Key point: Russia's is working on a nuclear torpedo, but the idea may not be practical.
According to the latest Nuclear Posture Review, Russia is developing a new nuclear torpedo/drone, the Status 6. While the torpedo (also covered here by Dave Majumdar) offers some alarming new capabilities, it’s not the first such weapon that the Russians have worked on. More importantly, the Status 6 has some potentially fatal drawbacks that limit its practical effectiveness in a combat scenario.
Nuclear tipped torpedoes have considerable precedent from the Cold War. The earliest designs for the Project 627 “November”–class nuclear-attack submarines envisioned the boats acting as motherships for the T-15 nuclear torpedo, developed to attack NATO port facilities. These torpedoes offered the USSR a way of reducing NATO naval dominance, and also an alternative means of striking the United States. However, the T-15 only had a range of about twenty-five miles and a speed of thirty knots, making it difficult to envision situations in which a submarine could successfully deliver the attack. The project was cancelled, and the Novembers redesigned as normal nuclear attack subs. Later, both the United States and the Soviet Union would introduce nuclear torpedoes optimized for tactical roles.
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From the information available thus far, it appears that the Status 6 will deploy from a submarine mother ship, then move to a target under its own power and guidance. The drone reportedly will have a speed of up to fifty-six knots, the capacity to dive to 3,200 feet and a range of 6200 miles. The speed and depth capabilities of the drone make it difficult for existing naval forces to engage, as it can outdive and outrun most torpedoes. If the drone ever reaches operational status, the U.S. Navy will likely counter with its own undersea drones. With its range, the drone conceivably could be launched from shore facilities or from surface vessels, although observation of the launch of the vehicle could indicate that hostilities are about to begin or, indeed, serve as casus belli in a crisis situation.
It is unclear what degree of communication the Russians could maintain with the drone after launch, although specifications suggest that it will be controlled by surface ships. This is hardly a trivial question. If launched from maximum range, the Status 6 could conceivably take up to four days to reach its target. This makes it extremely dangerous in a crisis, as the political dynamics that hold at the weapon’s launch may not be the same as those at the moment of impact. Moreover, the prospects of a weapon navigating, on its own, for four days to a target are troubling, to say the least.
The most obvious potential use of the Status 6 is as a strategic deterrent, designed to provide yet another means of striking the United States that ballistic-missile defense cannot defeat. Despite its extensive nuclear arsenal, Russia has long worried about the security of its second strike capability in face of the combination of a concerted U.S. attack and improving U.S. missile defenses. But as Brian Clark (via Dave Majumdar) notes, the Status 6 doesn’t offer a practical deterrent.
As a first-strike weapon, the utility of the drone would depend on utter secrecy combined with high reliability; if the Americans discovered the launch, or the drone was delayed from its target in some fashion, the element of surprise would be lost. As a last-stroke deterrent weapon, the drone would have the dual disadvantage of arriving sometime after the main action of a conflict, and potentially lacking any “shutdown” switch that would enable Russia’s political leadership to use it as a bargaining chip.
Conceivably, the Status 6 could also attack fleet concentrations, including presumably U.S. carrier battle groups. This would require more sophisticated command and control, however, or a decision to make the weapon sufficiently autonomous to decide what target to track and when to blow itself up.
As a few analysts have noted, while the idea of a long-range, nuclear-armed undersea drone sounds alarming, it doesn’t seem like a very workable idea. The conditions under which Russia policymakers would decide to deploy a weapon that could take days to reach its target are uncertain, and difficult to fathom. Indeed, the drone itself may simply serve as a testbed for other technologies, and as a way for certain bureaus to retain their funding, rather than as a workable weapon system.
Still, one lesson is that against a committed opponent, missile defenses will always fail, and usually in a spectacularly costly way. Nations as formidable as China and Russia, at the very least, have the means to develop weapons that will defeat or circumvent missile defenses, eliminating the umbrella of security that the United States has conditioned itself to expect. The Status 6 may not be that weapon, but it is evidence that Russia is examining any idea that might work.
A second lesson is that old ideas never seem to truly die. A nuclear torpedo was almost literally the first idea that the USSR came up with to offset the (at the time) massive advantage in delivery systems that the United States enjoyed. Sixty years later, someone appears to have resurrected the idea for a new iteration of the Cold War.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to the National Interest, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as a senior lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money, Information Dissemination and the Diplomat. This first appeared in January 2018.