Is Russia building an underwater drone to deliver a dirty bomb?
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Is Russia trying to develop a weapon straight out of the classic Cold War era movie Dr. Strangelove? A secret military document leaked on Russian TV this month revealed plans for a long-distance underwater drone carrying a nuclear bomb designed to dump high levels of radioactive contamination onshore.
Weapons experts suspect the leak was deliberate – and aimed at US efforts to develop missile defences, something Russia has been worried about for years. On the basis of this leak, it is not possible to determine whether Russia is developing the system, or merely threatening to, never mind whether it can build one as ambitious as the specs suggest.
But the experts are alarmed that Russia’s highest command is even talking about such a weapon – and, apparently, letting us know about it. They say it is high time the US addressed Russian fears that missile defence will upend the nuclear balance.
“If it’s a deliberate leak, it’s extraordinarily provocative,” says Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association in Washington DC. “I am deeply concerned about who is in charge and whether they have any sense of restraint.”
On 9 November, Russian president Vladimir Putin met with generals to discuss the defence industry and a report of the meeting ran on Russian television network NTV. At 1:45 minutes, the camera lingers on one general’s briefing book, which details an underwater drone called Status-6, due for delivery in 2025 by the Rubin submarine design bureau in St. Petersburg.
Pavel Podvig of the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University says it describes a submarine-launched, nuclear-powered drone that could travel under remote control up to 10,000 kilometres, enter harbours undetected, and detonate its payload – a megaton thermonuclear device.
Putin’s spokesman admitted the leak, and the video was taken off the NTV website. Its clumsiness, and technical errors in the drawing, says Podvig, make many weapons experts believe the leak was intentional.
Just shutting a port down would cause massive economic damage. But this bomb would also 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”.
“The payload looks like a massive dirty bomb,” says Podvig. Its details aren’t visible in the video, but Jeffrey Lewis in Monterey, California, thinks it would most likely be a nuclear bomb “salted” with a metal, such as cobalt, that captures neutrons from the explosion to create large amounts of long-lasting fallout. Detonated in shallow water, it would hit nearby cities with a “shower of radioactive slurry”.
This technique for enhancing fallout was the basis of the imagined “doomsday machine” in the 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove, which gave the salting ingredient the more impressive name “cobalt thorium G”.
But is the project real? A report citing unnamed Pentagon sources claims that Russia is building a nuclear-armed drone. “As I understand, some elements of this programme do exist,” says Podvig.
Why leak it? In the NTV report, Putin talks about the need for weapons to circumvent planned US missile defences, which Russia has long feared could neutralise its nuclear deterrent. Status-6 would do that.
“The nightmare for the Russians is if the US destroys most of their nuclear ballistic missiles with a high-precision conventional weapons strike, then mops up anything left for a counter-strike with missile defence,” says James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Current US missile defence is not very effective, he says, but Russian strategists have to assume that it will be.
“Either they are saying they are going to develop this capability, or that they will if the US doesn’t address their concerns,” says Acton. “As Dr. Strangelove said, for a weapon to work as a deterrent you have to reveal that it exists.”
“I think it is a threat, and clearly intended as such,” says Joe Cirincione, head of arms control think tank The Ploughshares Fund. All agree that the weapon is unthinkable.
“Ordinary nuclear weapons can at least be used on purely military targets. This has no conceivable purpose other than killing civilians,” says Acton. “Whether the weapon is real or not,” says Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, “the Russian government must distance itself from this.”
There are other ways to address Russia’s concerns. “Both sides could have a serious discussion about measures to make each side more confident in the survivability of its nuclear forces,” says Acton. But lately, he says, Russia has shown little interest in arms control.
Image credit: Russian State TV