It caused quite a stir today when it was announced that the Russians had accidentally released some details of a proposed submersible weapons system (the Status-6, or Статус-6 in Russian) when television coverage of a conference among defense chiefs broadcast a document being held by one of the participants. This was first brought to my attention by a BBC story, Russia reveals giant nuclear torpedo in state TV ‘leak’. The BBC story led me to Russia may be planning to develop a nuclear submarine drone aimed at ‘inflicting unacceptable damage’ by Jeremy Bender, which in turn led me to Is Russia working on a massive dirty bomb? on the Russian strategic nuclear forces blog, which latter includes inks to a television news segment on Youtube, where you can see (at 1:48) the document in question. A comment on the article includes a link to a Russian language media story, Кремль признал случайным показ секретного оружия по Первому каналу и НТВ, that discusses the leak.
This news story is only in its earliest stages, and there are already many conflicting accounts as to exactly what was leaked and what it means. There is also the possibility that the “leak” was intentional, and meant for public consumption, both domestic and international. There is nothing yet on Janes or Stratfor about this, both of which sources I would consider more reliable on defense than the BBC or any mainstream media outlet. There is a story on DefenseOne, Russia: We Didn’t Mean to Show Everyone Our Massive New Nuclear Torpedo, but this seems to be at least partly derivative of the BBC story.
The BBC story suggested the the new Russian torpedo could carry a “dirty bomb,” or possibly a Colbalt bomb, as well as suggesting that it could carry a 100-megaton warhead. These possible warhead configurations constitute the extreme ends of the spectrum of nuclear devices. A “dirty bomb” that is merely a dirty bomb and not a nuclear warhead is a conventional explosive that scatters radioactive material. Such a device has long been a concern for anti-terrorism policy, because the worry is that it would be easier for terrorists to gain access to nuclear materials than to a nuclear weapon. Scattering radioactive elements in a large urban area would not be a weapon of mass destruction, but it has been called a “weapon of mass disruption,” as it would doubtless be attended by panic as as the 24/7 news cycle escalated the situation to apocalyptic proportions.
At the other end of the scale of nuclear devices, either a cobalt bomb or a 100-megaton warhead would be considered doomsday weapons, and there are no nation-states in the world today constructing such devices. The USSR made some 50-100 MT devices, most famously the Tsar Bomba, the most powerful nuclear device ever detonated, but no longer produces these weapons and is unlikely to retain any in its stockpile. It was widely thought that these enormous weapons were intended as “counterforce” assets, as, given the technology of the time (i.e., the low level of accuracy of missiles at this time), it would have required a warhead of this size to take out a missile silo on the other side of the planet. The US never made such large weapons, but its technology was superior, so if the US was also building counterforce missiles at this time, they could have gotten by with smaller yields. The US arsenal formerly included significant numbers of the B53, with a yield of about 9 MT, and before that the B41, with a yield of about 25 MT, but the US dismantled the last B53 in 2011 (cf. The End of a Nuclear Era).
Nuclear weapons today are being miniaturized, and their delivery systems are being given precision computerized guidance systems, so the reasons for building massively destructive warheads the only purpose of which is to participate in a MAD (mutually assured destruction) scenario have disappeared (mostly). A cobalt bomb (as distinct from a dirty bomb, with which it is sometimes confused, as both a dirty bomb and a cobalt bomb can be considered radiological weapons) would be a nuclear warhead purposefully configured to maximize radioactive fallout. In the case of the element cobalt, its dispersal by a nuclear weapon would result in the radioactive isotope cobalt-60, a high intensity gamma ray emitter with a half-life of 5.26 years — remaining highly radioactive for a sufficient period of time that it would likely poison any life that survived the initial blast of the warhead. The cobalt bomb was first proposed by physicist Leó Szilárd in the spirit of a warning as to the direction that nuclear technology could take, ultimately converging upon human extinction, which became a Cold War touchstone (cf. Existential Lessons of the Cold War).
The discussion of the new Russian weapon Status-6 (Статус-6) in terms of dirty bombs, cobalt bombs, and 100 MT warheads is an anachronism. If a major power were to build a new nuclear device today, they would want to develop what have been called fourth generation nuclear weapons, which is an umbrella term to cover a number of innovative nuclear technologies not systematically researched due to both the end of the Cold War and the nuclear test ban treaty. (On the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty cf. The Atomic Age Turns 70) Thus this part of the story so far is probably very misleading, but the basic idea of a nuclear device on a drone submersible is what we need to pay attention to here. This is important.
I am not surprised by this development, because I predicted it. In WMD: The Submersible Vector of January 2011 I suggested the possibility of placing nuclear weapons in drone submersibles, which could then be quietly infiltrated into the harbors of major port cities (or military facilities, although these would be much more difficult to infiltrate stealthily and to keep hidden), there to wait for a signal to detonate. By this method it would be possible to deprive an adversary of major cities, port, and military facilities in one fell swoop. The damage that could be inflicted by such a first strike would be just as devastating as the first strikes contemplated during the Cold War, when first strikes were conceived as a massive strike by ICBMs coming over the pole. Only now, with US air superiority so far in advance of other nation-states, it makes sense to transfer the nuclear strategic strike option to below the world’s oceans. Strategically, this is a brilliant paradigm shift, and one can see a great many possibilities for its execution and the possible counters to such a strategy.
During the Cold War, the US adopted a strategic defense “triad” consisting of nuclear weapons deliverable by ground-based missiles (ICBMs), jet bombers (initially the subsonic B-52, and later supersonic bombers such as the B-1 and B-2), and submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Later this triad was supplemented by nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, which represent the beginning of a disruptive change in nuclear strategy, away from massive bombardment to precision strikes.
The Russians depended on ground-based ICBMs, of which they possessed more, but, in the earlier stages of the Cold War Russian ICBMs were rather primitive, subject to failure, and able to carry only a single warhead. As Soviet technology caught up with US technology, and the Russians were able to build reliable missile boats and MIRVs for their ICBMs, the Russians too began to converge upon a triad of strategic defense, adding supersonic bombers (the Tu-22M “Backfire” and then the Tu-160 “Blackjack”) and missile boats to their ground-based missiles. For a brief period of the late Cold War, there was a certain limited nuclear parity that roughly corresponded with détente.
This rough nuclear parity was upset by political events and continuing technological changes, the latter almost always led by the US. An early US lead in computing technology once again led to a generational divide between US and Soviet technology, with the Soviet infrastructure increasingly unable to keep up with technological advances. The introduction of SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) threatened to further destabilize nuclear parity, and which in particular was perceived to as a threat to the stability of MAD. Long after the Cold War is over, the US continues to pursue missile defense, which has been a remarkably powerful political tool, but despite several decades of greatly improved technology, cannot deliver on its promises. So SDI upset the applecart of MAD, but still cannot redeem its promissory note. This is an important detail, because the weapons system that the Russians are contemplating with Status-6 (Статус-6) can be built with contemporary technologies. Thus even if the US could extend its air superiority to space, in addition to fielding an effective missile defense system, none of this would be an adequate counter to a Russian submersible strategic weapon, except in a second strike capacity.
As I noted above, there would be many ways in which to build out this submersible drone strategic capability, and many ways to counter it, which suggests the possibility of a new arms race, although this time without Russia being ideologically crippled by communism (which during the Cold War prevented the Soviet Union from achieving parity with western scientific and economic strength). A “slow” strategic capability could be constructed based something like what I described in WMD: The Submersible Vector, involving infiltration and sequestered assets, or a “fast” strategic capability closer to what was revealed in the Russian document that sparked the story about Status-6, in which the submersibles could fan out and position themselves in hours or days. Each of these strategic assets would suggest different counter measures.
What we are now seeing is the familiar Cold War specter of a massive nuclear exchange displaced from our skies into the oceans. If the Russians thought of it, and I thought of it, you can be certain that all the defense think tanks of the world’s major nation-states have thought of it also, and have probably gamed some of the obvious scenarios that could result.
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Addendum Added Sunday 15 November 2015: In what way is a nuclear-tipped drone submersible different from a conventional nuclear torpedo? Contemporary miniaturization technology makes it possible to have a precision guided submersible that is very small — small enough that such a weapon might conceivably bury itself in the mud on the bottom of a waterway and so be impossible to detect, even to be visually by divers alerted to search for suspicious objects on the bottom (as presumably happens in military harbors). Also, the Status-6 was given a range of some 6,000 nautical miles, which means that these weapons could be released by a mothership almost anywhere in the world’s oceans, and travel from that point to their respective targets. Such weapons could be dropped from the bottom of a ship, and would not necessarily have to be delivered by submarine. Once the drones were on their way, they would be almost impossible to find because of their small size. The key vulnerability would be the need for some telecommunications signaling to the weapon. If the decision had already been made to strike, and those making the decision were sufficiently confident that they would not change their minds, such drones could be launched programmed to detonate and therefore with no need to a telecommunications link. Alternatively, drones could be launched programmed to detonate, but the detonation could be suppressed by remote command, which would be a one-time signal and not an ongoing telecommunications link to the drone. This presents obvious vulnerabilities as well — what if the detonation suppression signal were blocked? — but any weapons systems will have vulnerabilities. It would be a relatively simple matter to have the device configurable as either fail-safe or fail-deadly, with the appropriate choice made at the time of launch.
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Note Added Saturday 14 November 2015: Since writing the above, an article has appeared on Janes, Russian state TV footage reveals ‘oceanic multi-purpose’ torpedo-based nuclear system, by Bruce Jones, London, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, though it doesn’t add much in addition to what is already known.
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