Skyfall missile

A billboard reads "The State Central Navy Testing Range" in the village of Nyonoksa, northwestern Russia, in October 2018. An Aug. 8, 2019, explosion of a rocket engine at the Russian navy's testing range just outside Nyonoksa led to a brief spike in radiation levels and raised new questions about prospective Russian weapons. (Sergei Yakovlev / AP)

Russia lost five scientists while testing a bad idea this month that the American military has sworn off since the 1960s: the nuclear-powered plane.

The incident at Archangel occurred as a pact regulating cruise missiles and intermediate range ballistic missiles expired, allowing Moscow to flex what’s left of its Cold War muscle. The weapon, called Skyfall, was a nuclear-powered cruise missile, an incredibly expensive way to deliver munitions while polluting the atmosphere with clouds of radiation.

It at least got the attention of President Donald Trump, who took to Twitter to razz the Russians.

“The United States is learning much from the failed missile explosion in Russia. We have similar, though more advanced, technology.,” Trump said. “The Russian ‘Skyfall’ explosion has people worried about the air around the facility, and far beyond. Not good!”

Russia in recent years has relied on bluster and increasingly outlandish claims about its weapons in a bid to retain its falling relevance.

The nuclear-powered cruise missile was heralded by Vladimir Putin as a miracle of science that combined unsurpassed range and maneuverability with blinding speed.

America tried something similar with a string of experiments through the 1950s and 1960s that sought to build a nuclear-powered aircraft. Military leaders dreamed of a plane that could fly forever and was always ready to deliver nuclear death to the nation’s enemies.

In the end, scientists built a nuclear-powered jet engine that spread radiation over a wide swath of Idaho and also managed to stash a reactor in the belly of a B-36 bomber.

But the U.S. dreams died in the face of a simple reality: Radioactivity and gravity make bad bedfellows.

American leaders realized that having a nuclear reactor accidentally plunge from the sky could do more harm to the people the military was supposed to protect than the nation’s enemies.

And there’s the whole cost issue.

America’s nuclear-powered airplane program racked up $1 billion in expenses by 1961. Factoring in inflation, that’s enough cash to buy 6,000 tomahawk cruise missiles.

Russia’s nuclear-powered cruise missile ambitions are reminiscent of several of that nation’s quixotic weapons programs over the decades that have managed to incinerate money while posing little threat to enemies.

From the ludicrously large Tsar Bomba, a 60-megaton nuclear bomb to the T-42, a 100-ton tank with a crew of 14, the Russians have had a knack for the weird.

So how do you counter these weapons? With an old Russian trick long attributed to Josef Stalin: “Quantity has a quality of its own.”

Let the Russians have their easily detectable, self-destructible and radioactive cruise missile.

For the same price, you can pick up a few thousand cheaper missiles that actually work.

Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

Senior Military Editor

Tom Roeder is the Gazette's senior military editor. In Colorado Springs since 2003, Tom covers seven military installations in Colorado, including five in the Pikes Peak region. His main job, though, is being dad to two great kids.

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