the Americans could get there first—or show up during the recovery effort—is perhaps why the Russian guided missile destroyer Vice-Admiral Kulakov is accompanying the recovery flotilla.
Russia, too, has special mission submarines. Sutton tells Foxtrot Alpha, “Russia has a large fleet of special mission submarines for seabed warfare. Recently one of the large host submarines, BS-64, a stretched DELTA-IV (ballistic missile submarine), has been seen carrying a cradle for a midget submarine on its back. This would be ideal for the recovery mission. “
All of this sounds like Cold War intrigue, and unfortunately it is. Call it Cold War 2.0, or perhaps more accurately Cold War Lite, but the days of espionage and spy games are back. There’s a crashed nuclear-powered missile somewhere north of the Arctic Circle, and the Russians are going to find it.
That is, if someone else hasn’t found it first.