Russian unmanned underwater nuclear weapon raising the stakes in global balance of power

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 17 Nov. 2015. The technological means of delivering, deterring, and defending against nuclear weapons has been reasonably stable for more than half a century. Since the 1940s nuclear warheads have been based on bomber aircraft, long-range missiles, and specialized artillery. That stability, however, may be over as the concept of nuclear warfare enters a new unmanned underwater era.

Nov 17th, 2015
After big defense cuts, what lies ahead?
After big defense cuts, what lies ahead?
THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 17 Nov. 2015. The technological means of delivering, deterring, and defending against nuclear weapons has been reasonably stable for more than half a century. Since the 1940s nuclear warheads have been based on bomber aircraft, long-range missiles, and specialized artillery. That stability, however, may be over as the concept of nuclear warfare enters a new unmanned underwater era.

That new nuclear paradigm involves unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), and may represent one of the biggest changes in nuclear warfare -- if not THE biggest change -- since the world's first atomic bomb impacted on Hiroshima, Japan, on 6 Aug. 1945.

Russia reportedly is developing a high-speed UUV design able to detonate warheads stealthily in virtually any coastal city in the world. Potential U.S. targets alone could include Washington, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco, Boston, and Seattle.

Military targets would include nuclear ballistic missile submarine bases in Bangor, Wash., and Kings Bay, Ga., as well as large naval bases in Norfolk, Va., Honolulu, and New London, Conn.

If such an unmanned submarine with a nuclear warhead on board were stealthy enough to navigate undetected through large rivers and waterways, we could add Chicago, Houston, Detroit, and Milwaukee to the list.

Related: Lockheed Martin to manufacture new Trident II D5 submarine-launched nuclear missiles

This is a nuclear threat largely unseen before, and represents a real game changer in the global balance of power.

Reporter Bill Gertz of The Washington Free Beacon outlined this new stealthy undersea nuclear threat earlier this month in a story headlined Russia Reveals Secret Nuclear-Armed Drone Sub.

The Pentagon is calling this new Russian weapon Kanyon, while Russia calls it the Status-6 system. The weapon is being designed to damage 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.

It could be launched from an undetected submarine operating far out at sea. The nuclear UUV could dive as deep as 3,280 feet and travel as fast as 56 knots, although it's more likely the nuclear UUV would move at relatively slow speeds to avoid detection. The weapon reportedly has a range of 6,200 miles -- farther than the expanses of the Pacific between Los Angeles and Tokyo.

Detecting and defending against such a weapon would be problematic, to say the least, and would be able to gather little from current nuclear defenses, which have been in development for decades. Experts say the weapon today is invulnerable to interception, and is likely to trigger a technology race to come up with effective means to counter it.

Related: Air Force reaches out to industry for ways to ensure communications in nuclear events

The first nuclear-delivery devices were airplanes. Fast jet fighters then were designed to overtake nuclear-armed bombers quickly. High-speed and high-altitude bombers like the XB-70 were designed to evade the jet fighters, but sophisticated ground-to-air missiles put those high-flying bombers out of business. Today we have high-performance and radar-evading aircraft like the B-1 and B-2 to carry nuclear bombs.

Meanwhile, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) first were developed in the 1950s on the assumption that their speed and altitude would make them invulnerable to any kind of defense. Nuclear missiles have been deployed in land-based silos and on specially designed missile submarines. Cruise missiles, meanwhile, can be launched from aircraft at stand-off ranges.

Despite their longtime advantages, however, defenses have caught up to the capabilities of long-range nuclear missiles. Ballistic missile defenses are expensive, and untested in large scenarios, but this technology is improving all the time.

But what about stealthy underwater vehicles as nuclear-delivery devices? Sure, we have sophisticated anti-submarine warfare (ASW) sonar defenses, but these are not 100-percent effective -- especially against contemporary threats like manned diesel-electric submarines and the latest generation of unmanned submersibles.

Related: Nuclear ballistic missile command and control

Even the U.S. Navy assumes that its most advanced UUVs could conduct long-term detailed surveillance missions unmolested in nearly any coastal area of the world. Now apply this technology to something that could carry a nuke.

Assuming that such a stealthy underwater nuclear-delivery system be able to reach its target, how long could it lie dormant and hidden until receiving the order to detonate? Weeks? Months? Years? If possible, wouldn't it make sense for international adversaries to pre-position nuclear weapons off their enemies' coasts until they needed them for defense, blackmail, or other purposes?

It's more than enough food for thought about military doctrine, tactics, and strategies with this new technological wrinkle. Now think about the time and expense necessary to devise and develop reliable defenses against these undersea doomsday threats that could strike with devastation with zero warning.

Another question to ponder: how long before nuclear UUV technologies fall into the hands of the world's terrorist organizations? Unseen atomic threats from terrorists as well as national adversaries likely would stretch U.S. and allied defensive capabilities to the breaking point.

The world continues to be a dangerous place, and the Russian Kanyon Status-6 system has raised the stakes in a major way.

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