The Barbarians in the Bay: Russia’s Nuclear Armed Drone Submarine
In September 2015, Bill Gertz reported that Russia was developing a massively destructive nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered, high-speed, deep-diving drone submarine called the Canyon. In November 2015, the existence of the “Maritime Multifunctional System Status-6,” a nuclear-armed, 10,000-km range, very fast drone submarine capable of operating at a depth of 1,000-meters was widely reported in the Russian press. (The system is now called Poseidon by Russia and, often, Canyon in the West.) The source for this report was a Russian Presidential briefing slide, which was alleged to have been inadvertently videotaped by the Russian state media at the start of a Kremlin meeting with President Putin. It received a lot of publicity on Russian state television and, for a while, it was present on the Kremlin website. The Kremlin actually confirmed the story, which suggests the leak was intentional. It has also been suggested that a leak was perceived as means “to amplify its [Status-6] intimidating effects…”
Noted Russian journalist Pavel Felgenhauer warned that Status-6 "may further embolden the Kremlin to push for a new world order of its liking by intimidating the United States and its allies.” The Washington Post editorialized that Russia’s underwater nuclear drone “should raise alarm bells.” The Post is certainly correct about the implications of this weapon, but it is not, as the Post characterized it, a “tactical nuclear weapon.” Nor is it a torpedo but rather a drone submarine. The best description of it is an arms control concept included in the START and New START Treaties – a “new kind of strategic offensive arm.” It is probably the most destructive weapon in human history. Its use would cause massive loss of life and cause grave global environmental effects. As Chief arms control negotiator Ambassador Marshall Billingslea said, the Poseidon is a “terrible” weapon and should be banned.
Status-6 (Poseidon) is designed to kill civilians by massive blast and fallout. The leaked Kremlin briefing slide stated the weapon was aimed at, “Damaging the important components of the adversary’s economy in a coastal area and inflicting unacceptable damage to a country’s territory by creating areas of wide radioactive contamination that would be unsuitable for military, economic, or other activity for long periods of time.” According to a 1995 legal paper drafted by the Department of State’s legal office, “The law of armed conflict precludes making civilians the object of attack as such.” Poseidon cannot be used consistent with international law because it is designed to kill civilians by the millions through a massive nuclear blast and an extremely high level of radioactive fallout. It reportedly can also be used as a generator for radioactive tidal waves, but it is unclear that tidal waves would be significant compared to blast and fallout. While far less dangerous than the Russian nuclear-powered cruise missile, testing it is still risky because a test failure could create a small Chernobyl.
The early Russian press reports said the Poseidon had a yield of 100 megatons. Pavel Felgenhauer stated, “The plan is to deliver a 100-megaton nuclear bomb to the U.S. shores.” The Russian government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta said that the weapon could achieve “extensive radioactive contamination” and the weapon “could envisage using the so-called cobalt bomb, a nuclear weapon designed to produce enhanced amounts of radioactive fallout compared to a regular atomic warhead.” A cobalt bomb is a “doomsday” weapons concept conceived during the Cold War, but apparently never actually developed. It intensifies the duration of deadly radioactive fallout.
Since the leak, Russia has been attempting to “civilize” the Poseidon. TASS claimed that the Poseidon could carry a “nuclear warhead with a capacity of up to 2 megatonnes to destroy enemy naval bases…” A yield of two megatons is much too low for a weapon of this size and attacking naval bases is not the likely mission. Before one accepts the TASS’s two megaton number, it would be useful to get on the internet and find out about the yields associated with even the 1950s large nuclear weapons, which used technology that would be considered primitive today.
In 2018, talking about the Poseidon (not yet named), President Putin claimed the drone submarine would carry “massive nuclear ordnance” but also said, “Unmanned underwater vehicles can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads, which enables them to engage various targets, including aircraft groups, coastal fortifications and infrastructure.” It is certainly possible to load Poseidon's massive weapons compartment with conventional explosives, but that will not make it a conventional weapon. The explosive would destroy the nuclear reactor creating a very lethal dirty bomb. The idea of destroying aircraft with an underwater nuclear detonation is nonsensical. Moreover, today, coastal fortifications do not exist.
The reported 100 megaton yield appears possible. It may be a rounded-up number. Certainly, based on the early U.S. very large thermonuclear weapons and the reported yield of Russian large single warhead missiles, a yield of tens of megatons is an easy goal for such a large design. The nuclear warhead the drone submarine carries is enormous. Based on the line drawing of Status-6 in the leaked Kremlin briefing slide, Russian analysts concluded that the nuclear warhead is 1.6 meters in diameter and 6.5 meters long. This is not big enough to fit the Soviet hundred megaton bomb tested at half yield in 1961 (apparently never fielded), the JOE-111 (proudly displayed in Moscow today). It reportedly took only 14 weeks to develop. Detonation of a single 100 megaton bomb “…would have increased the world’s total fission fallout since the invention of the atomic bomb by 25%.”
The Soviet Union apparently continued developing extremely high-yield thermonuclear warheads long after this practice ended in the U.S. and the UK. The Committee on the President Danger said that the 1960s Russian SS-9 heavy ICBM had an 18-25 megaton warhead. In the 1970s, the Russians developed and deployed a number of very high yield single warhead strategic nuclear missiles. The SS-17 Mod 2 reportedly carried a 5 megaton warhead. The SS-19 Mod 2 also reportedly carried a 5 megaton warhead. According to the Federation of American Scientists, the SS-18 Mod 1 and the SS-18 Mod 3 carried a single warhead with a yield of 18-25 megatons and 24-25 megatons, respectively. The SS-18 Mod 6 reportedly carried a 20 megaton warhead. Colonel (ret.) Houston Hawkins of the Los Alamos National Laboratory reports the SS-18 carries the “8F675 Mod2 20 MT warhead” and also “the (8F021 2) 5 MT warhead.” The warheads for these ICBMs are substantially smaller than the depicted warhead section for Status-6 in the Kremlin briefing slide. Current Russian nuclear weapons technology is obviously far superior to what the Soviet Union had in 1961. Hence, 100 megatons or something close to it appears possible.
One hundred megatons, or even the 5-10 megatons initially reported by Bill Gertz, is vastly in excess of what is required to destroy a port facility and would cause enormous collateral damage. A 100 megaton bomb detonated in a harbor would destroy all or nearly all of a large city. The following describes the effects of the 1961 Soviet 50 megaton detonation: “All buildings in Severny (both wooden and brick), at a distance of 55 km, were completely destroyed. In districts, hundreds of kilometers from ground zero, wooden houses were destroyed, and stone ones lost their roofs, windows and doors; and radio communications were interrupted for almost one hour." This appears to be somewhat exaggerated, but the 55-km number seems credible. Moreover, this weapon was apparently not an intentional fallout generator like Poseidon.
In a nuclear weapon designed for very high yield and to maximize fallout casualties, the fallout potential is roughly proportional to yield. There is simply no way to limit collateral damage from a very high yield weapon detonated in a harbor. The 1954 U.S. Castle Bravo 15 megaton hydrogen bomb test created a band of fallout that was 170 miles long and 35 miles wide with sufficient strength to threaten people's lives exposed to the fallout in a period of 96 hours after the blast. Radiation sickness is hardly a pleasant way to die. Because of Poseidon's nature, it cannot be air burst in a manner that minimizes or eliminates fallout. Deadly and dangerous fallout would travel hundreds of miles downwind.
The Kremlin briefing slide says that Project 09852 (Oscar class) or Project 09851 (the new Khabarovsk design) submarines can carry 4 and 3-6 Status-6, respectively. (Two Poseidon carrier submarines now exist). TASS says that Russia plans to deploy 32 Poseidon (up to eight per submarine) on four submarines.
Thus, if the yield is 100 megatons, each submarine would unleash up to 800 megatons. To put this in perspective, in Congressional testimony, Dr. John Harvey, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Program during the Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, said that the review concluded that the U.S. needed “about 1850 ‘real’ deployed [strategic nuclear] warheads.” According to Ambassador Ron Lehman (former Assistant Secretary of Defense, Chief START Treaty negotiator and Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency), the average yield of U.S. nuclear warheads in 1994 was .216 megaton. Since then, the average yield certainly has not increased since no new weapons have been added to the U.S. nuclear arsenal. A force of 1,850 deployed nuclear warheads with an average of .216 megaton yield would total slightly less than 400 megatons.
If there is a need for any more evidence of the fundamental difference between U.S. and Russian views concerning nuclear weapons, Poseidon certainly provides it. As Admiral (ret.) Richard Meese, former Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, has written, our military doctrine is designed to “hold at risk our potential adversaries' military forces, war-supporting industry, command and control capabilities, and military and national civilian leadership while minimizing to the maximum extent possible collateral damage to population and civilian infrastructure." As a matter of policy, the U.S. has long avoided the targeting of cities. As early as 1974, U.S. policy was shifting toward “avoiding targets near cities and to minimizing civilian casualties through yield selection.” The Obama administration’s 2013 unclassified “Report on Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States…” stated, “The new guidance makes clear that all plans must also be consistent with the fundamental principles of the Law of Armed Conflict. Accordingly, plans will, for example, apply the principles of distinction and proportionality and seek to minimize collateral damage to civilian populations and civilian objects.”
Why are the Russian developing such a heinous weapon? Poseidon’s cost must be great. Ordinary Russian submarines and most Russian naval vessels can carry nuclear-armed cruise missiles. In 2005, a Russian Defense Ministry publication stated, “The main strike force of the Navy consists of nuclear-powered submarines, armed with ballistic and cruise missiles with nuclear warheads.” In December 2015, President Putin revealed that new Russian Kalibr long-range ship-launched cruise missile, which is now being widely deployed, can carry “special nuclear warheads.” Deploying more of them would obviously be a lot cheaper than developing and producing Poseidon. Moreover, nuclear cruise missiles are in no way limited by the New START Treaty.
The reason for Poseidon lies in Russia’s nuclear strategy. As a December 2012 U.S. National Intelligence report stated, “Nuclear ambitions in the U.S. and Russia over the last 20 years have evolved in opposite directions. Reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy is a U.S. objective, while Russia is pursuing new concepts and capabilities for expanding the role of nuclear weapons in its security strategy.” This fundamental difference is illustrated by one member of the Russian Duma who recommended, “...simply snap at the United States with all 10,000 nuclear teeth in the Cheshire cat’s smile. It’s frightening, but the idea is very good.” Putin’s version is a little more subtle. He says he does not want to be seen as insane, so he deploys "…an iron fist in a velvet glove. This is about our style, I think.” Russian leaders frequently make nuclear threats, including President Putin. Russia’s large strategic nuclear exercises reportedly end in a massive nuclear strike.
Russian nuclear strategy is based on the belief that if Russia uses nuclear weapons first, it will win because its adversaries will not retaliate. Pavel Felgenhauer reported in 1999 that under the new Russian thinking about nuclear weapons first use, “It is assumed that a ‘precision strike’ of this kind will not result [in an] immediate nuclear war.” What better weapon to deter a nuclear response to a small Russian low-yield nuclear strike than a terror weapon like Poseidon? Poseidon is clearly linked to the massive nuclear strike aspect of Russia's nuclear doctrine, as evidenced by their reported practice of massive nuclear strikes in their large strategic nuclear exercises.
In a major strategic exercise conducted in 2010, Russia reportedly simulated hundreds of missile launches, and, “Throughout the world, the mushroom clouds rose skyward.” In March 2014, early in the Ukraine crisis, the Russian Strategic Missile Troops conducted a nuclear exercise which reportedly involved a “massive” nuclear strike. In May 2014, Russia held a large strategic nuclear exercise, presided over by President Putin, which ended in what the Russian Defense Ministry called a “massive” Russian nuclear missile launch. The October 2019 Russian large strategic exercise had the involvement of at least 250 Russian delivery vehicles and, according to Felgenhauer, Russia simulated the launch of almost all the Russian ICBM force. Poseidon fits were well into a military strategy that relies on massive global nuclear strikes if small scale attacks fail.
In July 2020, Lieutenant Commander Joshua M. M. Portzer wrote, “The U.S. Navy should find this weapon horrifying. Naval Station Norfolk is the world’s largest naval base and houses approximately 75 ships and 130 aircraft. A single Kanyon detonation at Norfolk could wipe out half of the United States’ aircraft carriers and roughly a third of the surface Navy without warning. A coordinated attack against both Norfolk and San Diego ports would catastrophically cripple the Navy.” This is certainly true, but this is not a likely use of Poseidon. The reason is that just about any Russian strategic or non-strategic high yield nuclear warhead can do the same thing. While 100-knots is incredibly fast by the standards of submarines and surface ships, it would take the Poseidon 40 hours or more to get to a U.S. target from likely bastion areas for Russian strategic submarines which are close to Russia . Even a Russian subsonic cruise missile is many times faster than the Poseidon. Russian hypersonic missiles are the most likely weapon against time urgent targets as they are fielded. If its noisy, as reported, use of Poseidon in a first strike would be foolish.
Poseidon is a strategic rather than a tactical nuclear weapon. Calling it a “torpedo” is also a mischaracterization. It is a nuclear-powered drone submarine whose extreme range, speed and depth gives it tactical advantages. It is not, as has been recently suggested, a weapon against at- sea aircraft carriers. It is not likely to be launched at short-range against carriers because the tactical advantage would be lost and the relative noisiness of the carrier submarine could be a critical factor. At short- or medium-range, the ordinary Russian nuclear torpedoes, anti-ship cruise missiles or the new soon-to-be deployed hypersonic weapons would be better. Moreover, the Russians reportedly have much faster short-range nuclear torpedoes.
If the Russians launch from extremely long ranges and the Poseidon operates at a depth of 1,000 meters, it is unlikely the Russians will be able to communicate with it to give it updated targeting information. There is no indication in the Kremlin briefing slide that it carries a sonar, particularly one with sufficient range to find a carrier strike group.
The role of Poseidon appears to be to terrorize the U.S. and NATO into not responding to the initial Russian low-yield nuclear attack after the seizure of bordering NATO territory. Under its “escalate to de-escalate” or “escalate to win” nuclear doctrine, Russia is going to use nuclear weapons first. Deterrence and defense are necessary. A new generation of weapons is probably necessary to destroy the Poseidon. At a minimum, deterring genocidal nuclear attacks against our major port cities is a critical equity. There is no nice way of deterring genocide. In deterring use of a weapon like Poseidon, a kinder and gentler nuclear strategy won’t cut it. The Russians should be warned that such attacks on American cities will result in retaliation against Russian cities. We need to deter the entire threat spectrum. In addition, at the end of the Cold War, the idea of a strategic nuclear reserve force evaporated. It should be revived.
Dr. Mark B. Schneider is a Senior Analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy. Before his retirement from the Department of Defense Senior Executive Service, Dr. Schneider served in a number of senior positions within the Office of Secretary of Defense for Policy including Principal Director for Forces Policy, Principal Director for Strategic Defense, Space and Verification Policy, Director for Strategic Arms Control Policy and Representative of the Secretary of Defense to the Nuclear Arms Control Implementation Commissions. He also served in the senior Foreign Service as a Member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff.
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