On November 10, 2015 President Putin held a regular meeting with his generals in Sochi to discuss development of the Russian strategic forces. The president used the occasion to complain again about U.S. missile defense plans and to warn that Russia will do whatever it takes to preserve the strategic balance.
But that was not the most interesting part of the news story. One sharp observer (MJ) noticed that the camera took a peek at one of the documents prepared for the meetings (it is at 1:46 in the news story). It showed a summary of one of the projects that presumably were discussed at the meeting as part of the plan to restore that strategic balance that the U.S. missile defense system so blatantly undermines.
The project is called "Ocean Multipurpose System 'Status-6'" with the TsKB MT Rubin design bureau listed as the lead developer (Rubin is the design bureau that built virtually all submarines that are currently in service). A brief paragraph describes the mission of the proposed system as follows:
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.
The picture that follows shows that at the core of the weapon system is an underwater autonomous drone ("self-propelled underwater craft" or SPA), which could be delivered by one of the two submarines - Project 09852 or Project 09851. For some reason, the drone is shown as attached to the bottom of the 09852 submarine, but not to the 09851 [UPDATE: Colleagues tell me that the vehicle attached to the 09582 sub is not the drone pictured later on the slide]. The text is hard to read, but it appears that Project 09852 submarine will carry four drones and Project 09852 - either 3 or 6. Given that 09852 is a smaller submarine (its displacement is shown as "10000 t" vs. what looks like a larger number for 09852), it's probably 3. It certainly does not look like "1", although "2" is a possibility. [UPDATE: I am told that a better quality photo shows that the number is "6".]
Interestingly, these two submarines are relatively recent projects. Project 09852 was laid down at Sevmash in December 2012. It is said to use the hull of the Belgorod submarine of the Project 949A/Oscar II class. The first Project 09851 submarine, Khabarovsk, was laid down in July 2014. (Project 09851 was also mentioned in the R&D known as Kalitka-SMP.)
Again, the text is barely legible, but it appears that the drone would be able to travel at the depth of up to 1000 m at a fairly high speed (something like 105 km/h?). The range appears to be listed as 10000 km, which is a bit hard to believe, but this is what the slide says. The diameter ("caliber") of the drone appears to be more than 1 meter (probably 1.6 m), the general's hand hides the length of the device.
The drone appears to be nuclear-powered - the fourth compartment is marked "Reactor module". This would explain the range, I guess, although it would need some guidance system to find its way around.
Further down the list, there is a drawing of the system's components - command and control, support ships (non-nuclear submarine "Sarov" and some surface ship - Zvezdochka rescue ship I'm told), and something else that we cannot see.
Finally, the timeline at the bottom of the slide says that pilot system will be built by 2019, so the state tests can be conducted in 2019-2020.
I'm not quite sure what to make of this. First, it's an interesting security lapse. I know that quite a few people believe that the leak was intentional, but I don't think it's the case. Indeed, as I understand, the news organizations quickly removed the clip from their sites. On the other hand, Bill Getz did have a story about Russian underwater drone, Kanyon, two months ago. The name is different, but it appears to be more or less the system Gertz's Pentagon sources described. So, maybe Moscow decided that the leak would not be such a big deal. Still, they would have probably preferred to keep some details out of it.
As for the project itself, Russia is not the only country that is working on underwater drones. But the payload looks like a massive "dirty bomb", which strikes me as absolutely crazy. A number of people noted that the description does not necessarily exclude the possibility that the initial "damaging" can be done by a regular nuclear device. Which only makes this whole thing even more insane - do they think that a nuclear weapon on its own would not inflict "unacceptable damage"?
UPDATE 11/12/15: The story generated quite a buzz, which is probably what the authors of this whole thing counted on. The consensus that is emerging from a number of discussions is that the "leak" was intentional. Moreover, a colleague who follow these things quite closely made a strong case that the "drone" on the slide is probably just an enlarged (and modified) image of a "regular" torpedo (such as UGST). This would explain the unusually large "combat module" and a number of other inconsistencies. However, the rest of the slide seems real - the submarines, the Zvezdochka ship, etc. Indeed, it is quite possible that the project is real as well - the Soviet Union did work on an underwater vehicle like this in the 1980s (here is an interesting story, although I would take it with a pinch of salt). Specifically, some work has been done on the vehicle's nuclear reactor. The project was abandoned, of course, but these things rarely die. In fact, NITI in Sosnovy Bor is building a new facility to test liquid metal-cooled naval reactors. It is probably not related to this drone, but who knows.
Still, the whole thing strikes me as crazy regardless of whether the project is real or not. If it is real, I find it quite appalling that the ideas of this kind ever reach the level of a discussion with the president. If it is an attempt of high-level trolling, it's even worse - if people in the Kremlin believe it was a clever way of sending some kind of a signal, they probably lost all their marbles.
Russian state TV footage reveals 'oceanic multi-purpose' torpedo-based nuclear system
Jane's Defence Weekly
Bruce Jones, London
Russian state television footage reveals potential development of a new nuclear torpedo
Officials confirm development of a system that could offer a new deterrent angle for Russia
Two federal television channels carried footage on 9 November of a potential new Russian Navy nuclear torpedo.
The development was revealed during footage showing President Vladimir Putin, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, and military commanders meeting in Sochi on the Black Sea to discuss defence issues, including Russian defence budget funding and key US developments such as missile defence.
News coverage included shots of documents being reviewed, with some of the documents appearing to depict weapons systems being developed.
Some of the illustrations were blurred. One however was not and footage showed a system titled 'Okeanskaya Mnogotselevaya Sistema Status-6' (oceanic multi-purpose system Status-6). Although the footage subsequently was edited out, the programme was widely recorded and was rapidly commented on in Russian media and elsewhere.
The images suggest that the Status-6 system is a long-range, high-speed nuclear torpedo being developed by the St Petersburg-based Rubin Central Design Bureau.
Powered by a small nuclear reactor and appearing to have a nuclear weapons capability, the torpedo is described in the material as having a range of more than 6,000 n miles, with a speed of 60 mph at a maximum depth of 3,000 ft. An armoured version able to withstand torpedo countermeasures was also outlined.
According to a description of the system's capability, it is designed to deny access to important economic facilities in an adversary's coastal area and to be able to inflict extensive radioactive contamination that would render such areas incapable of supporting military, economic, or other activities for a lengthy period.
According to the material, the torpedo should be ready to undergo acceptance trials in 2020.
In apparent reaction, President Putin's press secretary Dmitri Peskov confirmed that the classified system had been shown on television but pledged that the error would not be repeated.
The following analysis has been provided by Karl Dewey (CBRN analyst), Emily Chorley (CBRN analyst), and Neil Gibson (Senior Weapons Technical Analyst) from the IHS Jane's team.
If assertions that this is a large radiation weapon are true, it could be what is known as a 'salted bomb'. A salted bomb is a nuclear weapon that uses a modified tamper/reflector/jacket manufactured from a material, the elemental make-up of which has been chosen such that it is suitable for neutron activation and the production of long-lived fallout.
In a standard nuclear weapon, the tamper acts to increase the efficiency of a fission weapon by acting as a confinement system, slowing the disassembling fissioning core. It may also act as a neutron reflector, reflecting scattered neutrons out from and back into the reacting core. In thermonuclear weapons, a jacket also surrounds the fission and fusion stages and is used either for protection and confinement or - when the jacket incorporates uranium-238 - to enhance the yield of the weapon by the element's fast fissioning.
In salted weapons, the addition of a suitable element to any three of these items results in that element capturing neutrons and becoming 'activated' - in other words, producing a highly radioactive and generally long-lived isotope of that element. When this isotope is dispersed as part of the fallout, it enhances the activity and increases its longevity in comparison to that produced by standard devices. An example of this would be the use of stable cobalt-59 isotope. After exposure to and absorption of neutron radiation, its activation would produce the highly radioactive isotope cobalt-60, the decay of which to nickle-60 would emit both short-range beta and long-range gamma radiation.
In September, the Washington Free Beacon reported that "Russia is building a drone submarine to deliver large-scale nuclear weapons against US harbours and coastal cities". The article identified the drone as the 'Kanyon', and described it as an "autonomous submarine strike vehicle armed with a nuclear warhead ranging in size to 'tens' of megatons in yield. A blast created by a nuclear weapon that size would create massive damage over wide areas". If this is the same project as Status-6, it would suggest that Russia is working on a thermonuclear weapon that would not only destroy large areas, but would render such areas uninhabitable for generations.
Arms control issues
The main international treaty covering the development of nuclear weapons is the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), under which Russia is a recognised Nuclear Weapons State (NWS) and is permitted to have a nuclear arsenal, pending universal disarmament. Despite a general commitment to disarm, there are no international restrictions on an NSW developing new nuclear weapons types.
The majority of US and Russian disarmament activity occurs within the context of bilateral agreements, with NEW START being the latest accord between the two. NEW START regulates the number of deployed strategic weapons; however, it does not cover 'sub-strategic systems', of which there is no clear definition.
The language of 'inflicting unacceptable damage' suggests that Russian planners are aware that either weapon type would likely precipitate a rapid escalation of force - although, with a torpedo travelling through water, an inability to confirm a Russian platform as the source of the launch could slow attribution and response. Destroying access to US coastal areas would significantly affect not only the United States, and its ability to recover as a trading power in a post-nuclear environment, but would also impact on its key allies.
The question remains however of what need Russia has for such a weapon? With its existing triad-based nuclear arsenal Moscow's deterrent capacity has long been underpinned by the threat of retaliatory strikes. The prospective development of Status-6 may represent an attempt - along with other developments such as hypersonic vehicles and missiles including the RS-26 Rubezh - to signal Moscow's intent to overcome in practice, and also to deter further development in principle, of US missile defence systems by undermining their perceived effectiveness against Russian capabilities.
Rather than an accidental display, the broadcast of these plans by state media and the subsequent confirmations by officials bear the hallmarks of an intentional leak of information. If Russia were to manufacture this type of torpedo, it would be difficult to demonstrate its capability through testing (the usual method of strategic messaging relating to a new capability); thus, leaking information in this way at a preliminary stage of development may enhance both the Russian narrative and its message to US policy circles.