Putin’s doomsday machine: A dirty thermonuclear weapon

Jeffrey Lewis writes: On Nov. 9, President Vladimir Putin attended a meeting in Sochi on the state of the Russian defense industry. He gave a pretty boring speech about defeating U.S. missile defenses to some pretty bored-looking generals.

But there was one aspect of the event that was downright terrifying. Russian television cameras caught a page in a briefing book describing the development of a new nuclear weapons system called Status-6.

It’s nothing less than an underwater drone designed to carry a thermonuclear weapon into foreign ports. If detonated, Status-6 would be capable of dousing cities like New York in massive amounts of radioactive fallout.

At the risk of understating things, this project is bat-shit crazy. It harkens back to the most absurd moments of the Cold War, when nuclear strategists followed the logic of deterrence over the cliff and into the abyss. For his part, Putin seems positively nostalgic.

The Russian government reacted to the broadcast of the briefing-book images as if a major security breach had occurred. The offending footage was edited out of future broadcasts, and when asked about the incident, a Russian presidential spokesperson said: “Indeed, some secrets hit the camera lens, so were subsequently removed. We hope that in the future this will not happen again.”

The Russians doth protest too much. As Dr. Strangelove observed of the Soviet doomsday machine, “Of course, the whole point of a doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret!” (As an aside, it’s worth noting that Status-6 bears more than a passing resemblance to the weapon in that Stanley Kubrick classic; more on that in a bit.)

This isn’t the first we’re hearing of such a project. Details of a similar Russian nuclear underwater drone, armed with a megaton-class thermonuclear warhead, were reported this fall by Bill Gertz of the Washington Free Beacon. (Whatever you think of Gertz’s right-wing politics, he gets some decent scoops.) Gertz’s sources seemed to be describing the same system revealed this week, though they gave him a different name — Kanyon, rather than Status-6. (That shift in nomenclature shouldn’t come as a surprise: Russian military hardware acquires multiple names and numbers as it goes through research and development.)

The briefing-book slide fills in plenty of details about the project. A Russian attack submarine would be able to carry one or more of the drones, which could be remotely launched into the sea. The specs on the slide seem a little optimistic, but they suggest that once roaming wild, the underwater drone could travel a total distance of 10,000 kilometers, or 5,400 nautical miles. It would be designed in such a way that it could be navigated undetected into a U.S. port where it could then detonate its “combat payload” — a thermonuclear weapon. The system would never come up for air or encounter any pesky American missile defenses.

That’s bad enough, but the slide contains an additional gruesome detail: The purpose of the warhead would be to damage “the important components of the adversary’s economy in a coastal area and [inflict] 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.”

Yes, you’re reading that right. It’s not just a thermonuclear weapon. It’s a dirty thermonuclear weapon. [Continue reading…]

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