Rus­sia’s Sky­fall Why the U.S. re­sponse to Rus­sian mis­siles must be planned now

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary Pocahontas’ Worst Lie - By Jed Bab­bin

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.”


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