Vladimir Putin has claimed that Russia is building a suite of advanced nuclear weapon delivery vehicles – Hypersonic missiles, an underwater drone, a nuclear-powered cruise missile. The American Missile Defense Review is, in part, a response to that.
The new Russian weapons sound amazing! The underwater drone, Putin would have us believe, could sneak up on the east coast of the United States and cause a radioactive tsunami! The nuclear-powered cruise missile could cruise around the globe twice and then nuke Florida!
Putin has shown all that on animated videos. A few frames appear to be actual photos, but the videos are mostly animation.
None of these things is completely new. The United States tried to build a nuclear-powered cruise missile back in the late 1950s. I’ve written about that in detail. One big problem with a nuclear-powered cruise missile is that it’s difficult to make nuclear reactors provide the thrust needed for propulsion. Another problem is that pushing all that air through a hot reactor tends to tear the reactor apart. That required a lot of work on the Rover reactors that followed the Tory reactors in the proposed cruise missile. Which, by the way, never flew.[Quick bleg: I worked pretty closely with Rover reactor folks. I never heard of the Tory reactor until Putin brought this stuff up. Does anyone know how much Rover was a followon to Tory?]
There was some talk a few months back about Russian ships looking for a crashed cruise missile near Novaya Zemlya, where Russia might have tested a Tory-style cruise missile. But nothing seems to have come of this, nor was the kind of radioactivity detected over Europe that might have been associated with such a test. If there was a lost cruise missile, it probably was a chemically-powered mockup.
The underwater drone, which has been called STATUS-6, KANYON, and Poseidon, has recently been claimed to be capable of speeds of 200 kilometers per hour. It’s hard to propel anything through water, which is heavier and more viscous than air. Here is a debunking of that claim. Such speeds would require what is called supercavitation, which is a method of producing low-pressure bubbles at the nose of a torpedo to pull it through the water. If this were applied to Poseidon, it would produce lots of noise, so the torpedo would not be at all stealthy. A more normal torpedo speed might be 60 kilometers per hour.
The claim of producing radioactive tsunamis is also excessive. Natural processes like tsunamis and hurricanes contain far more energy than the largest nuclear weapons. Perhaps a tsunami could be triggered by a nuclear weapon placed so as to precipitate a large underwater landslide. And the volume of water involved in a tsunami would dilute the radioactivity a nuclear explosion would produce.
Russia tested a hypersonic missile, called Avangard, recently. Here’s some history. Putin claims it can evade American missile defenses and is ready for deployment. That’s not a big deal. Any Russian nuclear attack would succeed in getting enormous destruction past American missile defenses. Missile defense has always been largely fictitious, one of the great boondoggles of our time. Another weakness of the Avangard system is that it is launched from silos, the first targets in a nuclear exchange.
Except for Avangard, there is little evidence that these wonder weapons have been tested. At least two are still in animation. We have no idea of the size of the development programs.
Putin said that Russia was forced to develop Avangard after the U.S. withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile ABM) Treaty in 2002. That withdrawal was a sore point for Russia. In the ABM Treaty, concluded in 1972, the US and Russia agreed that they would not deploy antiballistic missile systems. Ronald Reagan and George Bush were taken with the idea of ABM systems, presented to them as an absolute shield against missiles. Reagan gave the go-ahead to develop the systems. Bush believed that deploying the systems, which barely worked, was more important than adhering to the treaty. We still do not have a working ABM system.
And there’s one weird story related to Avangard – scientists who worked on its development have been jailed for leaking state secrets.
Thus we come to what the new Russian weapons seem to be about. It’s a statement that Russia is still in the nuclear weapons game. Putin sees the fall of the Soviet Union as one of the world’s great tragedies. Some in the US have attributed that fall to Ronald Reagan’s upping the arms race in the mid-1980s. That’s a great oversimplification, but perhaps Putin has accepted it and is trying to start an arms race in which the US damages itself by overspending on fantastical weapons.
Avangard does little, if anything, to change the nuclear war calculus. The other weapons may or may not ever become a part of the Russian arsenal. None is worth stirring up another arms race, but it appears from the Missile Defense Review, that is what the Trump administration is doing.
Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner.