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.