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Don’t Believe Russia: The X-37B Spaceplane Isn’t a Secret Space Bomber: Part 2

An X-37B prepares to launch orbit on September 17, 2017. The X-37B lies underneath the nose cone/fairing at the top of the rocket.

U.S. Air Force

This is the second part to Don’t Believe Russia: The X-37B Spaceplane Isn’t a Secret Space Bomber.


The best way to think of the X-37B is as a large, unmanned pickup truck with a cargo bay the size of a smaller pickup truck (6.9 x 3.9 feet). You can load all sorts of things into the bed of a truck, but loading a pickup with ice cream doesn’t make the vehicle an ice cream truck.

Yes, it is possible to modify nuclear weapons to fit in the cargo bay. The W-80 thermonuclear warhead, designed to fit aboard the Tomahawk missile, is one possible warhead. It has a diameter of just under 12 inches and a length of 31 inches. The W-80 has an explosive yield of 5 kilotons (5,000 tons of TNT), or 150 kilotons (150,000 tons of TNT).

the air force's x 37b orbital test vehicle mission 4 landed at nasa 's kennedy space center shuttle landing facility may 7, 2017 managed by the air force rapid capabilities office, the x 37b program is the newest and most advanced re entry spacecraft that performs risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies

This photo gives an idea of how small the payload bay the X-37B has. Nuclear weapons can fit, but the entire concept is dubious at best.

U.S. Air Force

The W-80 is designed to be carried to the target by a subsonic cruise missile and expects a subsonic, atmospheric flight profile prior to arming. The warhead would have to be modified to expect a space-based reentry along the lines of a Minuteman III or Trident D-5 warhead. Modifying the W-80 would also require a guidance system, reentry vehicle, and likely solving other technical challenges. It would also need some kind of de-orbiting mechanism to push the warhead out of orbit and down toward the target.

All of this would increase the size of the weapon to the point where the Air Force might be able to squeeze two or three nukes, at absolute best, into the truck bed.

But even if the X-37B is actually a secret space bomber—let’s call it the “XB-37B”—the weapon wouldn’t have any real strategic value. Objects in space are commonly perceived to be largely invisible and invulnerable to attack, but the reality is much different.

Citizen astronomers have observed the X-37B circling Earth in low-Earth orbit. In order to drop a bomb on say, Moscow, the XB-37B would need to change its orbit to line up on Moscow. That would require hours, and perhaps days, of orbital changes that anyone could potentially see—especially the Russians. This would telegraph the bomber’s intentions, making a surprise attack impossible.

A notional XB-37B also doesn’t have enough nukes to pull off an effective surprise attack. Even if the space bombers could remain cloaked until the bombs exploded, four to six bombs aren’t enough to cripple Moscow’s nuclear deterrent and prevent a massive counterattack.

For a far more useful surprise attack force, try the Air Force’s 400 existing Minuteman III ICBMs sitting in hardened missile silos across the American West, which can hit any point in Russia in 30 minutes or less. Even then, without the destruction of Russian missile submarines on patrol at sea, a surprise attack wouldn’t guarantee a lack of retaliation from Russia.

The only way an XB-37B bomber might make the tiniest bit of sense is if it takes an orbital route that would allow it to approach Russia from a direction where early warning systems can’t observe it.

An orbiting nuclear delivery system approaching Russia from the southern hemisphere could knock out its northward-facing early warning radars and open the door for a larger nuclear strike by bombers, submarines, and land-based missiles. (Ironically, the Soviet Union first developed the technique.) The XB-37B might be able to fly a similar route, but while the spacecraft would avoid radar, it wouldn’t avoid visual detection, and the Russians would see the spacecraft coming well in advance. So much for surprise.

There is no feasible way the U.S. could launch a surprise nuclear attack against Russia and get away with it, nor is there any way a hypothetical nuclear-armed space plane makes such an attack more possible.

So, why did Novikov make these claims? Well, Almaz-Antey builds Russia’s most advanced surface-to-air and surface-to-space missiles, including the S-400 “Triumf” long-range air defense system and the A-235 anti-ballistic missiles. A variant of the A-235, the PL-19 “Nudol”, is designed to shoot down spacecraft in low-Earth orbit. That may have something to do with it.

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