Vladimir Putin has put the West on notice. In response to NATO missile defense efforts that irked him since he solidified his control over Russia, he commissioned new, impossible to intercept weapons, and in a state of the nation address, he unveiled them to the word. Sort of. He showed off a few pictures and computer animations of a nuclear-powered cruise missile, an ultra-heavy ICBM with multiple warheads that seemed to be targeting wide swaths across Florida, and a hypersonic weapon he claimed was already in the middle of being deployed.
This announcement became doubly ominous since it was followed by a very public attack on a former Russian spy on UK soil with a chemical weapon and a sudden death of another dissident, in a gratuitous show of force. It almost seems as if Putin is challenging the West and using these updated weapons as both a taunt and a threat in case any of the NATO countries even think about using military force against him. And yet, his unveiling was met with shrugs and scoffs from American and NATO military experts, and even some Russian engineers who were less than impressed with the sales pitch. Why?
While Russian nukes and missiles are nothing to sneeze at and could destroy the world several times over, the weapons Putin advertised are, simply put, unlikely to exist unless Russian engineers have a time machine and retrieved them from the future. (Just in case you were wondering, that would also be improbable.) The bottom line is that we simply don’t have the designs and the alloys to make any of these missiles or power sources work in the real world. The best we have are some initial prototypes that we haven’t gotten to work as planned and several space agencies feverishly working on them for a theoretical mission to Mars or beyond.
For example, take the nuclear cruise missile in question. Miniature nuclear reactors exist, and they’ve been used on submarines and icebreaker ships for many decades now. There were numerous attempts to make them smaller, small enough to fit on aircraft and eventually missiles, but the farthest those attempts got was the XB-70 Valkyrie. Planned as a near-infinite range, Mach 3+ bomber immune to interceptors, it was ultimately canceled because an ICBM was more effective for delivering warheads to distant targets, and the costs and risks of putting a nuclear reactor on a plane were considered way too much for even a superpower to handle.
So could Russians have miniaturized their reactors further and avoided the extra weight required for shielding by putting them in missiles instead of jets piloted by human beings? It’s possible to radically shrink reactors, but at the expense of making them far less powerful. Limiting them to a few kilowatts isn’t a problem for future space travelers who need to keep their computers and life support systems running, but won’t make for quick, capable missiles able to carry a warhead. Even if every watt of the resulting power could be converted to thrust, it would be barely enough to lift the missile without its explosive payload, making it effectively useless.
Of course, that transfer of power to thrust won’t be perfectly efficient, so the miniature reactor would have to be in or close to the megawatt range, which would signify a massive leap in the technology required to remove heat from the fissile core and efficiently blasting it out through the missile’s jet engine’s compressors, a leap that would require exotic alloys and design methods we know that Russia doesn’t have the cashflow and knowhow to develop. More technologically advanced research labs charged with the task of making the much smaller and more efficient reactors required for both nuclear missiles and deep space travel haven’t been able to come anywhere close to this, and they’ve been working on these projects for many years.
The Trouble With Making Everything Nuclear
We also need to consider the problem of actually using this missile in a real-world engagement. Since no one has cracked fusion, much less created a miniature stellerator, its reactor core would have to use radioactive material like plutonium and uranium, microscopic and dust-sized particles of which will go flying after the explosive payload goes off, turning this missile into a dirty bomb. Now, consider that the last American airstrike fired some 59 Tomahawks and that Russian nuclear cruise missile strikes would have a very comparable scope. This would mean 59 destroyed, radioactive targets, a result comparable to the tactical nuclear bombs we feared would create a very dangerous slippery slope to using nukes in conventional conflicts.
This is not to mention the trail or radioactivity belching out of the very poorly, if at all, shielded missile because unless the whole device is made of lead and concrete, it will emit dangerous subatomic particles in every direction as it flies to its targets. It’s the exact reason why American efforts to make nuclear cruise missiles were shut down. They were too heavy, loud, and dangerous to do their job from a purely mechanical standpoint, and risked inciting a major arms race in equally heavy, loud, and dangerous weapons between the United States, Soviet Union, and China which would now have to field an arsenal of flying blights on the planet’s surface that pass over cities with the howl of an enraged banshee in severe intestinal distress.
And the exact same set of engineering and usage problems applies to Putin’s nuclear torpedo, on top of the added risk of contaminating hundreds, if not thousands, of square miles thanks to wind and currents. While neither would qualify as a nuclear weapon because none of the fissile material would add to its yield or be incorporated into the warhead, they would leave a fallout zone and straddle a fine line between conventional and nuclear conflict. For many military commanders, this could justify pressing ahead with the development of kiloton and dial-a-yield nuclear warheads by pointing out that such bombs would have very similar effect to a volley of Russian nuclear-powered missiles and “shouldn’t” provoke a full-scale nuclear response.
To be sure, the fallout from a nuclear-powered missile wouldn’t be anything like the fallout from an actual nuclear warhead, it would be more like a toxic spill that could be cleaned up and contained. But the very fact that we would have to accept a hazmat team scrubbing radioactive debris from what’s left of a target isn’t going to sit well with NATO generals, who will likely retaliate by deploying smart drones and trying to destroy the missiles closer to Russian territory as not to deal with the required radioactive cleanup afterward. Any creative measures to contain these flying dirty bombs are bound to create an excuse for an arms race constantly pushing the envelope for what qualifies as worthy of launching a nuclear-tipped ICBM in retaliation.
Again, this is why both Americans and Soviets backed down from creating a variety of tactical nukes. Not only would they constantly thread the needle of starting World War 3 and killing billions in the aftermath, they have generals ready and willing to use them and trying to justify why deploying them just once to clear a frustrating blockade or a heavily armed enemy base wouldn’t upset their geopolitical rivals and cause a diplomatic upheaval. And today, in an age when non-state actors are a formidable threat, the last thing we want them to potentially get ahold of is a flying, programmable dirty bomb or any weapon that even remotely resembles a tactical nuke.
Taking all this into account, it’s a good thing that Putin’s claims are extremely unlikely to be anything more than saber-rattling and such weapons are a very long way away from seeing the battlefield. Not only does the technology he’d need not exist yet thanks to the laws of physics, Americans have watched the supposed tests of these weapons crash and burn. At best, they’re still proof of concept prototypes a long way away from a final design. Same goes for the pair of hypersonic missiles one of which Putin claimed to be in final stages of development and the other already deployed.
It’s Not Easy Being Hypersonic
Hypersonic weapons are not unheard of nowadays, and Russia, China, and the United States have been trying to perfect them to outrun each others’ missile defense systems. The best example we know of is the American HTV-2. Launched by a rocket and accelerating to just over seventeen times the speed of sound, this state of the art demonstrator was supposed to give engineers an idea of the forces a real guided hypersonic missile would face. During its last and most successful flight, the vehicle was effectively de-gloved. That’s right, the air compression and friction during reentry tore off the glider’s skin.
And now, Putin would like us to believe that not only did Russia’s attempts at doing the same exact thing succeeded; he made his glider go even faster and had the leeway to make it a true guided missile capable of evasive maneuvers. We’re having trouble with simple gliders, and Russia has somehow mastered intricate hypersonic swoops and dives in defiance of what the laws of physics have to say in the matter. You see, when an airframe speeds up to hypersonic speeds, air resistance increases exponentially, not linearly. Putin is claiming that Russian scientists can now negotiate speeds that shatter the lightest and strongest alloys in existence forged into shapes designed with tolerances that have to be measured in millimeters.
Not only that, but they managed to do it without the dozens of tests it would take to perfect this capability for the battlefield, tests that would be obvious to any spacefaring nation and would need to be announced in advance not to put civilian aircraft and satellites in danger, much less start a war by straying way too close for comfort to another nation’s airspace with what looks like a nasty and powerful weapon. All this strains credulity, to put it mildly. Had such an incredible weapon been actually flown and successfully performed its highly unusual and aggressive maneuvers, we’d absolutely know about it.
Similar concerns plague the other hypersonic missile Putin unveiled, one he claimed could be launched from a bomber to take out aircraft carriers at sea faster than their defenses could react. It seems that this missile is absolutely nothing new, just a slightly modified version of the Iskander SRBM, or short-range ballistic missile. While launching it from an aircraft gives the Russian forces new ways to attack their targets, it would lack the flight profile of any true hypersonic missile designed to pierce an aircraft carrier’s defenses with sheer speed and steering clear of areas where their movement could be easily detected by the radars of an enemy carrier group.
Its trajectory would be a well defined, high altitude arc, which these ships know how to intercept, not a low altitude approach that would reduce the carriers’ reaction time to almost nothing. So while technically, it would be hypersonic, it wouldn’t be a new, unknown quantity that would stump an experienced navy. It’s the same threat for which they’ve already designed countermeasures with a different delivery system, being advertised as some sort of breakthrough in aerospace design and material science. This is why Putin’s computer renderings and highly orchestrated “leaks” were met with shrugs and eye rolls by military experts and engineers.
A recent Russian video claiming to show a successful test of this seemingly revolutionary missile, named Кинжал, or dagger, actually seems to back up this theory. Rather than featuring an aggressively angled glider on a rocket required to fly low and fast in the dense lower atmosphere mounted to the belly of a MiG-31, it showcased a very conventional looking missile making an upward curve into the sky after it was fired. Again, this is not a trivial weapon to be taken lightly, but it’s not exactly the paradigm-shifting addition to the modern battlefield foe which no credible countermeasures exist, contrary to the bold claims made in Putin’s address.
Fear And Loathing In Moscow
After reviewing the red flags thrown up by Putin’s announcement, we have to ask the obvious question: Why would he threaten NATO partners with nonexistent or wildly exaggerated weapons supposedly meant to defeat their defenses while insisting he’s not threatening them? Because as far as Russia is concerned, NATO is nothing but a proxy for the American military creeping towards its borders and threatening its sovereignty. Combined with sanctions under Obama and a new package of sanctions Trump refuses to enforce since the GOP has refused to hold him accountable for following the law, Putin sees nothing less than a Cold War on his state, and by extension, him personally, so he’s responding the same way his predecessors have: with saber-rattling.
It’s not exactly a secret that Putin deeply regrets the dissolution of the Soviet Union and most Russians are with him. While media outlets in the West were quick to frame his feelings as a desire to reunite the band, so to speak, they’re missing the appropriate context. After the USSR dissolved, its member states imploded into poorly governed kleptocracies with even lower basic standards of living. Inflation soared, lawlessness was rampant, and people were trying to merely survive, with many, the author included, seeking new opportunities overseas, far from the chaos that was engulfing their homelands. So it’s little wonder that many Russians want the USSR back. They want stability and an actual sense of common, shared identity again.
Now, that said, they obviously don’t want a Cold War and Stalinism. While the USSR has always been described as a brutal, tyrannical regime with frequent purges and censorship in the media, the truth is that in its twilight years, that totalitarian empire eased up on its citizens. Under the auspices of Perestroika, which Gorbachev conceived as a modernization and rebranding effort for the Soviet Union, bringing it closer in line with modern, liberal sensibilities, much of the public was freer to complain about the government. More news from the outside and foreign cultures were permitted to trickle in. The union was slowly evolving and trying to get on the right foot.
Former buffer states were allowed to govern themselves, and the USSR started actively working to stop the nuclear arms race and standoff with the U.S. The reform package pushed by Gorbachev would have at long last done away with the Politburo and allowed actual free elections, and multiple political parties. The coup by Yeltsin and his allies and the swift dissolution of the union took almost every citizen by surprise. Just imagine going to bed in America, then waking up to find out that because politicians refused to compromise on a future policy, America no longer exists and your state is now its own nation. That’s basically what happened to the USSR, and this jarring experience gave Soviet citizens political and economic PTSD.
Of course, none of this is to say that Gorbachev’s reforms would have turned the USSR into America East and were guaranteed to go off without a hitch. But if you’re living in Russia and survived a lot of lean and hungry years as criminals and the politically connected became richer than they ever could have dreamed by raiding state assets, it’s hard not to feel cheated about the future that could’ve been should the Soviet Union modernized as planned. At the same time, we shouldn’t necessarily think that this is why Putin voiced a similar opinion about its demise.
He’s now the leader of the kleptocracy that replaced the old order and his plans for the future are unlikely to feature modernization and liberalization for the sake of doing the right thing. He’s interested in control, stability, and political might, which is why he sees the spread of color revolutions and the expansion of NATO as plots against him, or at least useful scapegoats for why he didn’t fix the rampant corruption by ex-Soviet oligarchs and instead, used their wealth and connections to enrich himself after domesticating them by force and legal threats. To him, Eastern European states joining NATO aren’t sovereign nations that made a choice, but brainwashed or corrupt American puppets helping the yanks mass an army on his vulnerable Eastern border to contain and finally neuter Russia once and for all, winning the Cold War.
And sadly, his renewed saber-rattling and paranoia about the missile shield meant to protect NATO members from rogue states, his ramped up military exercises to test NATO reaction times and simulate invasions of the Baltic states that have pulled so far out of the Russian geopolitical orbit, are only assuring these new members they made the right choice and need NATO protection from an ever more aggressive Russia. Putin, is in effect, creating a vicious cycle of escalating tensions and drawing more and more states into seriously thinking about the need to become members of the alliance, which just causes Putin to get more aggressive and lash out in turn.
However, Putin has now effectively backed himself into a corner. Modernizing Russia using the Chinese model requires money he doesn’t have. (Which is an ironic thought considering the history of Soviet-Chinese relations.) But doing things the Western way would require economic and political reforms which will put him and his inner circle out of power and seize trillions of rubles from their bank accounts. Forcing Russia to trudge along as is, is the only way he’ll stay in charge, meaning that this CGI exercise in bravado seems to be more of a gimmick to keep up his support among Russians than a serious threat that should give us cause for panic.
Yet that said, his continued insistence on going after people who he believes are a threat on foreign soil while escalating war-like rhetoric is worrisome on its own. Either he feels invincible or he’s worried about something big and is relying on the massive Soviet arsenal of doomsday bombs to escape any real-world consequences past sanctions. Both are very bad for global security and stability, and will require something we, unfortunately, don’t seem to have: a group of even-headed, rational world leaders who know how to be creative problem solvers and can be trusted to have each others’ backs ready to deal with this thorny and sensitive state of affairs.