Vlad Unveils the Death Star

It's always interesting when two apparently unrelated elements of the political world collide to shed light on a third, also seemingly unrelated element. That's what happened last weekend during the missile strikes against Assad's nerve-gas network.

For the past several months, speculation has been rampant in political and military circles concerning new superweapons developed by the Russian Federation, presumably for use against its Main Enemy, the U.S.

Information on these systems did not emerge by accident or by means of intelligence efforts. It was intentionally released by the Russians themselves, for purposes that would not be immediately evident to anyone unfamiliar with recent Russian (which is to say "Soviet") history.

On March 1st, Vladimir Putin, in a fiery address leading up to the March 18th presidential election, unveiled what he claimed to be a "nuclear-powered cruise missile" capable of staying in the air indefinitely and eluding any form of interception. The announcement was accompanied by footage purporting to show a test of the missile, along with animation of how it could dodge anti-missile defenses. (It's difficult to grasp what these "defenses" are supposed to consist of – in the video, they appear to be balloons popping up out of nowhere in the middle of the Atlantic.)

At the same time, Putin also "announced" (it had "accidently" been revealed earlier in a Russian military documentary) an independently-guided nuclear-armed torpedo drone that could spend months underwater before setting off a 100-megaton warhead in the waters off a port city. The city would then be inundated by a radioactive tsunami that would destroy everything to the suburbs and beyond.

Obviously, a pair of weapons to make Dr. Strangelove get up and dance around the war room. (Putin also announced several other more conventional weapons.) The torpedo is known as either "Status 6" or "Kanyon," depending on the source. The cruise missile as yet has no name – Putin jovially proposed that viewers send in their suggestions.

Students of nuclear weaponry immediately recognized this pair as reboots of American concepts from the 1950s. A USAF nuclear-powered cruise missile program, variously known as Project Pluto or SLAM (Supersonic Low-Altitude Missile) was carried out from 1957 to 1964. Pluto was a design for a ramjet cruise missile powered by a 500-megawatt nuclear reactor with a range of up to 113,000 miles and a cruising speed of Mach 3 to 4.5 (2300 mph to 3450 mph). Pluto was to be a gigantic weapon, carrying up to several dozen H-bombs. After these were expended, it would roar across Russia at low altitude, its supersonic shock wave knocking down anything that remained, at the same time spewing out a highly radioactive exhaust.

After several successful reactor tests, Pluto was canceled in July 1964 because it was a stupid idea. Any such weapon would show up in the area of operations hours after matters had already been decided, its only role to make the rubble bounce. Not even the contemporary Lord of the Nukes Gen. Curtis E. LeMay was interested in any such system.

Status 6, on the other hand, is a cut-rate version of the "gigaton mine," which was dreamed up by J. Robert Oppenheimer in the early 1950s while he was trying to scare people out of making H-bombs. Gigaton mines were thousand-megaton nuclear devices (one billion in the U.S. system) which would be triggered either on coastlines, where they would cause the aforementioned tsunamis, or alternately in low earth orbit, where they could sterilize a continent from coast to coast.

Any temptation to build these things was curtailed by the fiascos of the Castle Bravo (3/1/54) and Tsar Bomba (10/30/61) nuclear tests, in which design errors led to far greater yields than anticipated. The terrifying results discouraged efforts toward designing larger bombs and led eventually to the Atmospheric Test-Ban Treaty of 1963. Today nuclear weapons tend to be precision-guided low-yield devices that can be tuned to match a target.

Regardless of their secondhand status, Putin's revelations led to the traditional weapons panic – shrieking in the media, nervous press conferences from the military, and arm-waving from the nuclear "experts"–all this despite the fact that it's unlikely that they actually exist.

The cruise missile video? There are a number of problems with that little number:

  • Putin's nuclear cruise missile is externally indistinguishable from the KH-55 family of conventionally-powered missiles, also known by the NATO designation AS-15 Kent. The Kent is a small missile, ranging in size from 19 to 24 feet in length, with a weight of 3,600 to 5,300 lbs. – little more than a medium-sized truck. The missile shown in Putin's video is clearly about that size.

The smallest nuclear reactor weighs about 1200 pounds and generates under 500 kilowatts of power – not enough to power such a missile to the speeds claimed for it (compare this to Pluto's 500 MW). A reactor suitable for this task would be considerably larger and heavier, resulting in a missile quite a bit larger than the Kent. There was a reason why the Pluto was intended to be a monster.

  • One of the things that killed Pluto was that it was impossible to test. Two methods exist for operating nuclear-powered jet engines – direct and indirect fuel flow. In direct flow, the fuel runs straight into the reactor, where it is heated and blasted out the rear. Indirect flow features separate heat elements which heat up the fuel.

In both cases, you end up with radioactive engine exhaust–the direct method is much higher, but both are dangerous. So Putin allowed such a missile to be tested over Russia?

  • The rest of the world carefully monitors the atmosphere for unexplained radiation. Yet nobody detected anything associated with this missile.
  • There's also the fact that it can't be safely landed. A crash would result in a reactor explosion similar to what happened at Chernobyl, if on a smaller scale. (This falsifies the CIA claim that the first test resulted in a crash. No nuclear accident, no crash.) The Pluto designers planned to drop the missile deep into the Pacific, where it would sit on the bottom emitting radioactivity for the next 20,000 years. Are the Russians admitting to a world-class environmental crime?
  • Putin's nice movie shows the chase plane flying a few hundred yards behind the missile, where at any moment, a quick turn or sudden blast of wind could bathe the plane in radioactive exhaust.
  • Finally, only a few establishing shots (like the one above) actually show the missile in flight. The rest is animation. Did the Russian cameras run out of film or what?

So Russia has a nuclear-powered cruise missile, does it? Do tell, Vlad.

Much the same could be said for the Kanyon drone. Observers have stated that it looks exactly like a scaled-up version of a standard Russian submarine torpedo – not at all what you'd expect for the mission. There's also that "independently-guided" claim. From a country that has shown no capability in AI, cybernetics, or related disciplines? A country that was forced to steal all its computer technology during the Cold War, including U.S.-built PCs that were then put in locally made casings? This country has developed an AI-controlled, nuclear-armed underwater drone, you say? Really?

We can also add that more recent work concerning nuclear explosion-generated waves reveal them as being a lot less destructive than has long been thought. Forget about tsunamis hundreds of feet high – a nuke wave would be no worse than that of a bad storm.

Russia has a long history of fakery where weapons are concerned. Consider the Myasishchev bombers. In the early 1950s, the Myasishchev design bureau (usually condensed to "Mya," even by Russian sources) was organized by the Soviets to challenge American dominance of strategic bomber design by Boeing and Convair. At a Soviet air show in July 1955, what appeared to be 28 of its first product, the Mya-4, appeared overhead, concentrating wonderfully the minds of Western observers. (It wasn't revealed until years later that the Russians flew the same formation over the field repeatedly.) A full panic ensued, which entered history as the infamous "bomber gap." The CIA, always on top of things, estimated that the USSR had something on the order of 800 Mya-4s. The U-2 program, just getting off the ground, was tasked to find and count all those bombers. After several sweeps of the USSR, U-2s found… fifty Mya-4s, tucked away at a remote air base, with the snow depth on the runways suggesting that they hadn't flown in some time.

Far from being a superweapon, the Mya-4 was underpowered, lacked the range to reach the U.S. and return, and was loathed by its pilots and crews. It never went into full production, and only a handful of the first fifty ever saw actual service.

Three years later, in 1958, it was revealed that Myasishchev had brainstormed a new design, the Mya -50, which was both supersonic and–wait for it–atomic powered. Again, panic ensued in the West. In the event, the conventionally powered Mya-50 never went into production following the prototype, and the Soviets had to wait years for their first supersonic bomber.

The Marxist superweapon role was filled by the MiG-25 Foxbat late in the 1960s. Designed to take on the cancelled B-70 Valkyrie supersonic bomber, the MiG-25 was a fast interceptor – though nowhere near as fast as people thought. Western intelligence mixed the plane up with the radar track of a high-altitude drone and announced that the Russians had a plane that could operate at nearly 3000 mph. When Russian pilot Viktor Belenko defected to Japan with his MiG-25 in September 1976, it was discovered that the plane could do one thing – travel in a straight line very fast (though not at Mach 4). Its engineering was primitive, using no new alloys or manufacturing techniques, and its finicky engines tended to explode during flight.

Much more could be said on this topic. In the late 50s, Chairman Nikita Khrushchev constantly asserted that the USSR was "turning out missiles like sausages," resulting in a – you guessed it – missile gap. And yet during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the Soviets had a grand total of 13 ICBMs on the pads.

All these hoaxes were met with the same response in the West: open panic featuring hysteria, confusion, and defeatism. No matter how many times the trick was repeated, the same cries of doom were heard from people in positions to know better – often the same people, over and over again.

So how does Syria fit in? The attack on April 13th went up against a 21st-century Russian superweapon–the S-400 Triumf air-defense system, a mobile state-of-the-art anti-aircraft and missile network featuring four distinct missile types targeting aircraft in any performance envelope from treetop level to high altitude – including stealth aircraft (at a range of 150 miles, yet). For a decade we have been assured by military analysts that the S-400 is a game-changer – a system that could rend the heavens in twain and call into question the very concept of air power under battlefield conditions.

And yet, last Friday, the epoch-making Triumf failed to let out so much as a peep as 105 cruise missiles trashed Bashar Assad's chemical warfare plants. Not a single SAM left the rack while the attack was proceeding. (The Syrians did fire over 40 missiles at nothing, but only after the attack was completed. This is standard behavior among Arab armed forces – the Libyans and Iraqis did the same thing.) The Russians claim to have shot down over 70 of the attacking cruise missiles. How do we know this isn't true? First, because the targets were utterly destroyed, and second, because the French were involved. If the Russians had shot down any U.S. missiles at all we would be hearing from Paris that American "missiles de croisière" are useless, and that's why we had to turn to the French, who invented the cruise missile in 1689. (This is scarcely an exaggeration – Emmanuel Macron has gone on record to state that it was he, le président de la France, who persuaded Donald Trump to carry out the strike.)

Some might argue that the new AGM-158 JASSM stealth missile foxed the S-400, but half the missiles launched were actually thirty-year-old BGM-109 Tomahawks, the equivalent of Colt Peacemakers as far as the world of missile development is concerned. If the mighty S-400 can't shoot down a thirty-year-old missile, what can it do?

The question is rhetorical, since it's clear at this point that the S-400, along with the Myas, the nuclear drone, and the Kanyon, is simply another boogieman cooked up by the Russians to buffalo a gullible world, with the aid and assistance of various Western experts.

As to why–during the 50s, Khrushchev was facing intractable difficulties in ruling Russia, overseeing a national recovery from Stalinist terror while juggling the party, the military, and the KGB and attempting to reform the economy through his "Thaw" policies. Fairy tales concerning Myas and missiles, along with feigned belligerence, kept the world at arm's length while mollifying various hard liners. So why not go with it, particularly when the West was so easy to fool? Khrushchev managed to walk that tightrope for a decade before it snapped beneath him.

His successors, Brezhnev and Kosygin, followed the same route, because they had no alternative. Neither does Vladimir Putin today. He has learned – as they all learned, from czar to vozhd to chairman – that you cannot rule a modern state as a medieval tyranny. All that you can do is remain one step ahead of chaos while faking out both your own people and the world as a whole.

That explains Vlad and his Darth Vader weapons. Russia today is what it always was – a Potemkin village hiding a nation in a state of suspended collapse. The sole thing keeping it up is brutality toward the ordinary Russian and threats against the rest of the world. This works only because the West allows to work – doing favors for the vozhd of the moment for the sake of peace and quiet, throwing our hands up and wailing whenever he shakes a rubber doomsday machine in our direction, and consistently selling the Russian people short. That's the way it was during the communist epoch, and that's the way it is today. It's time we pulled up the curtain on it, the same way we pulled up the curtain on the S-400 last weekend.

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