Russia’s testing of an SSC-X-9 Skyfall hypersonic weapon has rekindled interest in a largely forgotten Cold War technology: nuclear-powered air power. In this article, Peter Layton looks at the history of US development of nuclear-powered weapons in the 1950s and 1960s. In doing so, he highlights that successful innovation does not necessarily require a system to be operationally fielded.

In March 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled five new nuclear delivery systems including the Burevestnik subsonic nuclear-powered cruise missile (NATO reporting name SSC-X-9 Skyfall).  Seeing this Russian media-dubbed супероружие (‘superweapon’) some may have felt a certain sense of déjà vu. In the 1960s the United States Air Force (USAF) also seriously investigated building such a missile, although this one was planned to be ramjet-powered and sprint at Mach 3.

Skyfall has rekindled interest in such nuclear-powered missiles, but equally the USAF project is of interest as it was run deliberately to support decision-making about long-range nuclear strike weapons. It is an example of innovation in action and how success does not necessarily mean the innovation enters service. Many innovations fall short, but that does not mean they are failures.

In the 1950s the USAF had a keen interest in a manned nuclear-powered bomber, but the technology was developed, trialled, and evaluated as seriously inadequate. Moreover, there were inherent radiation hazards associated with nuclear energy. The heavy shielding required for human safety was inherently incompatible with the lightweight materials needed for aircraft structures. Furthermore, a serious accident with a nuclear-powered aircraft or missile could have left the crash site uninhabitable for many years.

Please click here to read the full “Cold War Nuclear-Powered Hypersonic Missiles: A Successful Failed Innovation” article originally published at The Central Blue written by Griffith Asia Institute Visiting Fellow, Peter Layton