US Tests Missile Banned under INF Treaty

August 27th, 2019 - by Steven Starr / Abolition 2000 & Scott Neuman / National Public Radio & Patrick Tucker / Defense one

US Tests Intermediate Range Cruise Missile 18 Days after Withdrawing from INF Treaty

Steven Starr / Abolition 2000 (Special to Environmentalists Against War)

 (August 26, 2019) — The land based Tomahawk nuclear-capable intermediate range cruise missile was launched 18 days after the US withdrew from the INF Treaty.  Clearly, the missile was under development for some time prior to the test; the sea-based variant launched by naval vessels armed with the Aegis systems can carry a W80 variable yield warhead (5-150 kilotons)..  

The land-based Tomahawk was also launched by the multipurpose Mark 41 launch system, which is deployed at the Aegis Ashore facility in Romania and soon-to-be-opened Aegis Ashore facility in Poland.  This clearly demonstrates the Ballistic Missile “Defense” systems deployed in Romania and Poland by the US/NATO can also be used to launch offensive nuclear weapons.  Because the missiles are deployed in closed cannisters, it is impossible for observers to verify if the cannisters contain interceptor missiles or cruise missiles. 

Putin specifically warned about this possibility in 2016, see  

Putin states that the BMD deployments are/were “a direct and material breach of the INF Treaty.”  The Russians believe the US was planning all along to use the BMD facilities to target Russia with both offensive and defensive weapons (defensive in the sense that US/NATO BMD can be used as a mop-up system to take out remaining Russian nuclear forces after a US first strike). 

US Neocons may believe that this will give them leverage in any confrontation with Russia.  I think they are wrong, I think it will simply tempt the Russians to take out these facilities early on in the event of any direct military conflict with the US/NATO.

Putin is now explicity making the point that Russia will have to consider these BMD facilities as a direct threat to Russia and will respond symmetrically, with at “tit-for-tat” response.

The SLAM — prototype of the Pentagon’s nuclear-powered cruise missile.

US Tests Missile With A Range Prohibited By Now-Abandoned Treaty

Scott Neuman / National Public Radio

The Pentagon says it has tested a US missile that exceeds limits set down by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a Cold War agreement between Washington and Moscow that was officially scrapped less than three weeks ago.

In Sunday’s test off the coast of California, a modified Navy Tomahawk cruise missile flew more than 310 miles (500 kilometers). It marks a first for the US since the arms-control treaty signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987.

The INF Treaty had barred the possession, production or flight-testing of all types of missiles with a range between 310 miles and 3,417 miles (500 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers) — nuclear weapons considered especially destabilizing because of their short flight times. The Soviet Union and the US had both deployed such weapons in Europe.

The Pentagon’s announcement on Monday said the missile was fired from a ground mobile launcher on San Nicolas Island, Calif., and “accurately impacted its target after more than 500 kilometers of flight.”

Hinting that the test was likely the beginning of a program to build additional weapons once barred by the treaty, it added: “Data collected and lessons learned from this test will inform [the Department of Defense’s] development of future intermediate-range capabilities.”

The US move comes weeks after Russia’s disastrous test of what is believed to have been a 9M730 Burevestnick, known to NATO as the SSC-X-9 Skyfall – a type of cruise missile powered by a small nuclear reactor to give it almost unlimited range.

The missile apparently exploded during testing at a site along the White Sea in Russia’s Arctic northwest, killing at least five scientists and causing a local spike in radiation levels. Moscow has been secretive about the exact circumstances and the death toll.

The sudden push by both sides to test new missiles has revived fears of a Cold War-style arms race — a contest that the INF Treaty helped dampen.

However, speaking to reporters earlier this month, Defense Secretary Mark Esper sought to allay those concerns. “I don’t see an arms race happening here,” he told reporters on the day Washington and Moscow withdrew from the treaty. “Russia has been racing, if anybody, to develop these systems in violation of the treaty, not us.”

In 2017, US officials said Russia in 2016 had tested another type of cruise missile, the Novator 9M729, with a then-prohibited range.

Last year, the US Army said it was looking into extending the range of its PrSM, or Precision Strike Missile, which is currently under development, to a range beyond the INF Treaty limitations.

The treaty’s abandonment also opens the door for both sides to build longer-range rocket-boosted artillery shells and ground-launched hypersonic missiles, according to Defense One.

Russia’s multi-warhead cruise missile.

Nuclear-Powered Cruise Missiles Are a Terrible Idea. Russia’s Test Explosion Shows Why

Patrick Tucker / Defense One

(August 14, 2019) — When President Donald Trump heard that Russia’s experimental nuclear-powered cruise missile had exploded, killing seven scientists and causing a major radiological incident less than 300 miles from the Finnish border, he fired off a boastful tweet. “We have similar, though more advanced, technology,” he said. 

This is … not accurate. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the United States pursued a less advanced version of a similar technology but abandoned the effort before ever launching an actual test vehicle. Nuclear-powered cruise missiles, the Pentagon concluded, are a bad idea. 

But the concept still appeals to Vladimir Putin, who last year revealed his pursuit of an “unlimited-range” missile that Russia calls the 9M730 Burevestnik (Storm Petrel) and which NATO has dubbed the SSC-X-9 Skyfall. A missile powered by a small nuclear reactor could cruise about its target for days, giving it a wide range of potential targets it could strike upon command.

In 1957, the US Air Force and the Atomic Energy Commission launched Project Pluto to build the Supersonic Low-Altitude Missile. The work proceeded at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (today, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory), in Berkeley, California, under the supervision of Charles “Ted” Merkle, a hard-driving physicist. In 1959, Merkle reported to the Air Force on the feasibility of the project, noting a number of enormous technical challenges but also “some interesting and exciting possibilities to discuss.”

Like the makers of Skyfall, Merkle decided on a ramjet design. Powered into the sky atop a conventional rocket booster, the ramjet would compress incoming air in a uniquely shaped chamber, superheat it with a small nuclear reactor, and expel it as exhaust, propelling the missile almost three times faster than sound. 

The biggest challenge: nuclear reactors are fragile things. Putting one in a cruise missile would require a design that could withstand three types of stress that no previous reactor had needed to endure.

“There are the stresses associated with the pressure drop through the ‘reactor’ and, as indicated earlier, this stress is of the order of hundreds of psi [pounds per square inch] when spread over the entire reactor,” Merkle wrote. “When concentrated at various support points, it contributes loads like thousands of psi.

Next in order: to transfer heat from the fuel to the air stream, there must be a temperature drop in the fuel-bearing materials and, for typical ceramics and power densities that would be of interest for possible missile applications, stresses of many thousand psi result as a consequence of these temperature differences.” 

Then there were the inertial stresses of flight. “Since in principle such ramjet power plants can operate from sea level to quite high altitudes, rather large ‘gust loadings’ must be anticipated,” he wrote. 

Undaunted, the lab went to work creating a 500-megawatt reactor that could operate at 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Four years later, after much experimentation with different materials and the careful assembly of 500,000 small fuel rods, they had an engine called Tory-IIA. 

On May 14, 1961, they tested it at an 8-square-mile facility in a desolate area of Nevada called Jackass Flats. But they wouldn’t be able to fly it, not yet, since it was potentially a nuclear bomb. Instead they used a flatbed rail car. 

In a 1990 article for Air and Space Magazine, Gregg Herken writes that “the Tory-IIA ran for only a few seconds, and at merely a fraction of its rated power. But the test was deemed a complete success. Most importantly, the reactor did not catch fire, as some nervous Atomic Energy Commission officials had worried it would.”

But as Herken tells it, Washington was already beginning to cool to the idea of a nuclear-powered cruise missile. The biggest reason: the missile’s unshielded nuclear reactor would spew radiation along its flight path, potentially irradiating its own ground crew and everyone else between the launch pad and the target. 

Anticipating this, Merkle downplayed the danger in his initial 1959 report, using language that sounds ripped directly from Dr. Strangelove. “One problem that bothers the design of reactors to be used near people is the necessity of confining all the fission products to the reactor fuel element,” he wrote. “A typical mission might produce some-what less than 100 grams of fission product. Of these it might be expected that some large percentage would naturally remain in fuel elements…Consequently the fission activity introduced locally into the atmosphere is minute compared with even the most minute atomic weapon.”  


Edwin Lyman, senior scientist and acting director of the nuclear safety project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, offers some perspective. “I suppose that at a time when the nuclear weapon states were still engaged in atmospheric testing, there wasn’t a whole lot of concerns about releasing additional radioactivity into the environment. Merkle’s cavalier attitude seems in tune with the era. But such a system should be considered completely unacceptable today,” Lyman told Defense One in an email. 

“One thing is that to characterize radiation releases in terms of ‘grams’ is misleading. Chernobyl released only a few hundred grams of iodine-131 yet it resulted in thousands of thyroid cancers among children.” He noted that the Pluto tests ejected not only radioactive gases but far more dangerous radioactive particle matter as well. 

The team tested a modified version of the engine once more in 1964 and the project was canceled. 

The high fallout, both politically and literally, mean that nuclear-powered cruise missiles remain a terrible idea, says Kingston Reif, the director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association. “If you think the current excessive US plans to replace the US nuclear arsenal are controversial, imagine the negative domestic and international reaction to a US effort to renew R&D on nuclear cruise missile powered by an unshielded nuclear reactor,” said Reif. “Russia should abandon development of this grotesque, unnecessary and almost certainly unworkable weapon immediately.”

Added Lyman, “if the missile was shot down, the fuel would overheat and you’d have a 500-thermal-megawatt reactor meltdown — about one-sixth the size of a large power reactor — but without any containment. Also, the lack of radiation shielding would make it difficult, if not impossible, for emergency responders to approach it.” 

That’s similar to the problem Russia is grappling with right now. 

Patrick Tucker is technology editor for Defense One. He’s also the author of The Naked Future: What Happens in a World That Anticipates Your Every Move? (Current, 2014). Previously, Tucker was deputy editor for The Futurist for nine years.

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