The Buzz

Is Russia Building a Nuclear Space Bomber?

A senior Russian officer claimed the Kremlin’s weaponeers are working on a nuclear-armed, orbital bomber that can lob megaton atomic bombs at any city on Earth just an hour or two after launch.

Yes, you read that right.

But don’t panic. For a whole host of reasons, we’re unlikely to ever see this plane in the real world — nor numerous other high-tech projects Kremlin officials and Russian defense contractors say are in development.

While the country is a major producer and supplier of all sorts of real armaments, Russia may not even really want to build any of these super-weapons.

Since first becoming Russia’s president in 2000, Vladimir Putin has reinvigorated the country’s military and defense industry. But along with the real improvements have come increasingly laughable pronouncements about weapons programs and their progress.

The nuclear space bomber is only the latest.

“Upon command it will ascend into outer space, strike a target with nuclear warheads and then return to its home base,” Lt. Col. Aleksei Solodovnikov, an officer in Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces, reportedly told state-run RIA Novosti. “I think that its lift-off mass must be 20 to 25 metric tons for it to be a strike aircraft. It will [be able to accelerate to] hypersonic speed in rocket mode.”

Oh, and the this flying machine will be able to take off from a normal runway, according to Solodovnikov. We don’t know whether he was talking about a revised concept for the Kremlin’s much-delayed PAK-DA bomber or an entirely new aircraft.

Sputnik, another state-owned media outlet, coupled its article on the space plane with a more than decade-old image by Jozef Gatial, who has produced dozens of pieces of artwork depicting fictitious, cancelled and experimental aircraft as they might have looked in combat.

Gatial’s high-concept art is a good fit, as Solodovnikov described a sort of holy grail of aviation design. Despite decades of attempts by various countries and private companies, space planes remain expensive novelties.

While both could land on a normal airstrip, the American Space Shuttle and its Soviet copy Buran both needed huge booster rockets to propel them into orbit. The U.S. Air Force’s experimental X-37B — whatever it’s supposed to do — rides a re-purposed missile into space. The Pentagon’s cancelled, Cold War Dyna-Soar did the same.

Since 1999, Washington has allotted more than $500 million for the X-37B project. With each Space Shuttle launch costing some $450 million, NASA stopped flying the aged craft altogether five years ago.

Aircraft that can fly from regular airfields to the edge of space are just as difficult to keep in the air. Thanks in no small part to its painfully complicated and gas-guzzling J58 engines, in 1990 Lockheed’s revolutionary SR-71 spy plane cost the Air Force approximately $85,000 an hour to fly. That’s more than $150,000 in 2016 dollars.

Hybrid designs such as Scaled Composites SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo try to get around these problems by using a separate plane to loft the craft into position to blast into outer space. But how “cheap” these aircraft are is relative. With numerous setbacks, including a deadly crash in October 2014, the final bill for SpaceShipTwo could very well equal the cost of the X-37B project.

Even if the Russian nuclear space bomber somehow gets built, Moscow will have to contend with international law. Russia is a signatory to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which bars parties from placing nuclear weapons in orbit.

Sure, you can argue that a space bomber only temporarily travels through orbit and doesn’t actually stay there, much like an ICBM does. In any event, world governments surely wouldn’t look fondly upon an atomic space bomber, even if it were technically legal.

Look, for at least the last eight years Russia has been trying to get a prototype of the new PAK-DA bomber off the ground. In January 2016, Russian deputy defense minister Yuri Borisov claimed plane-maker Tupolev might finally have a working design … in 2021.

“We certainly are not going to stop the work on the development of PAK-DA,” Borisov assured reporters four months later.

But wild assertions aren’t exclusive to Russia’s bomber projects. Named and unnamed sources routinely make amazingly detailed claims about weapons that never seem to appear on the parade ground, let alone the battlefield.