Is the nuclear cruise missile "Burevestnik" really a threat?

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On March 11, 2018, in the middle of the electoral campaign for his re-election for a fourth presidential term, Vladimir Putin created a surprise by presenting several new weapons developed by Russia and presented as giving Russia a significant advantage over NATO. And it is true that the Kh-47M2 airborne hypersonic missile, the Sarmat intercontinental cruise missile, the Poseidon drone torpedo or the Avangard hypersonic glider have all provoked reactions and awareness in the West. You just have to look at the eagerness of the US Air Force regarding hypersonic technologies over the past 6 months to be convinced of this.

Among these announcements was a new “nuclear-powered cruise missile with unlimited range”. This announcement left many people wary, both about the reality of the device and its relevance as a weapon today.

Indeed, the nuclear propulsion of a missile is nothing very new, and work was carried out in the United States in this area in the 50s. Its principle is relatively simple: the controlled nuclear reaction causes rapid heating. of Air pulsed by a turbine, causing its rapid expansion linked to the increase in pressure (the famous PV=nRT that every Science student has learned by heart), making it possible to propel this gas at high speed, thus creating a thrust. The lifespan of the radioactive material allows the reaction to be maintained for several tens of hours. Thus, American tests had made it possible to calculate that such a missile could circle the earth more than 4 times before running out of energy. Additionally, the thrust is powerful enough to reach high supersonic speeds, but without reaching the hypersonic threshold.

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In these conditions, why did you abandon such technology? 

It turns out that this approach has several fatal flaws. First, it emits intense ionizing radiation, leaving a real radioactive trail behind it. As Laurent Lagneau indicates, it is a safe bet that the 2017 radiological alert on the Russian borders was linked to the tests of this missile. On the other hand, even if very fast compared to other cruise missiles, the missile thus propelled is very slow, and very vulnerable to anti-missile systems, compared to intercontinental ballistic missiles. However, its nuclear nature prohibits any use other than that of a strategic weapon. 

In fact, the project was deemed ineffective by the American authorities, and was finally abandoned in 1961.

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So why did Russia decide to develop such technology?

Let's be honest, there is no certain answer to this question today, at least in the public domain. We can only make educated guesses at this stage. 

Let's start by eliminating the bluff, which at this stage would be quite useless. With the Kinjhal, Poseidon, Zircon, Avangard or even T-14 Armata and S-500, Russia has many subjects to increase pressure on Western military headquarters. The Burevestnik does indeed have a function, and this could well be found in its name. Indeed, Burevestnik means Gull in Russian, a seabird known for being able to travel very large distances and stay in the air for a very long time. 

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From then on, we can imagine that the missile would have the function of patrolling a maritime zone and attacking any ship that attempted to enter or cross it. Progress in artificial intelligence and remote control makes it possible to develop such a function. There remains the problem of radioactivity, which will nevertheless be much less over the seas than over land. Moreover, nothing says that the missile will not be composed of a nuclear carrier and an autonomous munition with very conventional chemical propulsion, the latter separating once the target is within range.

Regardless, the Burevestnik is a new demonstration of Russian renewal on the international scene, and the incredible dynamism of its defense industry. It’s as admirable as it is disturbing…

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