If we are to believe Popular Mechanics, the Russians are currently working on developing and eventually deploying a nuclear strategic bomber designed to hit any target within one to two hours of of release.
“Russian state media is reporting that the country’s Defense Ministry is developing a nuclear-armed bomber than could launch attacks from space. A prototype aircraft is under development and will be ready for trials by 2020.
According to RIA Novosti, the engine has already been tested and is expected to make its public debut in September at the International Military Technology Forum. The report quotes a Lieutenant Colonel Solodovnikov, who states the plane will take off and patrol the skies like a regular bomber. Once given the command, the bomber would ascend into space and could hit any target on Earth with nuclear warheads within one or two hours.
Russia’s Ministry of Defense has denied reports a space bomber is in development, saying it was “out of the question” but not outside its technical level of expertise. The Ministry says that remarks about a hypothetical spacecraft were misinterpreted by the state-run press. While a denial is a denial, the exact date for the engine’s public debut is curious. It could be that the engine is real, and that a space bomber was a hypothetical use. Or, the bomber and engine are real. Or not. We’ll find out in September.
Either way, little is known about the actual design of the spacecraft. According to Solodovnikov, it would weigh “between 20 and 25 metric tons.” That is not much for a plane—in fact, it’s roughly the mass of the F/A-18E Super Hornet. And yet somehow, a plane that light is supposed to carry at least one nuclear weapon, fly like a regular aircraft, power itself into space, and then return to base, all on its own.
The engine is a mystery, too. Afterburning turbofan engines used on fighter planes need oxygen to operate, something that isn’t feasible in space. Scramjets aren’t powerful enough, and ramjets wouldn’t be fuel-efficient enough to use in regular atmospheric flight. The Russian spaceplane could use some combination of these, but carrying two types of engines and two types of fuel would easily bust the 25-metric-ton weight ceiling being floated. The report also implies that a single engine will power the aircraft.
One possibility could be a hybrid jet engine/rocket like the United Kingdom’s SABRE. The SABRE compresses and pre-cools air, enabling it to work like a regular turbojet at higher altitudes where the air is thinner. Once high enough, it operates much like a regular rocket engine, burning onboard liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. This allows a space plane with SABRE-like engines to get by on a single engine type. It would still need to carry two types of fuel, though.
A space bomber sounds scary, sure, but until something actually flies, it’s just vaporware. Russia has promised a number of high-profile defense projects, including the PAK-FA fighter, PAK-DA stealth bomber, Storm-class aircraft carriers, and others. Only the PAK-FA has seen any notable progress, and the project has had its share of engineering issues.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been spending lavishly on his military, at a time when western-imposed sanctions have had a dramatic impact on the Russian economy. While such a project is indeed feasible and in line with comparable Western projects designed with a similar purpose in mind, it remains to be seen if such a system can be fielded within these time constraints and offer enough potency to justify and/or warrant its exorbitant costs.