Why Russia's 100-Megaton Nuclear Torpedo Is No Atomic Terror Weapon
It is slow and clunky and destabilizing.
Key Point: This weapons looks and sounds scary. However, it doesn't add much to deterrence and is instead harmful to stability.
The “collateral damage” of the Russia investigation becomes ever more apparent. From the breakdown of American institutional norms between the executive and the legislature, to increasing distrust regarding the law enforcement and intelligence apparatus to regional crises, for example in Syria, that seem to spin increasingly out of control, the probe has brought both U.S. domestic and foreign policy making to a the point of crisis. Yet these calamities, which are largely advantageous to newspaper subscriptions and cable news ratings, may mask a deeper and more fundamental threat: the accelerating pace of a nuclear arms race [гонка ядерных вооружений] between Moscow and Washington.
This first appeared in 2019 and is being reposted due to reader interest.
Even during the relatively halcyon days of the 1990s, the Kremlin still kept its finger on the nuclear trigger, in part due to the perceived weakness of its conventional forces but also as a reaction to NATO’s new interest in “out of area” missions. The successive waves of NATO expansion that began in 1999 had the predictable effect of significantly exaggerating strategic tensions and ballistic missile defense programs made an already touchy situation worse. Thus, even as the Obama administration first talked about a “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations, the Kremlin was already starting to implement a major overhaul of its nuclear forces. However, the dam was completely broken by the Ukraine crisis beginning in spring 2014. The Cold War has returned in force with the full flowering of the Russia investigation that shows few signs of easing its “death grip” on Washington, DC and U.S.-Russia relations specifically. The multitudes of Russia hawks on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in the Beltway, now more strident on the Left than the Right, may count the truly grotesque Status-6 Russian naval, mega-nuclear weapon as the fruit of their bellicose ravings.
This “megaton-class nuclear weapon” [ядерное оружие мегатонного класса], as described by one Russian source, is delivered by an unmanned undersea vehicle (UUV) and has the potential to exterminate a significant portion of the U.S. population in a single doomsday blow if deployed against the East Coast of the United States. This source explains: the Status-6 UUV is “designed to defeat important enemy economic facilities in the region of the coast and to inflict guaranteed unacceptable damage to the country's territory by creating zones of extensive radioactive contamination unsuitable for carrying out military, economic and other activities in these zones for a long time.” [предназначен для поражение важных объектов экономики противника в районе побережья и нанесение гарантированного неприемлемого ущерба территории страны путем создания зон обширного радиоактивного заражения, непригодных для осуществления в этих зонах военной, хозяйственно-экономической и иной деятельности в течение длительного времени]. For good measure, it is additionally explained that the weapon can also be used to destroy naval bases or aircraft carrier battle groups. This edition of Bear Cave takes makes a brief examination of what Russian commentators are actually saying about Status-6.
First, however, it should be said that TNI has carried several articles that provide a good analysis of this new weapons system, including in particular, a fine exploratory piece by Dave Majumdar. He quotes CSBA undersea warfare expert Bryan Clark explaining that the system is far from an ideal weapon and may face real technical hurdles since a one-hundred megaton weapon could be exceedingly heavy and thus “difficult to control.” Monterey nuclear weapons expert Jeffrey Lewis is quoted reassuringly as saying: “I think we could build defenses against it … It should be easier than intercepting a missile, for sure.” To state the obvious at the outset: this Russian system’s main advantage is that it bypasses missile defenses altogether. Needless to say, it is a grave symptom of the new and continuously accelerating Cold War.
A few more details could be worth noting from the above Russian source, associated with the Russian military industrial complex [Военный Промышленный Комплекс]. Status-6 is reported to be powered by a liquid metal reactor and is said to have a cruising speed of 55km per hours. But it is apparently capable of a sprint at 100 to 185km per hour, allowing it to escape, according to this source, from any existing torpedoes employed by adversaries. Good to a depth of 1000m, the vehicle is said to be 26m in length and 1.6m in width. This report may confirm a U.S. intelligence assessment that a “successful test launch” [произведен успешный испытательный пуск] was undertaken on 27 November 2016 by the submarine Sarov. This project is apparently being developed by the submarine design bureau Rubin [Рубин] and is described as a “deterrent weapon with a 100% guarantee of operation.”
Reflecting evidently on the comments by Bryan Clark in the article cited above, another Russian appraisal commented in January 2018 that: “… unfortunately for those who dream of the destruction of America by a giant tsunami, the ‘Status-6’ project is not so terrible as it is painted.” Another Russian analysis is considerably less frivolous and suggests the Status-6 is not just an “asymmetric response” [асимметричный ответ] to the deployment of BMD installations in Eastern Europe, but is also a reaction to “the placement of NATO battalions in Poland and the Baltics and other potentially aggressive actions of Washington against Russia.” That discussion points out that this project was first developed in the early Cold War, but could not be fully realized because of technical limitations. It is explained that “after half a century, the problem with the reactor has been solved…” [через полвека проблема с реактором была решена] and thus now the project is feasible.
An additional December 2017 Russian report suggests that “The US is Preparing an Answer for Russia’s Nuclear Torpedo.” This analysis suspects that the relatively new American XLUUV (Extra Large Unmanned Underwater Vehicle) Orca program represents a “system capable of creating a local nuclear apocalypse” [системе, способной устроить локальный ядерный апокалипсис]. Although the article admits that the stated objectives of the American program are ISR, mine-countermeasures and transporting equipment, it is said that Russian experts are dubious of these claims. They apparently think that the timing of the “activation” of the Orca program is likely related to the American discovery of the Status-6 program, and so the U.S. system might well be an effort “to influence the strategic balance of power between Russia and NATO.”
Such thinking might prompt Russian strategists to consider the pointlessness of accelerating the nuclear arms race once again. Indeed, at least one of the Russian analyses cited above does indeed seem attuned to that sad reality: “… there is no point in such weapons. Therefore, we will continue to frighten Americans with Soviet skeletons, and they will pretend that they are frightened. The main thing: …funding is allocated …” [… смысла в таком оружии нет никакого. Поэтому мы и дальше будем пугать американцев советскими скелетами, а они будут делать вид, что испугались. Главное: … финансирование выделено…]
To be sure, there are many interests in both countries that stand to benefit from the new Cold War. The military-industrial complex, which President Dwight Eisenhower first drew attention to in his Farewell Address of January 1961, has surely noted that countering Russia (and China) makes for substantially greater (and more stable) profits than fighting terrorism. The ever more hawkish Left—inflamed by the humiliation of losing the White House to a political novice—can drape itself in the American flag and claim that they are “more patriotic” by touting the “full spectrum” Russian threat. The Right can hardly resist this call to return to the “good old days” when Ronald Reagan governed and the country agreed its greatest foe was the Kremlin. But America (and Russia) will actually be significantly less prosperous and much less secure as a result of these parochial and puerile machinations, especially in so far as they encourage the Stranglovian hallucinations of defense planners in both Moscow and Washington, DC.
Lyle J. Goldstein is Professor of Strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the United States Naval War College in Newport, RI. You can reach him at [email protected]. The opinions in his columns are entirely his own and do not reflect the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. government.
This first appeared in 2019 and is being reposted due to reader interest.