Putin’s ‘Unlimited Range’ Nuclear Missile Flew Just 22 Miles Before Crashing

The Associated Press
AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed to have developed an “invincible” nuclear cruise missile with “unlimited range.” It turns out that Putin’s vaunted super-missile has yet to fly more than 22 miles without crashing.

“I want to tell all those who have fueled the arms race over the last 15 years, sought to win unilateral advantages over Russia, introduced unlawful sanctions aimed to contain our country’s development: all that you wanted to impede with your policies have already happened. You have failed to contain Russia,” Putin boasted in March.

“No one in the world has anything like that. It may appear someday, but by that time we will develop something new,” he declared, after showing off computerized mockups of missiles and submersible drones that move too quickly to be intercepted.

“No one has listened to us. You listen to us now,” Putin said.

On Monday, CNBC cited anonymous sources who said Putin’s super-missile was tested four times between November 2017 and February 2018, and it crashed every time:

The U.S. assessed that the longest test flight lasted just more than two minutes, with the missile flying 22 miles before losing control and crashing. The shortest test lasted four seconds and flew for five miles.

One report, according to the sources, did not mention health or environmental risks posed by damages to the missile’s nuclear reactor.

The weapon, which has been in development since the early 2000s, is believed to use a gasoline-powered engine for takeoff before switching to a nuclear-powered one for flight, sources explained to CNBC.

The tests apparently showed that the nuclear-powered heart of the cruise missile failed to initiate and, therefore, the weapon was unable to achieve the indefinite flight Putin had boasted about.

The report adds that engineers working on the new missile believed it was not ready for test flights, but senior Kremlin officials overruled them.

CNBC expressed more concern about another system that might be ready for deployment by 2020, the hypersonic glide vehicle. Sources for the report said this weapon was successfully tested twice in 2016 and then unsuccessfully tested in late 2017, although even that flight failed only seconds before reaching its target.

As U.S. Strategic Command chief Gen. John Hyten explained to the Senate Armed Services Committee in March, hypersonic weapons travel more than five times the speed of sound and are thus impossible to intercept with current technology. The time from launch detection to impact is also much shorter than with traditional long-range missiles, giving the target less warning of an attack. Hypersonic vehicles move so fast that existing sensor networks have difficulty tracking their position, making interception highly unlikely.

“It goes up into the low reaches of space, and then turns immediately back down and then levels out and flies at a very high level of speed,” he said.

“We don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us, so our response would be our deterrent force, which would be the triad and the nuclear capabilities that we have to respond to such a threat,” Gen. Hyten advised.

The U.S., Russia, China, France, and India have all conducted research into hypersonic missiles, but until now it was believed no one had tested one successfully. If Russia is truly just two years from deploying hypersonics for combat, it may have taken a substantial lead in both research on the weapon and the development of defenses against it, which include augmenting American detection systems with a new layer of space-based sensors.

Just a few days ago, Tom Karako of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Space News that the Trump administration is waiting too long by penciling space-based sensors into the 2020 budget.

“We’re hearing a lot of good words about a space sensor layer. But as of right now it has not been translated into programs and budgets,” Karako said.

“We have to move out. We should not wait for the 2020 budget. If we’re serious about the need for speed, there should be an adjustment to the 2019 budget,” he urged.