The Soviet Union’s Burya Cruise Missile Was A Little-Known Cold War Monster

The ramjet-powered, thermonuclear-tipped beast of a cruise missile competed with early ICBMs during the Cold War.

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It’s often fascinating when a seemingly forgotten film showing Soviet-era military technology is uncovered, not least because the weapons systems involved are frequently of a seriously impressive scale, or otherwise represent a remarkable approach to the various challenges of the era. Fitting both those descriptions is a 1959-vintage film about the Burya strategic cruise missile.

The movie, which Dmitry Stefanovich, who tweets as @KomissarWhipla, brought to our attention, has been uploaded to YouTube in two parts. It was filmed in color and stretches to an impressive 74 minutes’ running time. While the quality of the footage may leave something to be desired, it provides an incredible opportunity to witness a strategic weapon program that was, for most of the Cold War, almost entirely unknown in the Western world. 

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The twin booster rockets ignite moments before the launch of a Burya test missile.

As a peculiar Cold War-era developmental dead-end, the Lavochkin Burya is, moreover, worth examining in a little more detail.

You can see both parts of the film — which includes successful launches as well as some disastrous misfires — below:

The Burya — the name means Storm in Russian — began life at a time when the Soviet Union was almost entirely focused on the ballistic missile as a means of delivering a nuclear warhead against its potential enemies. By mid-1956, the Soviet military had introduced into service the R-5M, known to NATO as the SS-3 Shyster, the country’s first nuclear-capable missile. However, even by forward-deploying this weapon in satellite states, the R-5M, with its 750-mile range, was unable to hit many high-value targets, including U.S. Air Force bomber bases in the United Kingdom or in the Pacific.

In the meantime, Soviet industry was tasked to develop a follow-on to the R-5M that would offer much greater performance, bringing intercontinental-range targets within reach. As of the early 1950s, this was a serious challenge, hampered above all by the lack of powerful and reliable engines, as well as the difficulty in creating multi-stage ballistic missiles.

Thomas Taylor Hammond/Wikimedia Commons

A column of R-5 series ballistic missiles rolls through Moscow during a 1964 parade.

At this point, the Soviets turned their attention to what was going on in the United States. Here, it was clear that the Americans didn’t fully trust this early ballistic missile technology and instead hedged their bets with the parallel development of manned bombers and strategic cruise missiles. Of the latter, the most potent appeared to be the North American SM-64 Navaho, a ramjet-powered, nuclear-capable, Mach-3 missile that promised to be able to strike Soviet targets after launching from bases in the Continental United States.

A big advantage of a cruise missile like the Navaho was that it could fly like a plane and was propelled for most of its flight by an air-breathing ramjet, removing the need for it to carry supplemental oxidizer, and considerably reducing its overall weight. In turn, this meant it needed just a relatively small rocket to launch it initially.

USAF/Public Domain

The last Navaho missile to be launched lifts off from its pad in November 1958.

The Navaho approach was attractive and the Soviet Korolev design bureau had already begun design work on a similar missile as a back-up to its own ballistic missile projects. In 1953, Korolev was ordered to focus on ballistic missiles, and its ramjet cruise missile design was handed over to two competing aviation design bureaus, Lavochkin and Myasishchev.

That decision put Sergei Korolev himself in direct competition not only with developments in the United States, but with two rival approaches to strategic missile development in his own country. He redoubled his own efforts on an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), accordingly.

Wikimedia Commons

A Soviet stamp commemorating the life of Sergei Korolev, the country’s pre-eminent designer of rockets and spacecraft.

At Lavochkin and Myasishchev, meanwhile, their respective strategic cruise missile projects were running into their own problems – it seems the concept, despite its early promise, was difficult to achieve in practice. In particular, the ramjet propulsion was hard to master, while it was a challenge to produce components that would resist the heat they would be subjected to through friction while flying at high speed. Considerable use was made of titanium in the construction of these weapons.

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A Burya on the launch pad at a Soviet test facility.

In fact, the Myasishchev missile, the RSS-40 Buran (no relation to the subsequent Soviet space shuttle), was canceled without a single missile completed. Over in the United States, the Navaho, too, was abandoned in July 1957, though work involving the missile, an air-launched derivative of which eventually entered service as the AGM-28 Hound Dog, continued into the following year.

Over at Lavochkin, work continued on the Burya, which received the in-house designation V-350. Work on this 60-foot-long missile had progressed further than on the Myasishchev rival, and by August 1, 1957, there were several examples completed, one of which conducted a first flight test on this date. It was an ignominious failure, the missile failing soon after takeoff.

The Burya’s flight profile began with it being raised to a vertical position, before blasting off its static launch pad under the power of a pair of liquid-fueled booster rockets, before the ramjet engine took over, propelling the vehicle to a maximum speed of around Mach 3.5.

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Towed by a train, this still provides an idea of the impressive scale of the Burya missile.

Soon things picked up, though, and between 1957 and 1960 there was a total of 19 test launches, 14 of which successful. One test, in March 1960, saw the Burya test missile cover a distance of 4,000 miles before hitting a target with an accuracy of within six miles, thanks to its astronavigation guidance system. This was an acceptable level of accuracy considering the production missile would have been armed with a thermonuclear warhead.

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After being fueled, a Burya is raised to the vertical position for launch.

By 1960, however, Soviet ICBMs had become a realistic proposition and the mighty ramjet-powered Burya was beginning to look like an anachronism. For all its technological prowess, it was potentially vulnerable to American air defenses due to its relatively slow terminal velocity.

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Around this time, the Burya was shelved in favor of an ICBM. Fittingly, it was a Korolev design, the R-7, or SS-6 Sapwood, that was selected. In modified form, this missile was used to launch Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite, into orbit, and was used for an entire family of Soviet, and later Russian, space launch vehicles.

Remarkably, it seems that Western intelligence entirely failed to identify the Burya missile, a point raised by Steven J. Zaloga in his book The Kremlin’s Nuclear Sword. Whether that’s true, or whether it was known about, but not fully understood, it apparently never received a Western reporting name or designation.

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Clouds of smoke accompany a Burya test launch.

In some ways, of course, the story of the ground-launched strategic cruise missile has now come full circle in modern-day Russia, with the development of the notorious 9M730 Burevestnik, although this trades supersonic performance for, reportedly, almost unlimited range, on account of its nuclear propulsion. You can read more about recent developments in this project in this previous War Zone article

The mystery that surrounded the Burya makes the appearance of this 1959-vintage film all the more interesting. It is to be hoped that the Russian archives will continue to reveal such insights into more of the Cold War’s hidden military history.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com