We Now Know Why Russia Wants a 100-Megaton Nuclear Torpedo

We Now Know Why Russia Wants a 100-Megaton Nuclear Torpedo

It can get around U.S. missile defenses. 

In a speech on March 1, 2018, Russian president Vladimir Putin detailed a half-dozen “invincible” new Russian weapons under development, which he assured would give his nation the ability to launch “unstoppable” nuclear attacks on the United States. The speech, which was met with cheers by the audience, was accompanied by a video presentation that included an animation of a separating nuclear warheads raining down on Florida, apparently in the vicinity of President Trump’s retreat in Mar-a-Lago.

The bellicose rhetoric is surely intended to rally political support for Putin’s reelection on March 18, as well a reflection of Moscow’s own insecurity, stemming from fears that new U.S. ballistic-missile defenses may eventually render Russia’s nuclear deterrence ineffective. Putin pointedly highlighted new systems that would circumvent BMD capabilities such as long-range cruise missiles and a hypersonic glide vehicle.

Perhaps the most novel of the weapons Putin described was an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle codenamed Status Six or Kanyon—basically a long-range nuclear-armed drone torpedo that does not rely on remote guidance. Development on the weapon predates the fall of the Soviet Union. For years there had been some debate as to whether there was real substance to the program, but the emerging consensus is that the new nuclear torpedo is quite real.

In September 2015, the Pentagon included the Status Six in its nuclear posture review. Just two months later, Russian media “accidentally” leaked an image detailing the weapon’s performance, and a prototype weapon was reportedly tested in December 2016.

Putin’s speech largely spelled out capabilities for the torpedo in line with what had previously been claimed. Supposedly the Kanyon carries an enormous one-hundred-megaton nuclear warhead which could be launched at a coastal city (think New York or Los Angeles) or a fleet at sea. The resulting underwater detonation could create an apocalyptic five-hundred-meter-high tsunami wave of irradiated water that would contaminate anything it fails to smash into oblivion.

 

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The huge torpedoes would be mounted on older Oscar-class or newer Yasen-class nuclear-powered attack submarines. However, the subs wouldn’t have to get very close to hostile shores if the claimed range of 6,200 miles is accurate.

The Status Six would supposedly be capable of diving as deep as one thousand meters under the sea, and tearing through the water at fifty-six knots. For comparison, few military submarines are designed to dive deeper than five hundred meters. Furthermore, current U.S. Navy Mark 48 torpedoes have a speed of fifty-five knots, making interception unlikely. NATO lacks antisubmarine weapons designed to intercept a target so fast and deep.

Putin also claimed that the Status Six would be highly stealthy and undetectable. However, according to a submarine officer interviewed by Dave Majumdar , a torpedo heavy enough to carry a hundred-megaton warhead would likely be quite noisy. Thus, the Kanyon seems more likely to be very difficult to hit rather than impossible to detect.

The Cold War Nuke That Almost Blew Up the Caribbean

Russia’s renewed interest in nuclear torpedoes represents a full circle of sorts. When the Soviet Union developed its first nuclear warheads, its longest-range delivery system was the Tu-4, a reverse-engineered B-29 bomber . But the Tu-4 could not fly far enough to hit most of the continental United States. Instead, Moscow considered using submarines to attack coastal cities and naval bases with a nuclear torpedo. The concept resulted in the huge T-15, which measured 1,550 millimeters in diameter (nearly three times the diameter of a standard heavyweight torpedo) and weighed forty tons. But the Russian Navy never liked the concept, and the design’s flaws meant that it was not operationally deployed.

Instead, the Soviet Navy developed the standard-sized 533-millimeter T-5 nuclear torpedo for use against naval targets. Instead of directly hitting enemy warships, the idea was for the nuclear blast to capsize and irradiate two or three enemy vessels in one fell swoop—or knock out a lone enemy submarine underwater without having to ascertain its exact location. You can see a recording of a Soviet nuclear torpedo test here for an idea of what it would look like.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the captain of the Soviet submarine B-59 actually ordered the firing of a T-5 at U.S. ships —only to be countermanded by his onboard superior officer, the storied Vasili Arkhipov. Thus, the little-known nuclear torpedo almost triggered an apocalyptic conflict without even giving Khrushchev or Kennedy a chance to intervene.

The United States developed its own nuclear antiship torpedo, the wire-guided Mark 45 ASTOR, but eventually phased out the weapon in favor of more effective conventional torpedoes.

Russia’s Submarine Doomsday Weapon

The Kanyon project is descended from the earlier T-15. But what exactly is the purpose of the intercontinental submarine torpedo, when Russia already has hundreds of nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)?