Burevestnik: US intelligence and Russia’s ‘unique’ cruise missile

Russia’s Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise-missile project featured for the first time in the latest US National Air and Space Intelligence Center unclassified report on missile developments. Douglas Barrie and Henry Boyd consider the prospects for the weapon ever entering service. 

On 11 January 2021, the United States Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) published its latest unclassified report on ballistic and cruise missiles. For the first time, it features Russia’s Burevestnik (RS-SSC-X-09 Skyfall) nuclear-powered very-long-range nuclear-armed missile. The prospects for the weapon entering service are likely to depend on developments both on the technical and diplomatic fronts.

One of a kind?

Land-attack cruise missiles feature increasingly in national inventories. Yet NASIC’s ‘2020 Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat’ report refers to just three cruise-missile states – China, Iran and Russia – rather than the 11 countries featured in the previous report released in 2017. The new report gives no reason for the narrowed focus with regard to cruise missiles, but the remaining states are those of primary US concern.

On the other hand, it characterises Burevestnik as ‘developmental’ and remarks that, were it to enter service, it would give Russia a ‘unique weapon with intercontinental-range capability’. Its entry into Russia’s inventory arguably hinges not only on overcoming the considerable technical challenge of ensuring the reliable performance of the nuclear-propulsion unit – there have been numerous flight-test failures, and an accident resulting in several deaths – but also on the trajectory of strategic arms control.

In the arms-control arena, the newly elected administration of US President Joe Biden wasted no time in saying it wanted to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for a further five years. In the absence of agreement between Washington and Moscow, the treaty would expire on 5 February 2021. The Trump administration had explored sustaining the treaty, but had initially insisted on its expansion to draw China into a trilateral arrangement and was pushing Moscow to persuade Beijing to engage. The US also wanted to revisit discussions about verification issues and expanding the treaty’s scope to include sub-strategic weapon holdings, while Burevestnik and other ‘new’ strategic systems were also to be addressed. The gambit was unsuccessful, resulting only in leaving the incoming Biden administration with a snap decision to proffer an extension.

A five-year window

Moscow maintains that the ‘best option’ for the treaty is a five-year extension ‘without any preconditions’. The intervening period, it suggests, could be used to explore any successor agreement. Burevestnik is certainly a system Washington will want to discuss. Beyond Russian President Vladimir Putin revealing the project in March 2018, there has been little to no official comment on the programme, the rationale for development, or where the capability might fit into Russian thinking on deterrence.

However, a recent article in Russia’s Military Industrial Courier (VPK) journal suggested performance goals for the programme and a ‘rationale’ for the pursuit of such an arcane technology. It painted a picture of a weapon that will continue to be viewed by Washington as destabilising.

The theoretical attraction of nuclear propulsion for a cruise-missile application is that it offers a long-endurance power source far in excess of the traditional turbojet or turbofan engine. For the last two, range is in effect a function of how much fuel can be carried given other design parameters, including cruise altitude en route to the target. In its strategic arsenal today, Russia’s nuclear-tipped cruise missiles are dependent on launch platforms, either bomber aircraft or submarines, to deliver the system within range of the target. The longest-range nuclear-armed cruise missile in the inventory is the air-launched Kh-102 (RS-AS-23 Kodiak), which may have a maximum range of around 4,000 kilometres. A longer-range air-launched missile, known as the Kh-BD (long-range) or Item 506, is also in development. This may be an extended-range Kh-101.

Range matters

The aim with the ground-launched Burevestnik, however, is to give the missile alone intercontinental range, as flagged in the NASIC report; this is suggested by the VPK article as being notionally between 10,000–20,000km. This would allow the missile to be based anywhere in Russia and still be able to reach targets in the continental US. VPK claims furthermore that the notional altitude of the Burevestnik is 50–100 metres throughout almost all of its flight. Maximising the range of a conventionally powered cruise missile would require flying at medium altitude to optimise fuel consumption, thus also increasing the range at which it could be detected by air-defence radar. A very low-altitude flight path would minimise this, as would the capacity to use circuitous routing to avoid known air-defence locations.

Three Russian test sites have been associated with the Burevestnik: Kapustin Yar, Nenoksa and Pankovo. The project was first identified by the US intelligence community at the Kapustin Yar range and given the initial designation KY-30. The programme has likely been under way for well over a decade. Nenoksa was the site of an explosion in August 2019 during what is thought to have been the recovery of a test missile following more than a year of submersion after a failed test. At least five nuclear specialists died in the accident.

Despite the lethal accident and numerous test failures, Moscow seems to be continuing with the programme. Whether the project is driven by a desire to overcome what have so far been considerable technical difficulties and move ahead with development, or rather to provide a substantial bargaining chip in any future arms-control discussions, remains to be seen.