- Putin announced a successful test of an experimental nuclear-powered cruise missile earlier this month.
- The Burvestnik was unveiled in 2018 as a unique missile with a theoretically unlimited flight range.
- If it works, the weapon’s utility is debatable, and a nuclear weapons expert said it’s likely for political show.
Russian President Vladimir Putin claims his experimental nuclear-powered cruise missile works, but even if that is true, it may not be as much of a “super weapon” as thought.
The weapon isn’t much of an addition beyond the nuclear strike options Russia already has in its arsenal, a nuclear weapons expert told Insider. That said, the missile isn’t useless.
Earlier this month, Putin announced that Russia conducted a successful test of the 9M730 Burevestnik missile, one of six new strategic weapons he revealed in 2018 that Russia was developing. In his most recent announcement, he didn’t elaborate further on the testing.
Past reporting indicates that Russia conducted just over a dozen tests between 2017 and 2019. None were successful, though one or two may have been promising. During the course of testing, the retrieval of a weapon that previously crashed into the sea is believed to have resulted in a deadly nuclear accident.
It is not, exactly, the strongest track record, but if Putin’s claims are true and the weapon is at last showing promise, that raises a whole host of follow-up questions about the potential functions and utility of the Burevestnik.
Will the “low-flying, stealth cruise missile with a nuclear warhead” be able to operate “with a practically unlimited range” along an “unpredictable flight path” as Putin described it in 2018? Will it have “the ability to bypass interception lines” and be “invulnerable to all existing and future missile defense and air defense systems” as he has claimed? It is not entirely clear.
“With Burevestnik in the news, let me say it again — the utility of this weapon system (assuming it works) is about zero,” nuclear weapons expert Pavel Podvig posted on X shortly after news broke of Putin’s announcement on October 5. He later told Insider “it doesn’t offer any advantages over the existing strategic systems” Russia already possesses, like intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).
“Assuming that it works as advertised, it’s just a very long-range cruise missile,” Podvig said.
But that doesn’t mean the weapon couldn’t have some use, especially politically. And in a time when Ukrainian offensive efforts are slowly but steadily chipping away at Russia’s defenses and Moscow continues throwing waves of its troops from dwindling reserves at the battlefield, Putin may also see the weapon as a bargaining chip.
The Burevestnik is one of Russia’s six strategic “super weapons,” as they are sometimes called. The systems are in various stages of development, with some already in service with the military.
Some are unproven while others haven’t lived up to the hype. Among the other missiles in the mix, the 3M22 Zircon anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile, currently deployed with the Russian Navy, is still something of a question mark like the RS-28 Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile that was recently put in service, but the supposedly unbeatable Kh-47M2 Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missiles was defeated by US-provided Patriot air defense batteries in Ukraine.
The Burevestnik, which means “Announcer of the Storm,” is one of the more experimental systems alongside its underwater counterpart, the Poseidon torpedo. “No one in the world has anything like it,” Putin said in 2018. That’s true, although US scientists had efforts to develop something similar decades ago and gave up because the concept is, as one arms control expert told Insider, “a technical, strategic, and environmental nightmare.” Technology has improved since those efforts though.
“I’m kind of skeptical of the kind of mission of the system,” Podvig told Insider, “because if you look at missile defenses and standard ballistic missiles, there is nothing wrong with normal ballistic missiles. They are definitely capable of penetrating any missile defenses.” Many modern ballistic missiles are designed with countermeasures to fool defenses, which may be less effective than advertised.
Russia claims the Burevestnik, as a nuclear-powered system, can effectively fly for an unlimited amount of time and range, and can be sent to any target at a moment’s notice. The missile, essentially a very-long range cruise missile, can’t be intercepted by missile defense systems that are designed to counter ICBMs, meaning it could theoretically penetrate key enemy air defenses to strike its target. But in reality, a missile defense system likely would not protect against all incoming ICBMs, Podvig noted, as some warheads would likely overwhelm and break through and some missiles would come with decoys and penetration aids.
The Burevestnik simply offers additional strike options.
The capability Russia has sought with its development of the Burevestnik can be traced back to the controversial US decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia in 2002. The agreement was designed to limit the use anti-ballistic missile systems intended to defend against nuclear attacks. At that time, President George W. Bush pulled out so the US could develop the National Missile Defense system, but the move led to Russia bolstering its nuclear capabilities and defense systems — and ultimately, the creation of the new Burevestnik.
But the weapon’s gotten plenty of US attention since its initial testing, and that makes it and potential launch facilities — which appear to be rather large and vulnerable — targets if there were ever a conflict between Russia and the US.
“I would imagine that if it ever comes to that, if this thing is ever deployed, then these launch facilities will be among the first targets,” Podvig said, noting that would impact the overall probability rate of the Burevestnik then delivering a retaliatory second strike. “My take is that an ICBM with several warheads is much better than this kind of system.”
And assuming that is the case, the Russians are likely aware of this, which begs the question: why bother developing the Burevestnik in the first place?
Potentially, something political, Podvig said, adding “it’s one of those kinds of politics projects basically created to make the president happy.”
It wouldn’t be the first time Putin’s happiness has been the priority. The entire narrative of the war in Ukraine has been filtered for Putin, with news of battlefield losses and a weakened reserve of troops being watered down as it goes up the ladder. The current state of the war, for Russia, is staggeringly bad. Ukrainian forces are busting through fortified Russian defenses after a months-long intense counteroffensive. Russian operations near Avdiivka have been disastrous, with the personnel, weapons, and armor losses piling up. Ukraine continues to target occupied Crimea with the goal of making it untenable. Black Sea forces have been pummeled by cheap drone boats. The list goes on.
Another possibility is that Putin’s readying the Burevestnik as a bargaining chip — he likes to rattle the nuclear saber to get what he wants. The Burevestnik gives him, Podvig said, a chance to say that Russia has a unique weapon in its arsenal. That may be enough at the negotiating table.
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