Why is Russia testing missiles

Russia tests Mach 10 nuclear-powered fast nuclear missile

Russia has apparently tested an airworthy nuclear-powered missile that is said to be up to ten times the speed of sound. It would hardly be hit by a missile defense system. The rocket was launched in flight by a MIG31. The Russian Defense Ministry has published a video to this effect.

Hypersonic missile under the fuselage of a MIG31: At twice the speed of sound, the nuclear-powered missile is decoupled and accelerated up to Mach 10.

Photo: Russian Ministry of Defense / Twitter

Easily recognizable under the fuselage of the MIG31: Russia's new Hypersonic missile with a nuclear drive.

Photo: Russian Defense Ministry / Twitter

Russian MIG31

Photo: Russian Ministry of Defense / Twitter

Launch of two MIG31 on a military site in southern Russia.

Photo: Russian Defense Ministry / Twitter

Landing after the successful test.

Photo: Russian Ministry of Defense / Twitter

Russian MIG31

Photo: Russian Ministry of Defense / Twitter

Since the summer of last year it has been known, at least by rumor, that Russian defense technology is concentrating on the development of nuclear propulsion systems for missiles such as torpedoes. Earlier this month, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin confirmed these rumors and revealed the first details. He then confirmed the existence of the Kinshal nuclear missile, Russian for dagger. However, he left open how far the rocket had developed. The supposedly successful test was all the more surprising. With that, Russia would have solved some technical problems.

Size problem solved: nuclear propulsion system small enough for missiles

Work has been going on for decades on the nuclear propulsion of rockets and airplanes. Again and again, technical problems forced the work to be stopped. One of the technical problems of the past with manned aircraft was the high additional weight of the complete shielding of the pilots from radioactive radiation. As far as missiles were concerned, nuclear power plants have long been way too big.

Simulation: In flight, the rocket engine of Russia's new Hypersonic rocket took off.

Source: Russian Defense Ministry / Twitter

At least the size problem now seems to be resolved. At the beginning of March, Putin spoke of a "miniaturization" of the nuclear drive units, which would now make them usable for rockets and torpedoes. Nuclear propulsion for manned aircraft, on the other hand, is currently not an issue. Miniaturization has become possible primarily through new materials such as particularly heat-resistant metal alloys and composite materials.

Putin stressed that the new missiles and torpedoes could be equipped with either conventional or nuclear warheads, regardless of their nuclear propulsion system. When it hits the target, even with conventional armament, the missile generates a certain amount of radioactive contamination, since the nuclear propulsion unit is destroyed at the target.

Nuclear drives redรถwere like extreme ranges

According to Putin, all future missiles can be powered by nuclear power. The particular benefit lies in the extreme range and the considerably higher payload. As a result, each warhead can be designed to be much heavier than that of rockets with conventional solid or liquid propulsion systems.

Shortly before take-off: Russian MIG31 with a Hypersonic missile under the fuselage.

Source: Russian Defense Ministry / Twitter

Due to the extreme range at up to ten times the speed of sound, conventional missile defense faces the problem that it can hardly calculate the course of the nuclear missile and can no longer intercept the missile.

Putin himself gave an example: Russia launches a missile on the border with the Arctic aimed at the American east coast. This rocket initially flies to Western Europe, but then turns south and crosses the South Atlantic towards Latin America. From there she flies to the United States on constantly changing courses. Putin spoke of an "unlimited range" and an "unpredictable flight path".

In addition to nuclear propulsion, there are also extremely fast new missiles

The missile now being tested is one of the Hypersonic missiles developed by Russia, which are already operational and are supposed to reach ten times the speed of sound (Mach10). They are launched in the air by a MIG31 under which the rocket hangs. At more than double the speed of sound, the MIG disengages the rocket.

The new nuclear drive initially accelerates the rocket to five times the speed of sound. An additional drive system then accelerates the rocket to ten times the speed of sound. The aim of the Russian engineers is a rocket that can travel at a speed of around 20 times the speed of sound.

China and the US are also working on guided missiles that are supposed to reach supersonic speeds and are to be powered by nuclear technology. The USA has announced a guided missile with five times the speed of sound, which is, however, still equipped with a conventional drive.

Launch of a missile from a Lockheed Martin F-35: The US wants to develop new guided missiles that can reach their target so quickly that, for example, nuclear missiles in North Korea are destroyed on the launch pad before they are launched.

Source: Lockheed Martin

A contribution from:

  • Peter Odrich

    Peter Odrich studied business administration with a focus on transport companies. After 28 years as a business editor for a German national daily newspaper with long activity in East Asia, he returned to his native Great Britain. Since then he has reported freelance for newspapers and technical information services in various countries. Transport issues, metals and East Asian issues are in the foreground.