A Russian Nuclear Cruise Missile?

Back in March, Vladimir Putin unveiled a number of new nuclear weapons. But they’re not operational, and, in my opinion, are unlikely ever to be.

One was the Poiseidon (Status-6) underwater drone, supposedly designed to hit the east coast of the United States with a radioactive tsunami. Oh, and did I say that it’s undetectable?

Another was a cruise missile powered by a nuclear reactor.

Except for the first few seconds, the videos are animations. This does not suggest a high degree of development.

CNBC reported this week that the Russian military is searching for a missile that crashed on a test flight. There seem to have been tests of something that could be the nuclear cruise missile in Novaya Zemlya, the far-north island chain used by the Soviets for testing nuclear weapons. Jeffrey Lewis’s group at the Middlebury Institute found possible evidence of a test in May and feel that they know the location now. News reports source intelligence community reports that there have been twelve test flights, of which one flight lasted for two minutes and 22 miles. That seems to be the test vehicle that the Russians are looking for.

It is hard to believe that the Russians are testing a full-up nuclear cruise missile. It is easier to believe the Vladimir Putin is trolling the United States, or, more seriously, trying to provide an incentive for the United States to return to talks on arms control, particularly the renewal of the New START Treaty, which expires in 2021. Treaties take some time to negotiate, and the two countries have issues they want dealt with.

Putin may well be attempting retribution for Ronald Reagan’s trolling of the 1980s. Reagan was elected president in 1980. Leonid Brezhnev was General Secretary of the Communist Party through 1984, followed by Yuriy Andropov for 18 months and then Konstantin Chernenko for a year, and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. The Soviet economy was weak.

Reagan was convinced of the idea of a missile shield for the United States, largely by Edward Teller of the Livermore National Laboratory. It would protect America from missiles via a network of satellites with new and amazing capabilities – x-ray lasers, brilliant pebbles, rods from God, and more! They never passed the animation stage.

Missile defense (also dubbed Star Wars for a recent movie) scared the Russians, as did the intermediate-range Pershing II missiles that the United States installed in Europe. A commonplace belief, which is not accurate but may be shared by Putin, is that the Soviet Union damaged itself by trying to meet the American threats, many of which were imaginary.

Given our general confusion these days and our continuing inability to produce essential nuclear weapons components, it would be a good time to introduce some new weapons as fictional as that Star Wars missile shield. LOL, stealth radioactive tsunami! Nuclear cruise missiles flying around the globe, mofos!

There is a lot we don’t know about this missile. I am particularly interested in the reactor. Reactors are heavy, and things that fly must be light. A reactor needs a critical mass of fissile material, in this case most likely highly-enriched uranium-235, as was used in the Rover space propulsion reactors. The size of that critical mass depends on the design of the reactor. Materials like reflectors and moderators make a difference in critical mass, but they also add weight.

The Russian nuclear cruise missile has been compared to the American Project Pluto of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Project Pluto was intended to develop a nuclear-powered ramjet cruise missile. Its reactor was called Tory, and it may have been a predecessor to the Rover reactors. (See slide 9 in this NASA presentation.) Little seems to be available on it online. At that time, much work on reactors was still classified. Also, from having been a technical writer in the Los Alamos civilian reactor division, I know that far too much was never written up.

The Rover reactors were intended to provide propulsion for space flight outside the atmosphere. Their structural elements were graphite, and the propulsion gas was hydrogen. The nuclear reactions were controlled by control rods. The operating temperatures were very high, and development required solving many materials problems. Overall, the reactors were perhaps six feet in diameter and somewhat taller than a human. (Graphic source – LANL)


The Tory reactors were of a similar size – less than ten feet in length and diameter. For tests, however, they required much more equipment to simulate a ramjet engine. Their fuel was enriched (probably 90% or higher) uranium and beryllium, “cast into cigarette-sized hollow rods of porcelain.” The second test reactor used over 460,000 fuel elements, presumably counting each cigarette-sized rod as a fuel element. For the full-power test, air had to be preheated to 1350 F by oil-based heaters. I can’t find a weight for the Tory or Rover reactors, but my guess is around a ton for the core. Here is a photo of the test setup. Note that it is on a railroad car.

The Project Pluto cruise missile would be launched with chemical rockets until its velocity was sufficient to provide the air velocity the nuclear ramjet required.

The core diameter of the Russian missile reactor is said to be less than half a meter. The dimensions of the Rover reactors are of the entire operating system; the cores were approximately a meter in diameter. A Tomahawk cruise missile is almost 21 feet long, 21 inches in diameter, and weighs a little over a ton and a half – 3,330 pounds. This is significantly smaller than a nuclear cruise missile would have to be, even with that very slim reactor core.

It’s likely that whatever the Russians were test flying was less than a full-up nuclear cruise missile. Ground tests of the reactor would have come first, and they likely would have emitted radionuclides that would have been detected. Testing the weighted airframe with chemical propulsion would be prudent. So would static tests of the changeover from chemical to nuclear propulsion. The Pluto and Rover reactors operated close to the limits of their materials, and a smaller engine would have to operate even hotter to provide equivalent thrust. All that could best be tested in static setups. Those would be harder to detect than flight tests.

Why do the Russians want to recover the crashed test vehicle, and why now? They have shown little concern for environmental issues around Novaya Zemlya in the past. Did the test missile include a reactor? Recovering and disassembling the missile could give information about what may have gone right and wrong in the test flight.

The Russians conducted an environmental survey in the area for radiation in June. The Twitter thread linked there also documents ships in the area. A bit more speculation about the search can be found here.

Is this an elaborate troll? My guess is that Putin has some wild-eyed Star Wars type folk of his own working on Russian weapons, and they’ve convinced him it’s worth a try. If it works, Russia has more leverage. If not, well, animation has gotten American attention so far. One way or another, it probably would be a good idea to move toward talks on renewing the New START Treaty.


Update (August 25, 2018): Norway is concerned about the tests, because if what is being tested is anything like the Rover or Tory reactors, it’s likely to spew radionuclides as it flies, and who knows what might have happened if it was immersed in water. Russia should come clean about what it’s doing, although that is probably highly classified.

This Russian publication speculates on what the reactor might be. For the temperatures required for a ramjet, none of the options involving water moderation would be useful. I’ve only read it via machine translation, so I won’t try to deal with details.

And a reader has reminded me that a chemical rocket motor would be needed to get the cruise missile up to ramjet speed. Most of my discussion above is as though only the nuclear motor would be present, which makes things difficult enough, but the chemical rocket motor would be additional weight and things to go wrong.


Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner.

117 replies
  1. 1
    BroD says:

    It’s a lot cheaper to develop animations than real hardware–and almost as effective.

  2. 2
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @BroD: For Vlad’s purposes, yes. It does two things for him: rally his base of MRGAs, and spread disinfo overseas as to Russia’s alleged “might”.

  3. 3
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    Geeze. New START treaty with orange mcfuckface in office? Stuff of nightmares.

  4. 4
    Neldob says:

    Fascinating. Humans are such primitive meat forms. Some more than others. Maybe there’s a war of the comics in our future. Thanks.

  5. 5
    MattF says:

    One may also wonder what the ambient radiation environment does to a cruise missile’s sensors and microelectronics. Just doesn’t seem to be a good idea.

  6. 6

    Another real possibility is that some or all of these are Putin’s ideas, and everybody is so afraid of him they’re unwilling to tell him how bad ideas they are. ISTR something like that was a key reason Iraq kept pretending to have a nuclear program even when they didn’t have the resources: it was Saddam’s idea, and nobody was willing to tell him it wasn’t making glorious progress.

  7. 7
    JPL says:

    Since the CIA sources have gone silent, the trump era will cause us sleepless nights for a long time after he leaves office.

  8. 8
    Mike in NC says:

    Remember that one of Fat Bastard’s early proclamations was that he wanted to increase our nuclear arsenal by a factor of ten or so? Never mind the cost or treaty issues.

    Just more bullshit like Trump Steaks and the Space Force, with a shelf life of about 24 hours.

  9. 9
    NYCMT says:

    Remember Polyus? I do.

  10. 10
    drouse says:

    The one weapon that is real, the hypersonic criuse missile, is very definitely still in the prototype stage. In the article I read, there was a photo of the MIG(?) 31 they were using a the launch platform. The caption included the nugget that it was the only one equipped for it and I bet it can’t carry anything else while doing it. Add to the fact that Russia has only a small number of these aircraft, there isn’t a threat there for at least the time being.

  11. 11
    Amir Khalid says:

    @Villago Delenda Est:
    Not just orange mcfuckface alone, but with John Bolton whispering bad advice in his ear.

  12. 12
    Another Scott says:

    Interesting stuff. Thanks.

    Maybe Vlad is taking a page from Kim’s playbook. :-/

    I’m reminded of writing to NASA as a kid in the early 1970s about my ideas for using RTGs to power an electric car. Months went by, but I eventually got a NASA booklet back with a nice letter from a NASA engineer with some rough calculations. A 100 HP car would need a few tens of tons (probably more – I’ve forgotten) of RTGs. Not too practical. ;-)

    Maybe Vlad should put some laser beams on his atomic cruise missile – lasers make everything more better!!11


  13. 13
    Calouste says:

    @Roger Moore: The nuclear torpedo that causes a tsunami always sounded like fantasy. Large earthquakes release far more energy than even the largest nuclear weapons, and even large earthquakes don’t cause tsunamis a fair amount of the time.

  14. 14
    Aleta says:

    @Another Scott:
    What did the kid you were do for science fair?

  15. 15
    piratedan says:

    I’m sure that Vlad doesn’t think this way, but if we ever get a new Democratic administration, one of the quietest items on the agenda, after retiring the current administrations afficiandos, would be to see to it that Senor Putin no longer has any influence on US elections ever again… Granted, there’s a huge to do list of items to perform and if Nancy Smash is still around, I have no fear that it won’t be attended to (looking back at the clusterfuck that the Obama administration inherited).

  16. 16
    Immanentize says:

    Thanks Cheryl!

    My theory is Putin knows Trump well enough to know his cultural reference is locked in about 1986 max. So Putin is trolling Trump to re-make Ice Station Zebra in reality space. Then, Putin will grab all the USAers and make a big show trial like Gary Pewers’.

  17. 17
    Immanentize says:

    @Immanentize: Pewers’ = Powers’.

    I miss edit because I need it so often.

  18. 18
    Lee says:

    “our continuing inability to produce essential nuclear weapons components”

    I did not know this. Why is this the case? Treaty obligations? Production facilities being shut down? I seem to remember the one in the …panhandle of Texas(?) …had some serious issues.

  19. 19

    @Lee: Los Alamos is the only facility in the United States that can currently remanufacture plutonium pits for nuclear weapons. It has had a number of safety issues at the plutonium facility that have shut it down, and even when it’s operating, its production abilities have not come up to what the government wants. You can argue that what the government wants (80 pits a year) is too many, but Los Alamos isn’t even close.

    Recently, Congress included Savannah River in potential pit remanufacturing. The intention is to develop the over-budget, behind-schedule mixed-oxide (MOX) nuclear reactor fuel plant into a pit factory. Los Alamos is protesting that. We’ll see how it all goes.

    The plant in Texas, Pantex, does the final assembly of the weapons. It’s just gotten some new facilities, which it needed badly.

  20. 20
    SRW1 says:

    How is the Russian navy doing with the caterpillar drive these days?

  21. 21
    Another Scott says:

    @Aleta: The one I remember, around 1972 or so, was on a digital counter. It was kinda mundane, and my dad helped me a lot, but it was interesting. I designed and etched the circuit board, soldered the DIP electronic packages and indicator lamps, etc.

    No rocket surgery or DNA hacking for me back then. ;-)



  22. 22
    trollhattan says:

    “Red October” cite FTW.

    With a president who thinks “Austin Powers” and “24” are documentaries, we’re susceptible to the threat of a Magic Device that can claim world domination with “this one crazy trick.” Russian weapon mythology seems comically over the top, i.e., perfect for Dolt 45.

  23. 23
    J R in WV says:

    All this brou-ha-ha would be really funny but for the underlying reality of nuclear weapons.

  24. 24
    Brachiator says:

    One way or another, it probably would be a good idea to move toward talks on renewing the New START Treaty.

    So, what are the odds that s Trump administration would pursue this?

    Trump seems to want more missiles, not fewer? And his ongoing fascination with Putin makes me uncomfortable with any decisions he might make about Russia.

  25. 25
  26. 26


    Large earthquakes release far more energy than even the largest nuclear weapons, and even large earthquakes don’t cause tsunamis a fair amount of the time.

    This is less true than you think, or at least depends on what you count as a “large” earthquake. A quick check says that a magnitude 8 quake- large by almost any definition- releases about as much energy as a 15 MT nuclear explosion. That’s not to say a 15 MT bomb could produce a magnitude 8 quake- not all its energy would go into earth motion- but it shows that even a large earthquake doesn’t release drastically more energy than any nuke. If you could design a nuclear device specifically to put a large fraction of its energy into producing a tsunami, you might well be able to produce a larger tsunami with it than an earthquake with equal energy. And if you understood the dynamics, you could get that tsunami predictably and where you wanted it, unlike the results of an earthquake.

  27. 27
    kindness says:

    Hollywood’s CGI is better. But this is enough to make the rubes crap their drawers so….

  28. 28
    Aleta says:

    @Another Scott:
    I didn’t do a science fair project, though my older brother and sister did. My brother’s was about decision making, using his father’s electric train.

  29. 29
    hells littlest angel says:

    @Immanentize: Full name: Gary Pew!pew!pew!ers

  30. 30
    Bill Arnold says:

    Cheryl, from that http://www.popmech.ru article, google translate, what in Holy Hell is this? (I assume drunken crazy-talk, just because .ru and having American prejudices. :) )

    If the tablet is compressed from americium-241 and loaded into a fast neutron reactor, the same BN-800, then a sufficient amount of americium-242 m can be quickly accumulated. The letter at the end of the name means that it is a nuclear isomer that is in an excited state. The fact is that ordinary americium-242, whose nuclei are in the lowest energy state, the half-life period is only 16 h, and the nucleus 242 m – for 140 years. And why is it needed? With a retarder of zirconium hydride, it has a critical mass of less than 50 grams! Accordingly, the reactor on it will have a diameter (without a reflector) of the order of 10 cm.

    It is related to this – The Smallest Thermal Nuclear Reactor?

  31. 31
  32. 32
    YetAnotherJay formerly (Jay S) says:

    A commonplace belief, which is not accurate but may be shared by Putin, is that the Soviet Union damaged itself by trying to meet the American threats,

    Is there a good analysis available that explains why this isn’t accurate? It seems burned into conventional wisdom.

  33. 33
    Mandalay says:

    Reactors are heavy, and things that fly must be light.

    I don’t know enough to argue with the first claim, but things that fly can definitely be very heavy.

    So is it the weight of the reactor that could make a cruise missile (prohibitively) heavy, or the raw weight of the amount of fissile material needed to cause massive damage? Or is the problem that a very heavy missile would travel relatively slowly, and be relatively large, and would therefore be a relatively easy target for destruction while in flight?

    (Full disclosure: I am clearly not a rocket scientist.)

  34. 34

    @Brachiator: The odds that a Trump administration, particularly with John Bolton in charge of the NSC, would pursue renewal of the New START Treaty is approximately zero. It also looks to me like Trump is incapable of conceptualizing arms control – the idea that two nations would agree to limit types and numbers of armaments. The people who actually do the work in the Departments of State, Defense, and Energy, however, are still quite capable and may be able to filter something up.

  35. 35

    @Bill Arnold:

    It is related to this – The Smallest Thermal Nuclear Reactor?

    It sounds like it. Reading up on the isotopes of Americium, it sounds as if the properties of 242mAm are not well studied, or at least aren’t well studied in the open literature. There are wildly varying claims on the size of a critical mass. One source says it’s on the same order as 239Pu (a few kilograms) while another says it’s on the order of 100g. If it really is only 100g, it could theoretically be used for things like nuclear propulsion with a much smaller reactor than the systems Cheryl is describing.

  36. 36
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Mandalay: Keep in mind that McClownstick wanted to have solid marble countertops in his Trump Airlines planes, without realizing that if you want something to fly, you can’t weigh it down with ego boosts.

  37. 37
  38. 38

    @Bill Arnold: If you notice, I dismissed all reactors requiring water as moderator to get around discussing that one. I think it probably is related to the link you found. The writer of the article recognizes that water won’t, um, fly for the nuclear cruise missile and so suggests a zirconium hydride moderator (the machine translation gives “retarder”).

    I have my doubts about zirconium hydride at the high temperatures needed for a ramjet. From the MSDS:

    Section X. Stability And Reactivity
    Stability: Stable
    Hazardous Polymerization: Will Not occur
    Incompatibilities: Strong oxidizing agents and acids. May decompose on exposure to moist air or water.
    Instable Conditions: Excessive temperatures (see Incompatibilities).
    Decomposition Temperature: UnKnown
    Decomposition products: Liberates flammable/explosive hydrogen gas.

    I’m also doubtful it can be formed as might be needed for a rocket engine.

    Then there’s the problem of how much heat it emits. The minimum mass might be 50 g, but one needs to calculate its heat production and the heat needed to raise the temperature of the immense amounts of air flowing through. All that was far beyond any calculations I wanted to do.

    The whole thing would require a great deal of research to develop. Maybe Russia has done the research – they’ve always had more americium impurities in their plutonium than American plutonium does.

  39. 39
    smintheus says:

    @trollhattan: It would probably fool Trump if the Russians cut together some footage from the movie The Red Tent and declared they had can deliver a stealth nuclear warhead via dirigible.

  40. 40

    @Mandalay: I am not a rocket scientist either and would love to see one do an analysis of how much thrust is needed and how much reactor weight would be needed to generate that thrust. My comments at #38 should be included if anyone is inclined toward such calculations.

    The important measure is engine mass versus thrust generated. I have a hunch that there must be an optimum point for a nuclear rocket motor, after which you’re adding mass that doesn’t give enough thrust to carry itself. But in general, nuclear reactors are a very heavy way to generate energy.

    I recall an early introduction to jet engines, in which I was told “If you put enough thrust on a board, it will fly.” Which is true. The problem is how much the thrust-generating mechanism weighs.

  41. 41
    Wapiti says:

    @YetAnotherJay formerly (Jay S): I don’t have links at my fingertips, but I recall reading an analysis that showed that Soviet military expenditures stayed relatively stable during the timeframe that they were supposedly responding to US threats. I’ll admit that I did not go into the secondary sources, but military budgets might be a place to start looking.

  42. 42
    Amir Khalid says:

    @Mike in NC:

    Remember that one of Fat Bastard’s early proclamations was that he wanted to increase our nuclear arsenal by a factor of ten or so? Never mind the cost or treaty issues.

    And never mind that nuclear weapons became unusable in war after only the second time they were used, and it doesn’t matter now whether you have 1,000 nukes or 10,000.

  43. 43
    smintheus says:

    @YetAnotherJay formerly (Jay S): For starters, the Soviet Union fell apart for political, not military, reasons as reform movements took hold in eastern Europe – beginning in the early ’80s in Poland, before Reagan’s grandiose armament programs could have had any effect on Soviet policy. The Soviet leadership failed to crush these reformist movements or address the demands effectively, creating a political crisis by the time Gorbachev came to power. It was not primarily an economic crisis. The SU perpetually needed economic reforms (‘perestroika’), but Gorbachev was willing admit that the lack of freedom in the Soviet system of governance was the obstacle to everything needed included economic reform. So it was his attempt to liberalize the Soviet political culture (‘glasnost’) that open the floodgates to pent up frustration everyone, but especially in eastern Europe where reformist organization was much more advanced and resentment of Russian intervention helped to focus opposition demands. Basically, the Soviet Union fell apart because eastern European reformers were allowed to begin the process of political reform, which by necessity had to involve kicking the Russians to the curb sooner or later.

  44. 44
    smintheus says:

    @smintheus: ‘everyone’ = ‘everywhere’

  45. 45
    Brachiator says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    The odds that a Trump administration, particularly with John Bolton in charge of the NSC, would pursue renewal of the New START Treaty is approximately zero.

    Thanks very much for this. Makes a lot of sense.

    But here is the heart of the problem.

    The people who actually do the work in the Departments of State, Defense, and Energy, however, are still quite capable and may be able to filter something up.

    I get the feeling that a lot of the government runs on inertia, and so we have kinda been okay.

    But Trump is a stupid man who doesn’t know how to run a government effectively. He also puts stupid or venal people in charge of government agencies. He is also intent on dismantling, neutering our ignoring government departments. The good, capable people you have identified will have to compete with knaves and loyalists.

    Increasingly, the decisions that bubble up for him to approve might be smart or disastrous. Our survival might come down to a coin toss.

  46. 46
    efgoldman says:

    Totally OT But I don’t know where else put it:

    At 556 EDT this morning, Grandson efg joined the party at slightly over 7.5 lbs; blue eyes, reddish hair, face all scrunched up.
    Baby, mother, father, big sister, grandparents all doing fine.

  47. 47
    Aleta says:

    @efgoldman: Congratulations!

  48. 48
    smintheus says:

    @efgoldman: A ginger? Woo hoo!

  49. 49
    japa21 says:

    @efgoldman: Are you sure grandfather is doing fine? Anyway, congratulations. Grandchildren help to keep us young, at least kind of.

  50. 50
    🇺🇸🌎 Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)  🗳🌷 says:

    What if the KGB as well as communist hardliners had launched a coup in 1989, seizing control of the Soviet government and employed the “Chinese solution” to crackdown on these reformers?

  51. 51
    opiejeanne says:

    @Another Scott: You were the model for Young Sheldon! except his calculations were correct.

  52. 52
    trollhattan says:

    Congrats! Think of it–by the time he learn’s the word “president” we’ll have a different one. I’m kinda jealous.

  53. 53
    🇺🇸🌎 Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)  🗳🌷 says:


  54. 54
    A Ghost To Most says:


  55. 55
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @efgoldman: Molotov!

  56. 56

    @YetAnotherJay formerly (Jay S): The Soviet economy had been stagnating for a decade or more before the 1980s. The leaders were old and often sick, incapable of making the reforms that were needed. They managed to coast on oil revenues but needed to build industrial jobs. Gorbachev recognized that there were problems, but by the time he got in, enormous solutions were needed. And then the price of oil dropped. All that was much more influential than responding to Star Wars, although the Soviet defense budget was always too high for the faltering economy.
    Here’s a not-bad analysis. I think Aron emphasizes the moral side too much, but it’s a factor too. And, btw, Putin has been skating on oil prices until the past few years. And his popularity has been going down. I keep wanting to write a post on that, but the American crazy keeps overwhelming it.

    Here’s another article with useful information. It’s written in terms of what the CIA knew about the Soviet collapse. It’s another myth that the US government didn’t see the collapse coming. It’s just hard to predict, oh yes, tomorrow is the day the people will take to the streets, and there will be a coup and Boris Yeltsin will get on a tank and become president. The rot was obvious long before Star Wars, though.

  57. 57
    Martin says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: Nuclear engines are attractive because of the high specific impulse, but you’re right about the weight. Chemical rockets have thrust/weight ratios between 50 and 100, while nuclear rockets are under 10. Nuclear rockets can achieve orbit with a small payload, but they’re slow which means their ability to be maneuverable is limited. And being slow they’d be easier to shoot down. Nuclear rockets are great* once you reach orbit because you’ve already overcome the big gravity well so a long slow efficient burn is exactly what you want. Makes no sense for an ICBM.

  58. 58


    Our survival might come down to a coin toss.


  59. 59

    @efgoldman: Congrats! Another Red!

  60. 60

    @Martin: Thanks! Those are numbers I’ve wanted and haven’t found.

  61. 61
    Mary G says:

    @efgoldman: Congratulations! That’s a good weight for an early baby.

  62. 62
    David Evans says:

    The US put some effort into designing a nuclear-powered cruise missile in the 1950’s. I don’t think the Russians have been testing anything this big and frightening. It would have been noticed.

  63. 63
    zhena gogolia says:


    Congratulations! I was thinking of you this morning.

  64. 64
    smedley the uncertain says:

    @scav: Hold your optimism. There will be an appeal to our gloriously neutral SCOTUS. The finding could be sustained so long as Kavanaugh is unconfirmed. BTW, Federal Unions don’t carry the clout of National Unions… Can’t strike for one thing.
    Retired GS

  65. 65
    David Evans says:

    PS. The link I attempted to put in my last post didn’t work. It was to the wikipedia entry for Project SLAM

  66. 66
    opiejeanne says:

    @efgoldman: Congratulations!

  67. 67
    YetAnotherJay formerly (Jay S) says:

    @smintheus: Okay, I think I’ve got it. This particular arms race threat is too late in the timeline to do much damage. Is the prior cold war arms race still considered part of the problem in diverting from what could have been civilian economic improvement for the Soviets? Or was it irrelevant given the economic and political structure?

  68. 68
    opiejeanne says:

    @Villago Delenda Est: That’s a cocktail.

  69. 69
    JPL says:

    @efgoldman: Congrats to the happy family.

  70. 70
    JPL says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: Aren’t you the optimistic one.

  71. 71
    p.a. says:

    @efgoldman: Congrats to all! Don’t let him grow up a Nats or Os fan.

  72. 72
    smedley the uncertain says:

    @efgoldman: Congratulations. Glad all are well.

  73. 73
    YetAnotherJay formerly (Jay S) says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: Thanks, I was reading replies backwards so I saw @smintheus: reply first.

  74. 74

    @🇺🇸🌎 Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)  🗳🌷:

    What if the KGB as well as communist hardliners had launched a coup in 1989, seizing control of the Soviet government and employed the “Chinese solution” to crackdown on these reformers?

    I think 1989 was too late. By then, the whole of the Warsaw Pact was edging into revolt against the USSR, and (AFAIK) most of the non-Russian parts of the USSR were, too. A coup might have kept them in control in the USSR temporarily, but the moment things went crazy in the USSR, the rest of the Warsaw Pact would have risen up and thrown them out.

    I had the good fortune of visiting East Germany in the summer of 1989 as part of the International Chemistry Olympiad, and there was uprising in the air. Everyone was realizing that A) they actually wouldn’t be thrown in prison for expressing their opinion and B) everyone else hated the situation as much as they did. Once that happened, it was too late to put a lid on it.

    Even if they could somehow have kept everything under their control, the coup wouldn’t have fixed things long-term. Gorbachev didn’t introduce glasnost and perestroika because he was a lover of openness and restructuring. He did it because the Soviet system was deeply sick, and the country desperately needed strong medicine to keep it from collapsing completely. A coup would have been an attempt to bury the problems rather than solve them, and it would only have resulted in them getting worse. The longer the government kept a lid on those problems, the worse the final collapse would have been.

  75. 75
    Amir Khalid says:

    Welcome to Earth, young man. It’s hot and dusty and cold and wet. There’s just one rule you have to remember: Goddamnit, you’ve got to be kind.

  76. 76
    smintheus says:

    @🇺🇸🌎 Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)  🗳🌷: Short answer, by 1989 I think it would have failed. The Soviets managed to retain power in Russia and Eastern Europe only by having a lot of buy in to the system by a lot of Party loyalists…many of whom were dismayed by the late 80s as the hollowness of their ideology stood exposed. So how were hard-liners in ’89 going to impose their will, except by ruthless repression? That wouldn’t work unless you can get eastern European leaders somehow to make their forces be ruthless against their own people (the most ruthless of them, Ceaucescu, tried and failed in ’89); or get Soviet army conscripts to invade and kill lots of Poles in the streets who had been emboldened by a decade of standing up to their own tyrants.

    By ’89, the lid was off the box, broken, and long lost.

  77. 77
  78. 78
    Brachiator says:

    @efgoldman: Congratulations!

  79. 79

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    although the Soviet defense budget was always too high for the faltering economy.

    And the formal defense budget was always only the tip of the iceberg. The whole Soviet economy was structured to provide indirect support to the military in ways that distorted the economy and hid the true costs of their defense apparatus. The example I remember hearing about was the price of titanium being kept artificially low to make it cheaper to build military jets, but that this meant other things were made out of titanium where it didn’t really make sense, e.g. milking machines. This wasn’t just limited to the Soviet block- we hide a lot of defense spending, like Veterans Affairs, outside the formal defense budget- but it was far worse in the USSR.

  80. 80
    MomSense says:


    Mazel tov!! Wonderful news, EFG. Hope mama and papa are well.

  81. 81
    dexwood says:

    Congrats! Get him a Fuck em t-shirt.

  82. 82
    TS (the original) says:

    @efgoldman: Congratulations to the parents et al. Grandchildren are our reward for raising children. They light up our world.

  83. 83

    @efgoldman: Congrats! Blessings on everyone.

  84. 84

    Note, though, that they’re talking about a nuclear cruise missile, not a nuclear rocket. The goal is to make something that has an effectively infinite cruise range, for which high specific impulse is desirable, not necessarily high thrust to weight ratio. If you have a missile that can stay up indefinitely once it’s been launched, you can use chemical rocket boosters or whatever to get it in the air- which is typically the hardest part of flying- and then have it fly around forever once it’s up there.

  85. 85
    Brachiator says:


    Short answer, by 1989 I think it would have failed. The Soviets managed to retain power in Russia and Eastern Europe only by having a lot of buy in to the system by a lot of Party loyalists…many of whom were dismayed by the late 80s as the hollowness of their ideology stood exposed.

    BTW, this week marks the 50th anniversary of the crushing of the Prague Spring movement by 650,000 Warsaw Pact troops. A recent Russian documentary blames the machinations of a fascist US government for sparking Prague disobedience.

  86. 86
    Baud says:



    I mean that in the best way possible.

  87. 87
    The Lodger says:

    @efgoldman: Congratulations! The red hair may not last, though. Our son had red hair too and his turned blond in a couple of months.

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    smintheus says:

    @YetAnotherJay formerly (Jay S): The Soviets overspent on their military relative to their GDP, going way back. But even if they hadn’t, it’s far from clear that their system would have a balanced, stable, and equitable economy.

    Anyway, people weren’t fed up with the Soviet system entirely or even mainly because of its poor economy. It was a repulsive and depressing authoritarian system that held little promise for anyone except the promise of more fear and degradation. I visited a few eastern European countries in the early ’80s and I was shocked at how much worse it was – even viewing things as a westerner who was beyond their regime’s ability to intimidate – than all the anti-Soviet propaganda in the US had prepared me for. That could only be maintained by keeping the population fearful, suspicious of neighbors, and divided against each other. Once it became obvious starting in the summer of 1980 that people could start to organize openly, could resist crackdowns and hang together, it became pretty obvious that the countdown to some kind of revolution had started at least in the Warsaw block countries. It was the same mood that took hold briefly in the 50s (Hungary) and 60s (Czech), before repression crushed out the hope. The attempted repression didn’t work against Solidarity in the 80s, so even I as a college student could see that the handwriting was on the wall.

    In fact when I was living in Italy at the time I pulled down a Solidarity poster off a wall to keep as a historical momento because I knew that everything was finally going to change.

  89. 89
    YetAnotherJay formerly (Jay S) says:

    @Martin: I was wondering, actually still wondering what purpose or problem a nuclear engine is supposed to solve for a cruise missile. I can see a nuclear powered drone submarine in some limited contexts, although command and control seems problematic. Apparently we are meant to be afraid, very afraid because … something?

  90. 90
    Uncle Cosmo says:

    @Roger Moore: I spent a couple of weeks in July 1989 touring through East Berlin, Prague & Budapest. I saw nothing to suggest that the system wouldn’t last another hundred years. (Other than the Czechs’ eagerness to sell korun for dollars on the side, at 2-3x the official rate.)

    @Amir Khalid: Sad note – I was in Dresden for the second time 5-6 years ago & wanted to travel out to where the slaughterhouses had been in 1945. I went to the Tourist Office certain that they’d have some information.

    Nope. In fact the people there had not even heard of Kurt Vonnegut. I left sick at heart.

  91. 91
    Yutsano says:

    @efgoldman: MAZEL TOV!!! Glad everything went okay.

  92. 92
    scav says:

    @smedley the uncertain: Oh, let me assure you, my true optimism on anything that involves courts is currently barely at a simmer. I just enjoy any kick to an existing sore spot on the oddly coiffed orange. Enthusiasm at the full boil is reserved for greeting the crunched up face of the efgrandson of @efgoldman: and his entire crew!

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    sukabi says:

    @trollhattan: sheeit. That’s what I thought the glowing orb was for. 😕

  94. 94
    Martin says:

    @Roger Moore: I’m not quite sure what the utility of that is. That seems like just a refinement of the SAC concept, which I guess is fine, but if you’re going to go nuke, that shit will be over with in 30 minutes now thanks to sub-launched. The theory is that once someone pops off nuke – even seeing a bunch of slow-moving cruise missiles coming in, you pop everything and it’s over before those cruise missiles even arrive. That’s why SAC was ended – it was redundant.

    Nuclear cruise is a deterrent threat, but that’s it. And why would you volunteer to deal with the hassles of that shit falling out of the sky unless you’ve given up on trying to operate a sub fleet. IOW, I don’t see this as a sign of strength. It doesn’t make sense, but it throws off a lot of scary for a relatively low cost. It looks like an all hat/not cattle move.

  95. 95
    Yarrow says:

    @efgoldman: Congratulations! That’s awesome!

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    @David Evans: I’ve got that and more in the opening post.

  97. 97

    @YetAnotherJay formerly (Jay S): The only Big New Thing I’ve seen about a nuclear cruise missile is that it can stay aloft forever. So Putin’s animation has it circling the globe a few times to rain warheads down on – Florida?

  98. 98
    Suzanne says:

    @efgoldman: WOOHOOOOOO! Congratulations, grandpa!

  99. 99
    Bill Arnold says:

    @YetAnotherJay formerly (Jay S):

    Apparently we are meant to be afraid, very afraid because … something?

    We are supposed to be afraid of a Doomsday nuclear cruise missile gap
    Or more mundanely, of a cruise missile with unlimited range, though why precisely that’s useful isn’t clear as Martin suggests. We are not the target audience. A key part of the audience (besides the domestic Russian audience) is Orb fondling, Telescreen-watching (Fox) DJTrump. [sorry about that last.]

  100. 100
    YetAnotherJay formerly (Jay S) says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: It seems more like a low earth MIRV equivalent than a cruise missile from the animation. In a peace time deterrent or limited proxy war deployment it might have airspace constraints. So maybe a version that could be recovered and rearmed might work as a drone without needing a nearby base for a sustained limited war, perhaps a first strike weapon or rapid response retaliation weapon as a single use as the animation implies @Roger Moore: ?

  101. 101
    zhena gogolia says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    I can’t stand to watch Russian news, but when the delegation of senators went to Russia, I saw some bloviator on a Russian talk show bragging that they were coming because they were scared of the new missiles.

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    Sister Golden Bear says:

    @efgoldman: Congratulations!

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    Litlebritdifrnt says:

    @efgoldman: As others have said grand babies are your reward for raising children. In my case grand nephews and nieces are my reward for my sister doing the whole child raising thing. My Mum always said to my sis “one day you will have one just like you”. Baby one Charlotte was an absolute angel and always has been. Baby two Clare was another angel but has grown to be a bit of a rebel. Baby three Amy was a clone of my sis, in looks and demeanor, the absolute devil. Luckily for Nancy her “one day you will have one just like you” came true cause Amy’s daughter, baby Nancy is as wilful and obnoxious as her Mum and Grandma were. It is delicious to watch from afar.

  104. 104

    @zhena gogolia: Good point. I think the new weapons are to encourage the home crowd too, but I tend to focus on what they mean to Americans, being an American. 🙄

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    L85NJGT says:

    A bag of magic beans that indicates other delivery systems are too expensive for Russian means.

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    Martin says:

    @YetAnotherJay formerly (Jay S): I don’t see how that would work. The thing to understand about nuclear is that it’s slow and relatively large. So you can counter with fast intercepters and air-air missiles, and you often will have time to do so.

    The US looked into low-altitude supersonic, but that’s not really possible and have any duration. You can either have flight times on the order of days/weeks at conventional cruise missile speeds (subsonic) or you can have supersonic at conventional cruise missile ranges. And you can’t have it do both.

    Subsonic cruise missiles work because they’re agile and because they’re in flight for relatively short periods of time, so reaction/decision time struggles to deal with them. But if the cruise missile is just zooming around up there, we’re going to be tracking every fucking one of them, and we’re going to have that reaction/decision worked out and we’ll just shoot it down. And there’s no damn way you’re going to be able to shield that thing to make it stealth.

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    smintheus says:

    @Brachiator: That’s funny. It does point to a key reason why reforms and then collapse of the Soviet Union occurred in the ’80s. The earlier expressions of discontent in the Warsaw Pact had all been comfortably explained away by treating the reformers as US puppets or stooges. But after 1980 it became impossible to pretend that Solidarity was anything other than a labor movement, which meant that the entire Soviet ideology of being the workers’ system was shown up for its absurdity. It was the Party leadership that always held onto that silly myth, but people around Gorbachev could not look at Solidarity’s persistent appeal and pretend that it meant nothing.

    Apparently that brutally discredited myth is still beloved in 2018 among the Russian equivalent of our own Lost Cause brigades.

  108. 108
    YetAnotherJay formerly (Jay S) says:

    @Martin: So Putin’s version of w Wile E Coyote Acme infomercial.

  109. 109
    Brachiator says:


    But if the cruise missile is just zooming around up there, we’re going to be tracking every fucking one of them, and we’re going to have that reaction/decision worked out and we’ll just shoot it down.

    Probably not. Tracking missiles and decoys, let alone targetting and shooting down the right missiles ain’t easy.

    The best way to stop a nuclear war is not to start one.

  110. 110
    Marc says:

    I just watched the second video, that is no nuclear cruise missile. What it depicts is something that the Soviet Union put a lot of work into a half century ago, the so-called Fractional Orbital Bombardment System. This would use a modified ICBM (using old-fashioned chemical solid fuel engines) to insert a payload into an arbitrary low earth orbit, then reenter the atmosphere in the vicinity of the target after making a fraction of a single orbit. In the animation, the reentry vehicles during the orbit portion appear to have a flattened lifting body shape, which suggest that they might be maneuverable hypersonic gliders. Such vehicles could not be intercepted using conventional missile defense systems, as the warheads could appear from any direction and would not be coming down from a high ballistic trajectory. And, they would still be moving too quickly for intercept by conventional fighter aircraft. Aside from the reentry vehicles, relatively cheap and easy to implement, just a treaty change away from deployment.

    A nuclear cruise missile is an entirely different kettle of fish, and it seems the Russians have some sort of program. A true nuclear ramjet might be heavy, but the missile it powered would not need to carry the single dominant factor in the weight of any jet aircraft, kerosene. For example, an SR-71 is powered by two J58 engines that each weigh 6000 lbs and produce roughly 35000 lbs of thrust, so engine thrust to weight is just over 5:1. However, a fully loaded SR-71 without fuel weighs about 70000 lbs, to travel 3000 miles it needs to carry an additional 80000 lbs of fuel. If liquid fuel could be eliminated, the aircraft structure would be much smaller and lighter, meaning less thrust is required to achieve similar performance, even if the engine weighs 10 times as much as a J58. And, of course, you would get essentially unlimited loiter and range.

  111. 111
    Marc says:

    Hmm, that’s easy, the missile in the second video is an RS-28 Sarmat, which is believed FOBS capable.

  112. 112
    Kayla Rudbek says:

    Over a hundred comments and no mention of this story? I’m sure that it’s made it through Sandia and Los Alamos National laboratories by now…

  113. 113
    SWMBO says:

    @efgoldman: Congrats to the entire family!

  114. 114
    Bill Arnold says:

    @Kayla Rudbek:
    A “Tall Tail” indeed. C. Stross has done a few of those (well, at least two. The other I recall involves ducks. And a Creationist. You have been warned! (Seriously, some might be disturbed.) ) in the style/tone of Clark’s “Tales from the White Hart”
    I had somehow missed knowing about
    Operation Acoustic Kitty. Are there similar lunatics still working at the CIA?

  115. 115
    Aardvark Cheeselog says:

    And a reader has reminded me that a chemical rocket motor would be needed to get the cruise missile up to ramjet speed. Most of my discussion above is as though only the nuclear motor would be present, which makes things difficult enough, but the chemical rocket motor would be additional weight and things to go wrong.

    This needn’t be an insurmountable technical obstacle. If you could build such a thing you could get it up to speed like a BOMARC, with a discardable booster stage(s).

  116. 116
    Kayla Rudbek says:

    @Bill Arnold: I sent that link to my fellow alum who is a rocket scientist at a national lab in New Mexico, so I am pretty sure that it’s been read by a lot of folks there. He thought it was quite funny.

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    TomatoQueen says:

    late welcome in to little efg, may you learn to say fuckem soonest.

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