By Sir Joseph Rotblat, Polish Physicist September 20, 2021
“The Cold War is over but Cold War thinking survives”
In 1955 amidst the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force conceived a nuclear weapon project concept that involved a low-flying, nuclear-powered supersonic missile that carried a thermonuclear warhead. The Supersonic Low Altitude Missile, abbreviated as SLAM, was decades ahead of anything of its kind. It utilized a built-in terrain contour matching radar that directed it to the intended target at supersonic speeds. The propulsion system was designed to draw air in through a dorsal vent, heat up and compress the air with a nuclear reactor, propel it through its exhaust, and providing thrust for the missile. A developmental type of ceramic was produced to handle the intense heat and weight that the SLAM demanded, allowing the weapon to boast a range of 113,000 miles, roughly four and a half times the circumference of the Earth.
This innovative concept was scrapped in 1964 because development of intercontinental ballistic missiles was completed, and the U.S. could not guarantee the safety of testing a reactor that would disperse substantial amounts of radioactive emissions.
In 2018, Russia unveiled a prototype nuclear engine that was based on the same technology used in the SLAM project. This updated model, the 9M730 Burevestnik dubbed SSC-X-9 or Skyfall by NATO, is intended to be the ultimate nuclear advantage. The Skyfall missile is built to have the capability to fly at an astounding speed utilizing a nuclear reactor that propels compressed air. In theory, the missile will be hypersonic with virtually unlimited range. Unlike a traditional Intercontinental Ballistic Missile which is launched on a generally transparent flight path up into the stratosphere and down onto its target, the Skyfall will fly at low altitudes masking it from radar tracking. Furthermore, this weapon of terror can strike without warning when fully developed and deployed. So far Russia has been less than successful in their development efforts.
Over the last 10 years, Russia has dedicated $150 billion toward research and development of nuclear capable weapons. While they have seen some success, they have also seen disaster. The worst test failure was in August 2019, when the missile exploded during a test in Nenoska, Russia, killing five scientists and two military members. While the explosion and loss of life was terrible, the fallout of the blast raised the radiation levels in the surrounding area to nearly 200 times the normal level. This information was withheld from the local populace for days while the radiation could have potentially sickened them or left them with long term illness.
When the information was finally released to the public, the news report lasted 36 seconds; a fitting way for Russian leadership to show how much they value human life over military testing. During the ceremony honoring the men killed in the explosion, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the “…weapon is to be perfected regardless of anything.” He is willing to sacrifice more life if it means he can threaten the world with this weapon.
If Russian development of this project continues, they risk more losses of life among the scientists and developers working on the missile. They are also gambling that the weapon does not explode again sending massive amounts of radiation into nearby towns, or even into neighboring nations. If the missile does happen to get off the ground, it will be spewing radiation across everything it flies over potentially irradiating innocent people, animals, and entire ecosystems. Even a “successful” test is a bad outcome for the world. A missile that flies indefinitely is an ever-present risk to international air travel, and the impact of inflight failure, nuclear exhaust, and other unanticipated outcomes cannot be understated.
The world has experienced enough nuclear accidents, developing, and fielding the Skyfall weapon system only demonstrates an unwillingness to learn. Bad ideas do not improve over time, and the international community must condemn this irresponsible venture before it is too late!