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Vladimir Putin has proudly announced that Russia is developing superweapons that will get around the American missile defenses he sees as destabilizing the nuclear standoff.

Poseidon, also known as Kanyon and Status-6, is an uncrewed underwater vehicle that can carry nuclear weapons. Putin has threatened that it could cause a radioactive tidal wave that would destroy the east coast of the United States. It is said to be nuclear-powered, so that it can loiter around the seas and be brought into action rapidly.

The 9M730 Burevestnik, also known as SSC-X-9 Skyfall, is a nuclear-powered cruise missile. Like Poseidon, it is said to be able to loiter in the sky to be ready for its mission. Now it looks like Burevestnik has undergone, or is about to undergo, another test. Jeffrey Lewis kindly posted a Twitter thread explaining how they found the evidence.

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the United States tried to build a nuclear-powered cruise missile, in Project Pluto. I’ve written about that and about the somewhat related Rover Project, to develop a reactor for space flight. Back in the summer of 2019, Russia had an accident related to a Burevestnik test that killed five scientists and technicians. More on the accident here and here.

Since Putin introduced them with videos that mixed photos and graphics, I’ve felt that these two weapons would never be a threat. A few of the reasons, explicated in more detail in my links, are that it’s unlikely a reactor can be both small and powerful enough to fit in Poseidon and Burevestnik, and that the Burevestnik reactor is likely to tear itself apart after a short duty cycle.

But the Russians have built something that seems to be a Burevestnik prototype that contains a fission reactor and went critical when it was being fished out of the water two years ago. So not entirely vaporware. But still, I suspect, a boondoggle.

Putin is trying to boondoggle the United States into an arms race, or perhaps a reconsideration of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty. But has someone boondoggled Putin into supporting fantastical weapons, as Edward Teller boondoggled Ronald Reagan into Star Wars?

The fact that a prototype Burevestnik has been built and flown suggest the latter. Scientists get wrapped up in pet projects, and getting funded to try to make them work is a dream come true. Until the thing goes bad and kills you. We don’t know the full story of how and why Putin funded these dream (word used advisedly) weapons.

The military has to take the possibility of these weapons seriously, but it’s clear that they are far from operational. And I’m willing to bet they never will be, but I’m looking forward to hearing more from Jeffrey and his team.

Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner

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