Putin’s Nuclear-Powered Cruise Missile Is Bigger Than Trump’s

There’s no point in competing with Russia’s new trove of bizarre doomsday devices.

The full moon rises behind one of the Kremlin ruby stars in Moscow on March 1. During a two-hour speech to a joint sitting of both houses of parliament Russia's President Vladimir Putin claimed his country has developed a new array of nuclear weapons that are invincible. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)
The full moon rises behind one of the Kremlin ruby stars in Moscow on March 1. During a two-hour speech to a joint sitting of both houses of parliament Russia's President Vladimir Putin claimed his country has developed a new array of nuclear weapons that are invincible. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review proposed that the United States create two new nuclear weapons — a low-yield warhead for U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missiles and a new sea-launched cruise missile.

So, naturally, Russian President Vladimir Putin just asked the Federal Assembly to hold his beer.

Speaking before the Assembly in what is, more or less, Russia’s equivalent to the State of the Union address, Putin announced a series of new weapons systems, including four new or recent nuclear weapons systems designed to defeat U.S. missile defenses. Each was accompanied with a little short film that mixed real footage with animation. The fun bits are:

  • A giant liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile called the Sarmat. Putin showed an animation of the Sarmat that made the point that it was powerful enough to travel over the South Pole and strike the United States, a route that would conveniently evade any missile defenses.
  • A maneuvering re-entry vehicle that will arm Russia’s other ICBMs, allowing them to penetrate U.S. missile defense systems.
  • A nuclear-powered underwater drone capable of traveling thousands of miles before detonating in a U.S. port, all the while staying submerged where there are no missile defenses.
  • Last, but certainly not least, a global-range, nuclear-powered — that’s right, I wrote nuclear-powered — cruise missile that is externally identical to Russia’s X-101 cruise missile.

In a charming twist, Putin explained they have yet to choose names for the nuclear-powered cruise missile and unmanned underwater vehicle, asking the public to offer suggestions.

Ph.D. student Marty Pfeiffer is already suggesting the name Missile McMissile-Face. You can submit your suggestions for a name here at the Russian Ministry of Defense website.

We already knew about some of these systems, including the Sarmat and the nuclear-powered doomsday torpedo. And we knew, generally, that Russia was developing a maneuvering re-entry vehicle to penetrate missile defenses. Still, Putin offered a lot more detail than was previously available.

Oh, and then there’s that pesky nuclear-powered cruise missile! The U.S. developed a nuclear-powered cruise missile in the 1960s, but it was canceled it because, well, it was insane. The nuclear-powered ramjet was literally deafening to people on the ground and left a trail of radioactivity from the unshielded reactor. The United States couldn’t even find a suitable place to fight-test this monster. Officials worried that if it went off course from the Nevada nuclear test site, it might crash into Las Vegas.

Putin says Russia has already tested its version. The U.S. intelligence community, in return, says the Russian missile crashed in testing. Maybe the Russians have developed a new nuclear-powered turbofan engine that poses fewer problems than the United States’ ramjet. Or maybe, if you find yourself visiting Russia, you might want to consider lead underwear.

All of these Russian systems predated Donald Trump and his dumb Nuclear Posture Review. In fact, all of these systems were known to the Barack Obama administration — even the cruise missile, which I now realize in retrospect some U.S. officials had been hinting at for some time.

The real genesis of Russia’s new generation of bizarre nuclear weapons lies not in the most recent Nuclear Posture Review, but in the George W. Bush administration’s decision in 2001 to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the bipartisan failure by both the Bush and Obama administrations to engage meaningfully with the Russians over their concerns about American missile defenses. Putin said as much in his remarks. “During all these years since the unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty,” Putin explained, “we have been working intensively on advanced equipment and arms, which allowed us to make a breakthrough in developing new models of strategic weapons.” Those technological breakthroughs are now here. Sadly, we’re never got the diplomatic ones we needed.

Still, a nuclear-powered cruise missile and a doomsday torpedo are, as reactions to missile defenses go, a bit over the top. When U.S. officials used to blow off Russian concerns about missile defense, they would tell the Russians to just add penetration aids or maybe build more missiles. And, fair enough. It takes a special kind of Cold War nostalgia to conclude that better still would be investing in a range of bizarre doomsday weapons.

So, it wasn’t merely that the United States withdrew from the ABM Treaty or that Washington failed to address Russian concerns. The last piece of the puzzle was the collapse of democracy in Russia. With Putin’s consolidation of power, we have seen a return of a lot of Soviet patterns and behaviors, from the Communist-era national anthem to state-sponsored thugs gleefully murdering dissidents. It is not surprising that, among these Soviet behaviors, we are also seeing a resurgent Soviet defense industry, with its priorities and prerogatives. Take a look through this 1983 CIA assessment on all the crazy possible Soviet responses to then-President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, and you’ll see that plenty of the science fiction stuff is now much closer to science fact. And without meaningful political participation by Russian citizens, who will question the defense industry? Who is going to complain? If an environmentalist pipes up about the radiation from a nuclear-powered cruise missile, well, we know what happens to troublesome environmentalists in Russia.

I point this out to say that Washington’s options at this point aren’t great. Limiting missile defenses is the third rail of American national security politics and, even if the United States suddenly got very reasonable, the Russians are pretty taken with their new toys. If the U.S. suddenly solved the missile defense problem, I am not so sure the Russian military-industrial complex is going to be excited about holding a bake sale to pay for its next nuclear-powered bomber.

But this also means arms racing with the Russian is pointless. The Russians are arms racing with themselves. Racing with the Russian military-industrial complex is like wrestling with a pig — you get dirty and the pig likes it.

The strategy the United States is left with, as I have long argued, is trying to raise the international cost that Moscow faces for developing these grotesque systems. That’s why I argued so vehemently that the United States should engage with the people pushing to ban nuclear weapons — to increase the political price that Moscow pays for these programs. Instead, the Obama administration decided that arms control was something best done with the Russians, or perhaps the other nuclear weapons states, and that everyone else could mind their own business. The problem with that strategy is that it created the impression of moral equivalence between modernization programs in the United States and Russia, encouraging America’s allies to make excuses for Moscow.

The recent Nuclear Posture Review, I fear, continues this trend. The tone of the document, as well as some of the more controversial proposals, gives the impression of enthusiasm for the arms race. The result is that the United States’ allies, those with whom it needs to work with to contain Russia, are just as worried about Trump as they are Putin. This is an awful state of affairs.

A coalition opposing Putin’s new nuclear weapons seems unlikely, at least as long as this U.S. president treats the country’s alliances like a protection racket while envying Putin’s “nuclear” for being “tippy top” and making sure the world knows his “button” is bigger than North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s. Rather than expect any condemnation of Russia’s new systems, I can only imagine how excited Trump will be when he’s told about the nuclear-powered cruise missile: how his eyes will grow wide when it is explained to him, and the temper tantrum he’ll throw when he’s told he can’t have one.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk