Mystery explosion at Nenoksa test site: it’s probably not Burevestnik

I was going to stay away from this because there simply was not enough information to tell what happened, and the hot take factory had already run away with the story on the basis of close to nothing. Here is the most likely scenario as I see it. The explosion was not a missile launch test, and it was not Burevestnik, no matter how much arms control wonks want to think it was. It’s just unlikely based on the scant information available about the incident.

I have a different view from Jeffrey Lewis here. The notion that Russian Burevestnik program was in major trouble after moving from Novaya Zemlya test site is also probably incorrect. I think Lewis’ own commercial satellite imagery confirms the story that VNIIEF, the Russian nuclear research institute in charge of this work, basically tried to tell but couldn’t get out in time because people already piled in with speculation.

Jeffrey Lewis paid for this image
courtesy of Jeffrey Lewis and his institute who paid for this lovely image

They were testing the system on a platform at sea. According to some accounts the explosion blew the scientists into the water, which is why it took time for an accurate casualty count to come in as they were looking for their own people. It was not a missile launch, as such launches are easily detected by national technical means, and it was not on a rail launcher since we can clearly see one affixed on land at the test site. Why would they rail launch it from a platform at sea when they can fire it over the bay from the coast?

Let’s ask first order questions. Why did five leading researchers die? If it was a missile test why would they be near the missile? I know I’m always standing next to experimental missiles I’m testing, it’s the best way to see the explosion. If it was an experimental nuclear reactor, why were they standing next to it at the time of the mishap? I know I always stand next to experimental nuclear reactors I’m testing. Typically when people stand around things, it is because they don’t expect them to explode or massively irradiate them. If this is a likelihood, the researchers are usually quite far away from the device when it is being tested. VNIIEF stated they had spent a year preparing for this test, so probably they had thought about their own safety for some time.

The explosion was caused by a liquid fueled engine – why would there be a liquid fuel engine in Burevestnik? Subsonic cruise missiles have solid fuel as their boost phase. Ok here is the last question for Burevestnik theory enthusiasts. Imagine they are conducting a missile test on a small platform out at sea, and you believe that this is a missile powered by an unshielded reactor. I mean, kind of hard to shield a reactor on a relatively small cruise missile. In this theory Russia’s leading nuclear researchers are standing around an unshielded nuclear reactor on a barge, with the intent to turn it on. Forgive my skepticism.

I know you’re thinking, well maybe they lied about the platform and were testing it at the rail launcher site. So why were the scientists next to it then, and another question, why are there all these ships positioned in the flight path of the missile from the rail launcher? Wouldn’t the radiation from the reactor be a problem for them, the entire bay, maybe the towns?

Some in Russia have combined the two theories, suggesting that Burevestnik has a nuclear power component, but there is a separate liquid fueled engine for maneuverability. While interesting, its still unclear how either system actually powers Burevestnik and why a subsonic missile with maneuvering surfaces would remotely need liquid fueled thrusters or jets to maneuver. I’m raising this here to dismiss it because it doesn’t make much technical sense. We will get back to Burevestnik later.

VNIIEF’s statement, in classic Russian style, alluded to two types of projects without saying exactly what it was, a novel Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator or a novel reactor type akin to U.S. Kilopower project. In my view they were indeed testing a novel Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator with a liquid fuel engine combo. The idea being to use the RTG as a long term electrical heating solution to maintain thermostatic temperature inside the various components of a liquid fueled engine, either in a booster phase, or the canister itself, of a missile that needs to get up to speed very quickly from launch. Basically an atomic battery for a liquid fueled engine where the components have to be kept at a certain temperature in prolonged storage, otherwise the weapon has to be permanently connected to a power source. This is certainly not as sexy as a nuclear powered missile, but it’s much more probable as the real story behind what happened. That’s the story IZ eventually went with and it’s probably closer to the truth than all the Burevestnik mania.

RTG wikimedia
RTG design from wikimedia commons

If we ask which secretive missile the Russian military is working on, that is principally for the Russian Navy, has most likely a high power liquid fuel engine – it’s could well be Tsirkon. Since Tsirkon has to be canister stored, and quickly sprint to a high velocity for its scramjet to work, most likely this missile could benefit from a RTG. It could be part of the canister storage system, or fall off as a booster. Some have also suggested Skif, a SLBM designed to be fired from the ocean seabed, even though that would violate a treaty banning such weapons. If its a liquid powered engine, then I’m skeptical on Skif and leaning towards Tsirkon, because the latter is likely to have a powerful liquid fueled engine/scramjet combo, and is actively being worked on whereas I’ve really not seen evidence of Skif being a thing.

While we’re in the speculation business, it might also be a maneuvering satellite. That sort of weapon could use a sustained power source, in space, and possibly have liquid fueled thrusters. Just working through the non-Burevestnik list here. If the radiation emitted sounds too high for a RTG, and I’m not an expert here so I don’t know how much radiation you get if you blow one up, I suppose it varies considerably depending on the type of material used and how much of it they were using. RTGs are fairly simple in design, but perhaps this RTG was novel and therefore more powerful.

Equally likely it was a novel nuclear power source, but again it begs the question as to the cause of an explosion, and why leading researchers would ever be standing around such a thing on a platform at sea. The obvious answer is they were setting up equipment, but I don’t see them testing an unshielded reactor off the coast of a town near Severodvinsk. Actually the entire proposition that Burevestnik would be tested in this populous area with commercial activity makes me skeptical.

Now let’s imagine that the RTG story is a canard meant to distract us. It could be a novel nuclear power source, but for what? Well, probably 10-20 different projects, at least those that I can think of. I’m not ruling out a component related to Burevestnik, but saying that something was tested with infrastructure associated with Burevestnik tests is like going to Kaputsin Yar and just guessing which missile was involved at a range testing 10 different missiles.

The scientists, the explosion and a source of radiation were all co-located which suggests they were working on something with explosive potential and a source of radiation. The radiation released seems quite small for a reactor, just my impression based on commentary from people who follow the nuclear side of things but perhaps too high for a typical RTG. So the circumstances  suggest it was something other than an unshielded reactor, involving an engine with liquid fuel propulsion, which should point us away from Burevestnik.

Moscow Times released a story from the hospital talking about exposure to Cesium 137 isotope, which while a byproduct of fission, is also something you might use for a RTG and is a source of gamma radiation. The thing is Cs-137 is total junk for power level and is basically one of the weakest isotope sources you can use for a RTG. Good PDF here with comparisons for those interested.

RTG isotopes 2RTG isotopes

Back to Burevestnik

I wonder why people assume that Burevestnik is an open air flow reactor/ramject powered missile? Just because in 1960s U.S. project Pluto used this combination on a large supersonic missile does it make sense to assume that’s what Russia is working on as well? The U.S. tried to build 1957-1964, and it doesn’t make much sense that it is what Russia would try to build in 2019. Pluto was a large supersonic missile, with rocket boosters and multiple warheads designed as a supersonic low altitude missile (SLAM), while Burevestnik is a single warhead cruise missile shaped for subsonic or perhaps transonic flight. Its certainly not a mach 2 weapon.

project pluto
This is project Pluto in concept

Burevestnik clearly doesn’t look like a supersonic low altitude missile with those wing surfaces.

Burevestnik 2

Burevestnik-nuclear-powered-cruise-missile.
this is burevestnik

Given Burevestnik appears to be a subsonic, or a transonic missile, not meant for supersonic flight and therefore not utilizing a ramjet which is better suited for mach 2+ it is probably not an open air flow system. Ramjets are highly inefficient at slower speeds and the wings on the missile don’t exactly look like a mach 2+ weapon. Burevestnik is going to have probably one of two propulsion types, direct air cycle or indirect air cycle. Direct air cycle just throws the air into the reactor and out the back. Highly radioactive. Indirect cycle is probably liquid metal cooled. Air makes contact with a heat exchanger that’s carrying the liquid metal from the reactor and goes out the back, much less radioactive. Of course maybe there is a nuclear power source just powering a turbojet and they’re not using the air for propulsion at all.

Also I don’t think its index is 9M730, although it was initially reported as such. There are still too many assumptions here about an experimental weapon without enough images or information, so in my view it is best to hold back on the guesswork.

Comments and feedback as always welcome. If you have alternative explanations please send them in. I do not know what it was, but there’s enough information to suggest that the hot take factory is wrong on this one.

Russia’s Avangard hypersonic boost-glide system

I’ve recently put out an article on Russia’s Avangard hypersonic boost-glide system in the well known Russian journal The New Times, under the title “ЧТО ВСЕ-ТАКИ ПУТИН ПОДАРИЛ РОССИЯНАМ НА НОВЫЙ ГОД,” but for those interested, please find the unedited English version below, which hopefully covers the subject in some depth.

Earlier in March 2018, Vladimir Putin announced at his annual address to the federal assembly that a Russian hypersonic boost-glide system, named Avangard, would start entering serial production. Subsequently on December 26th, 2018 Russian officials claimed that they had successfully conducted a test from the Dombarovsky missile site, to the Kura test range on Kamchatka, some 3,760 miles away. Russia’s president proudly announced that the system as a wonderful ‘New Year’s gift’ to Russia. According to Putin’s statement, the hypersonic glide vehicle is able to conduct intensive maneuvers at speeds in excess of Mach 20, which would render it “invulnerable” to any existing or prospective missile defenses. In this article I will briefly explore the logic behind Russia’s hypersonic boost glide program, recent claims of technological accomplishment, and the strategic implications of deploying such weapon systems.

Despite rather questionable public statements about the technical characteristics of this weapon system, a number of which appear inconsistent, it is clear that Russian military science has made considerable advancements along one of the most sophisticated axis of weapons research. While claims pertaining to the readiness of this system to enter serial production, and operational service, are probably exaggerated, the more important questions are conceptual. More than likely Russia will be able to deploy a hypersonic boost glide system in the 2020s, perhaps alongside other hypersonic weapons projects, but the promise of this technology was always at the tactical-operational level of war, not strategic. This was never considered a ‘game changer’ as a system for the delivery of strategic nuclear weapons. If anything, Russia has invested a substantial amount of money, and years of research, in overdoing its strengths. Beyond a somewhat militant demonstration of ‘Russian national achievement’ for domestic audiences, it’s unclear if this weapon system truly answers Russia’s strategic challenges in the coming decades. The question is not whether it works, or when it will work, but does it even matter?

Hypersonic boost glide weapons function by using a multi-stage ballistic missile as the boost phase, throwing a vehicle into near earth orbit, which then descends and begins gliding at hypersonic speeds along the edge of the atmosphere. As the vehicle descends back to earth, it pulls upwards, and begins skimming the atmosphere in a ‘glide’ phase, before diving downwards onto its target at the terminal phase. Russia has spent years developing this technology under a project referenced as Object 4202, which married a series of  experimental hypersonic glide vehicles, such as the Yu-71, with a liquid fueled ICBM УР-100УНТТХ (NATO designation SS-19 mod 2 Stiletto). This system builds on the Soviet Union’s extensive research into hypersonic weapons programs , including work on a hypersonic-boost aircraft named «Спираль», a modified S-200V surface-to-air missile under the project name Холод, and hypersonic cruise missile programs, such as Kh-80 and Kh-90 GELA (гиперзвуковой экспериментальный летательный аппарат).

kh-90 gela
Kh-90 GELA
kholod
Kholod
spiral
Spiral

Although claimed successes in testing may have come as a surprise in 2018, in truth Russian officials have been announcing tests of a hypersonic boost glide vehicle, using the УР-100УНТТХ missile, as far back as the strategic nuclear forces exercise in 2004. Hence, this particular system has been in publicly acknowledged development for at least 14 years, and the glide vehicle itself for quite a few years beforehand. The booster, УР-100 (SS-19), is a 105 ton liquid fueled silo-based missile, which together with the boost glide vehicle payload proved too long for a standard silo. Hence this system is being tested in a modified R-36M2 silo (SS-18 Satan), and although it is being developed with the УР-100, it is meant for the much heavier liquid fueled missile currently in testing, RS-28 Sarmat. While the question of boost method may seem a technicality, the boosting mechanism is actually quite deterministic of the strategic role this weapon can play, as I will discuss a bit later in this article.

However, the principal challenges with this system have little to do with the decades established technology of intercontinental ballistic missiles, or boosting objects into near earth orbit. Hypersonic boost glide vehicles, if successful, represent a major breakthrough in material sciences, as the object must be able to withstand incredibly high temperatures with the payload and guidance system intact. Although impossible to verify, Russian announcements can often be categorized as ‘true lies,’ impressive sounding figures that have some factual basis, but are inevitably inaccurate. The proposition that the vehicle can reach mach 27 is likely true only during the brief return phase, when it is falling back to earth like a rock from near earth orbit, prior to beginning its hypersonic glide at the edges of the atmosphere. The vehicle itself will have considerably different speeds during the pull-up, glide, and dive to target phase, while having to endure incredible temperatures.

Below are a few graphical illustrations available on the web

explainer 1explainer 2explainer 3

In U.S. testing of an analogous system in 2011, Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2), the vehicle was able to sustain glide at mach 20 speeds for three minutes, enduring a temperature of 3500 Fahrenheit. These figures track with Russian statements on temperatures experienced, but the actual speeds and altitudes at which the Russian vehicle is able to glide, and whether the systems actually survive this experience, remain a mystery. Although Russia’s defense sector seems to have made progress on this weapon system, claims that it is ready for serial production, or operational deployment in the near future, should be treated with educated skepticism. Ironically, the most significant potential breakthrough is in material sciences, not in building a seemingly scary strategic weapon.

Yet the rationale for Avangard seems less than straightforward when compared to other Russian hypersonic weapons programs, including the Tsirkon 3M22 scramjet hypersonic cruise missile, and the Kinzhal Kh-47M2 aeroballistic missile. Those are operational depth systems able to deliver meaningful conventional or nuclear payloads to shape the military balance in a theater of military operations. They can offset U.S. conventional superiority, and pose genuine challenges in conventional warfare. What does Avangard do for Russia that existing silo-based, road-mobile, air-launched, and submarine launched missiles cannot?

supposed image of the vehicle (draped on the right)

The Avangard system is best seen as one element in an expensive Russian strategy to develop technological hedges for a security environment perhaps 20-30 years from now where the United States might deploy a cost effective missile defense system, making a percentage of Russia’s nuclear deterrent vulnerable to interception. To be clear, there is no missile defense system now, or on the horizon, able to intercept Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal. Modern ICBMs can come with multiple reentry vehicles and numerous penetration aids or false targets, creating a complex ‘threat cloud’ that would make interception an improbable business. Nonetheless, ever since the Bush administration chose in 2002 to exit the 1972 ABM Treaty, Russian leadership has been concerned that the United States could eventually devalue the deterrence provided by Russia’s strategic nuclear forces.

Russia’s General Staff worries that a vast arsenal of long range conventional cruise missiles, paired with a semi-viable missile defense, would pose major challenges for their calculations to ensure the ability of Russian nuclear forces to deliver ‘unacceptable’ or ‘tailored’ damage in the coming decades. The 1972 ABM Treaty was not just a cornerstone of Cold War arms control, but fundamental to Russian military thinking on strategic stability, based on mutual vulnerability at the strategic level. Ever since June 1941, Soviet, and subsequently Russian, military thought has been wracked by the possibility of a disarming first strike, and the need to position Russian forces along a strategy of ‘counter-surprise.’

However, unlike other expensive strategic projects, such as the Poseidon nuclear powered torpedo, Avangard does not contribute to a survivable second strike. Thus there are a few ways to interpret the actual purpose of this weapon. The first is as a retaliatory-meeting strike system to attack high-value targets, i.e. civilian targets with political or economic significance, which will provide some insurance for a counter value strike. The second is that it is a first strike weapon against hard to penetrate targets. Since Avangard is silo based, designed for heavier liquid fueled ICBMs, in the event of strategic attack the boosting missile would not be survivable. It must be fired either first, or in a “launch under attack” scenario, when Russia has confirmed a U.S. launch, but the missiles have not yet impacted.

Avangard may be designed to give Russia’s RVSN the ability to penetrate hard targets, getting around missile defenses, and leveraging greater accuracy to take out well-hardened facilities. That said, from a nuclear warfighting standpoint, this makes Avangard a somewhat specialized, but expensive strategic nuclear weapon. Given how few of these systems Russia is likely to be able to afford, the weapon may offer some targeting advantages, but at a high price relative to the benefits. Another possibility is that this is not a system to get around future missile defenses, but a first strike system to be used specifically against missile defenses, clearing the way for the rest of Russia’s nuclear deterrent. Even if more accurate and survivable in flight, Avangard is a questionable investment when compared to the numerous road-mobile ICBM systems Russia fields today, including Topol-M and Rs-24 Yars (but then the logic for Russia’s SSBN program is also somewhat circumspect).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Perhaps in the future, Avangard will be deployed on a road-mobile launcher, but as conceived, this system adds little to Russia’s existing large strategic nuclear arsenal. An expensive insurance policy that in no way alters the strategic nuclear balance either today or tomorrow, which is why the reaction in Washington has been so muted. If anything, the United States should thank Russia for investing money in such super weapons, instead of buying large quantities of conventional precision guided munitions.

Moscow has sought to leverage Avangard and similar novel systems to sell the notion of a qualitative arms race to Washington, D.C., hoping to establish a bilateral agenda for summits. Yet while the world is genuinely witnessing a renewed period of nuclear modernization, with qualitatively new or novel weapon systems in development, there is no arms race in progress. The major nuclear powers of today are pursuing distinctly divergent strategies, concepts, and requirements behind their nuclear weapons programs, rather than racing which each other for superiority. This is why Avangard, if completed and deployed, is unlikely to alter strategic military balance or elicit any meaningful response from Washington, D.C.