Russia's New Super-Torpedo Carries the Threat of Nuclear Contamination

December 8, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Eurasia Tags: RussiaRussia's NavySubmarinesNuclear TorpedoDefense

Russia's New Super-Torpedo Carries the Threat of Nuclear Contamination

The recently 'leaked' weapon could have devastating consequences on both land and sea.

Is Russia declaring war on the fish in the deep blue sea?

Moscow claims to be developing a nuclear super-torpedo that can radioactively contaminate economic targets on enemy coasts, which presumably includes fishing grounds. The weapon was revealed last month when Russian state TV "accidentally" broadcast a shot of a document being read by a military commander during a meeting with President Vladimir Putin.

The Status-6 torpedo is designed to create "wide areas of radioactive contamination," according to the BBC translation. The submarine-launched weapon can "destroy important economic installations of the enemy in coastal areas and cause guaranteed devastating damage to the country's territory by creating wide areas of radioactive contamination, rendering them unusable for military, economic or other activity for a long time."

But that's not all. The "leaked" document describes a torpedo with a range of 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) and a depth of 1,000 meters (3,300 feet). They will be launched from Russia's newest “Belgorod” and “Khabarovsk” nuclear missile sub projects.

As if that's not enough, despite government spokesmen calling the leak an accident and removing footage of the document, the state-run Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper described Status-6 as a "giant torpedo—essentially a robotic submarine" with a speed of 100 knots (115 miles per hour) and armed with a cobalt warhead.

This isn't a weapon. It's a Transformer.

Before the U.S. spends trillions on developing on strategic anti-torpedo defense, let's take a close look at the alleged Russian super-weapon. First, a torpedo with a 6,000-mile range weapon isn't a torpedo, it's an underwater ICBM. Except that a real ICBM can reach targets on the other side of the world because missiles zoom into open sky, into outer space, and then down again through more open sky. But 3,000 feet below the ocean are lots of undersea mountains and canyons (a U.S. nuclear sub nearly sank after colliding with a mountain at a depth of 525 feet). So how exactly would a Status-6 torpedo travel 6,000 miles without slamming into a rock, unless it had some kind of ultra-sophisticated navigation system, or there were kamikaznik pilots at the controls?

A speed of 100 knots is quite zippy for a torpedo: the U.S. MK-48 has an estimated speed of only fifty-five knots. In that regard, the Status-6 sounds closer to the Shkval, the Russian high-speed supercavitating torpedo. But the Shkval and the MK-48 are tactical weapons designed to sink nearby ships. The Status-6 is supposed to be a strategic nuclear weapon. At a speed of 100 knots, it would take almost thirty-six hours to travel 4,000 miles from Murmansk to New York. An ICBM launched from Russia would take just a half hour, and even less if fired from a sub off the East Coast.

So why build such a weapon, or even talk about building it? There is a clue in the final sentence of the Rossiiskaya Gazeta article, which speaks of Status-6 as being part of Perimeter, the Soviet-built automatic command system that is supposed to launch a retaliatory missile strike should Russia's leaders be wiped out by an American first strike. The implication seems to be that Status-6 will deter a U.S. nuclear attack. Frankly, given that Americans would be busy climbing from under the radioactive rubble created by Russian ICBMs, nuclear torpedoes would be the least of their worries.

And what exactly would Status-6 target? The weapon is described as striking economic targets in coastal areas. But interestingly, it is also supposed to be capable of creating radioactive dead zones (hence the cobalt warhead, which creates extreme radioactivity). The blast of a nuclear warhead would be sufficient to destroy a port city as an economic hub, but intense, long-term radioactivity would be more devastating to natural resources such as offshore oil fields and fisheries.

So the message from Moscow seems to be: We won't just destroy your cities. We'll nuke your tuna fish as well.

Michael Peck, a frequent contributor to TNI, is a defense and historical writer based in Oregon. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, WarIsBoring and many other fine publications. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.