Russia’s Skyfall Why the U.S. response to Russian missiles must be planned now
kyfall” is not just the title of the best-ever James Bond movie. It’s also the NATO designation for Russia’s experimental SSC-X-9 cruise missile.
The Skyfall cruise missile is interesting both for what the Russians claim it to be and the Aug. 8 explosion at the Nyonoksa missile test site near Severodvinsk that occurred during its development.
The accident reportedly centered around development of the missile’s engine or its fuel. According to a statement by Rosatom, the Russian state-owned nuclear energy corporation, “Five Rosatom staff members died and a further three people were injured in a tragic accident that took place during tests on a liquid propulsion system involving isotopes at a military facility in Arkhangelsk region.”
Four Russian nuclear-monitoring stations reportedly went offline at the time of the incident, furthering suspicions that Russia is trying to conceal its seriousness. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the event closely resembled the detonation of a “dirty bomb” in that radiation spread quickly from the accident site.
The Russians contend that the radiation was at a very low level, equivalent to a chest X-ray. But the level of radiation released by the accident was clearly much higher: It was at least sufficient to require the evacuation of a nearby town.
That’s not a Chernobyl-type disaster, but it is significant. From the facts we have on casualties and the spread of radiation, and Russia’s centuries-long track record of lies and disinformation, we have to infer that the Russian statements in those regards are highly questionable.
About a dozen years ago, a former U.S. secretary of Defense shared with me his one-word assessment of Russian weapons: He said they are “crap.” A lot of things have changed since then or at least that’s what the Russians would have us believe.
In his March 2018 state of the nation speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin bragged about several new nuclear weapons, among them a cruise missile that could reach anywhere in the world while avoiding detection. In a third-person statement aimed at America, he said, “They need to take account of a new reality and understand … [this] … is not a bluff.” During his statement, a video showing nuclear-armed missiles raining down on Florida was shown.
The cruise missile he spoke of was the “Skyfall.” Russia claims that it is not only of nearly-unlimited range and nuclear armed, but it is allegedly also nuclear-propelled.
The idea of nuclear-propelled missiles is not new, but the realization of nuclear propulsion for a missile would be revolutionary. U.S. scientists toyed with a similar idea — Project Pluto — more than 50 years ago but abandoned the project in about 1964 because the miniaturization of the size and weight of a nuclear reactor to the degree that a missile could carry one was then impossible.
Since then, Lockheed scientists and engineers have succeeded in miniaturization of a reactor, but theirs is still so large that it has to be carried on a large truck. What the Russians claim for the Skyfall missile would require a further reduction of several orders of magnitude in size and weight.
Theoretically, if a liquid (or solid) fueled booster rocket could launch the missile to sufficient speed (at least Mach 3, about 2,250 miles an hour) a nuclear-powered ramjet could take over and sustain supersonic flight almost indefinitely, depending on how much combustible fuel it could carry. The missile — which could carry a nuclear warhead — would leave a trail of highlyradioactive exhaust that could kill people along its path.
The Russians may be years away from deploying the Skyfall missile, and the others Mr. Putin spoke of in 2018, which means our response to them needs to be planned now and implemented quickly. The best response to them encompasses all of the major elements of national security planning.
First, and perhaps most difficult for President Trump, he needs to begin thinking and speaking clearly in terms of Russia’s direct threat to our national security. For too long the president has cozied up to Mr. Putin, effectively denying that Russia is one of our principal adversaries. Mr. Trump can be on good speaking terms with his Russian counterpart and still emphasize the threat his nation poses to us and our European allies.
Second, having abandoned (wisely) the Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile treaty with Russia, Mr. Trump should order a review of all other such agreements, especially including Barack Obama’s “New START” treaty which supposedly reduced the number of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapon launchers by half.
The “New START” treaty expires in February 2021. No new agreement should be signed with Russia unless it contains provable means of compliance. Russia will contend that it has reduced its launch capabilities so that its new weapons, including the Skyfall missile, would still comply with “New START.” In this era, “trust but verify” must be modified to “distrust first, then verify frequently.”
Last and not least, we have to devise defenses against Russia’s new missiles and deploy them, which won’t be cheap, but such defenses can piggy-back on other missile defense capabilities.
Our research into miniaturization of nuclear reactors should proceed quickly, with considerable thought devoted to how they can be used both militarily and peacefully. The Russians, we can be sure, are thinking hard about the former rather than the latter.
We have to devise defenses against Russia’s new missiles and deploy them, which won’t be cheap, but such defenses can piggyback on other missile defense capabilities.
Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”