27 April 2019

Among the Russian military threats there is also an autonomous intercontinental nuclear torpedo

Mircea Mocanu

Image source: Mediafax

President Vladimir Putin told the Russian Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu: “A few days ago you informed me about the completion of the key stage of trials of the unmanned multipurpose and strategic underwater combat vehicle Poseidon”. This February 2nd, 2019 statement marked the official confirmation of Russia’s efforts to operationalize one of the impressive weapons the Kremlin promised to have in the arms race against the United States.

What is this all about?

The combat platform Poseidon can simply be described as an autonomous intercontinental nuclear torpedo, hence, strategic, called by the US intelligence community “Ocean Multipurpose System Status-6”, but also “Kanyon”. In one of Nuclear Posture Review’s draft projects, published in January 2019 by Huffington Post, Washington describes this underwater unmanned vehicle (UUV) or autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) as a new “intercontinental nuclear armed undersea autonomous torpedo”.

Among the features of the Poseidon torpedo, the nuclear payload capacity stands out like a soar finger. In an image which was accidentally, or maybe not, leaked through the Russian public television, in 2015, the nuclear payload seems to be a thermonuclear warhead based on Cobalt-59, yielding a 100 megatons power. Later reports were talking about a warhead of only 2 TNT megatons power. According to sources inside the Russian Defence Ministry, quoted by TASS, the speed reached by the Poseidon torpedo at recent tests seems to be of 200 km/h, with an unlimited range of action. 

Brief history

The technological achievement that Vladimir Putin announced at the meeting with Russian Federation’s Defence and Foreign Affair Ministries officials was presented as an accomplishment of long-time efforts and described as “fantastic”.

These ideas were present in the Soviet Union since the 50’s, when considered unachievable. Then, no further talks about this topic were heard until 2016, when, according to the Washington Free Beacon, the American intelligence agencies have detected (November 27th, 2016) the launch of the Status-6 vehicle from a Sarov-class submarine dedicated to testing new technologies.

In July 2018, Moscow has officially announced the maritime tests for the autonomous operations and guidance system and, in December 2018, some limited, experimental design tests, rather than full-fledged sea tests in underwater environment. For the launch of the vehicle, it was used a B-90 Sarov-class diesel-electric submarine, project 20120, dedicated specifically to launching UUVs. In other words, we are talking about launching the Poseidon torpedo in horizontal position, through a hatch that opens in the top of the submarine, different from launching a tactical torpedo, through launching tubes.

However, Pentagon has confirmed the existence of the Kanyon torpedo only in January 2019 documents, just before President Putin’s triumphalist speech.

Operational perspective

The Poseidon torpedo can be found in the Russian Armed Forces government armament program for 2018-2017, and the first vehicle should be delivered to the Russian Navy by the end of 2020. On  February 20th, 2019, in the annual speech delivered to the State Duma, President Putin has announced that “In the spring of this year the first nuclear powered submarine armed with this unmanned vehicle will be launched. The work is proceeding in accordance with the schedule.”

After the new weapon is operational and entered service through tests made by the end-user units, the Russian Navy should be able to deploy 30 Poseidon torpedoes.

The Poseidon torpedo carrier ships will probably be the Project 09852 submarines, based on the Project 949A Oscar II-class nuclear-powered guided missile submarines, or the Project 09851 which, according to some reports, are a smaller version of the Borei-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. Two of them were produced by the Sevmash shipyard in Severodvinsk, the White Sea port. Such submarines are the Belgorod and the Khabarovsk.  

According to TASS news agency, two Poseidon torpedo armed submarines will enter the Russian North Fleet, and other two the Russian Pacific Fleet. Each of the submarines will carry a maximum of eight drones; therefore, the total number of Poseidons in combat duty may reach 32 vehicles.

Notably, the Poseidon vehicles are way larger than what we call classic torpedoes and twice bigger than the ballistic missiles launched from submarines. In fact, Russian sources mention that Project 09852 submarines can carry maximum six Poseidons, and the Project 09851 submarines can carry only four.

Technical description

The Poseidon autonomous undersea vehicle / Status-6 was designed by the Rubin Bureau, the largest of the three submarine design institutes in the Russian Federation. In 2016, the Washington Free Beacon reported the following technical data: 6,200 miles range, 56 knots speed and cruise depths of 3,280 feet below sea level.

The available designs describe a 24 meter long torpedo, 1.6 meters diameter, which can navigate to maximum 1000 meters depth, with a 185 km/h maximum speed, 10,000 km distance! At the bow, Poseidon has a tridimensional sonar, then the 6.5-meter-long nuclear warhead / the payload, next is the electronics and the batteries, and in the middle,  it has the nuclear reactor which produces the necessary propulsion power. Then, in the stern half, the steam turbine, the electric generator, and the mechanic propulsion and steering system.

Certain American analysts comment on aspects related to the available technical data. Firstly, there are suspicions about Russia’s technical ability to build such a small reliable nuclear reactor. Secondly, there is this uncertainty related to the payload, as the Russian designs mention several options besides the nuclear warhead. There is the intelligence collection (ISR - Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) payload. Finally, there are doubts about other technological challenges as well, like the autonomous navigation accuracy at the mentioned speeds, in undersea conditions.

Conclusions

Obviously, the Poseidon super-torpedo range makes it useful for long haul targets. In fact, the new weapon may enter the Russian North and Pacific fleets, this way threatening, firstly, the United States. The use of Poseidon torpedo in the Black Sea or with the Caspian Sea Flotilla does not look reasonable. Hence, the autonomous nuclear intercontinental torpedo is clearly dedicated to American targets - shores and ships.

Another conclusion is related to the plausibility of really making operational such a torpedo. There are American intelligence agencies’ data related to tests of the experimental model and enthusiastic commitments by Russia’s high political leadership. Even considering major difficulties in making the Poseidon torpedo operational, Moscow can still use this new weapon as a threat during the upcoming negotiations on strategic nuclear weapons, as bargain chip to get concessions for other issues of interest.