Most of the time, when we talk about drones and drone warfare, we’re talking about aircraft. A leaked draft of the 2018 Nuclear Report prepared by the Pentagon suggests this construction is too narrow — and it confirms reports from several years ago that suggested Russia was working on its own autonomous underwater torpedo with the ability to deliver a 100-megaton nuclear blast.
The Russian system, codenamed Kanyon by the Pentagon and apparently known as Ocean Multipurpose System Status-6 to the Russians, isn’t referred to by either name in the nuclear report. While the leaked draft contains a map of new nuclear solutions developed by various countries, including Russia, the resolution on the image is pretty low. The word “status-6” is suggested by the below image (check the area highlighted in red), but it’s scarcely clear.
The existence of Kanyon dates back to an accidental (or “accidental”) reveal on Russian TV. The automated drone-torpedo is an estimated 80 feet long, with a 5.5-foot draft. It’s roughly 27 times the volume of a conventional heavyweight torpedo and twice the size of a ballistic missile. It’s been reported as using a small nuclear reactor to drive the torpedo, with a running depth of 1,000 meters and a potential maximum range of 10,000 km. If the device is nuclear-powered, this last is credible. According to sources, it could carry a warhead as powerful as 100 megatons, with a top speed of 56 knots.
Some of these numbers may reflect hoped-for targets or final estimates, not real-world tested values. But the prospect of even a scaled-down version of this device hitting a US target is genuinely frightening, and the Pentagon report confirms that the device exist. The Pentagon writes:
In addition to modernizing ‘legacy’ Soviet systems, Russia is developing and deploying new nuclear warheads and launchers. These efforts include multiple upgrades for every leg of the Russian nuclear triad of strategic bombers, sea-based missiles, and land-based missiles. Russia is also developing at least two new intercontinental range systems, a hypersonic glide vehicle, and a new intercontinental, nuclear-armed, undersea autonomous torpedo.
A 100-megaton weapon would be extremely powerful. The most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated, the Tsar Bomba, weighed 60,000 tons. It had a yield of 51 megatons with a shockwave so powerful, the bomb’s fireball never touched the ground (the fireball itself was visible 620 miles away). A scaled-up version of the bomb could’ve reached the 100-megaton yield barrier, making a warhead of this size plausible.
The leaked image from 2015 that made Status-6 known to the world.
This type of weapon, however, is generally viewed as a deterrence model, not the kind of weapon you use in a first strike. The model was supposedly developed as a result of the United States’ interest in missile defense systems, which left the Russians looking for a way to build a missile that wouldn’t be vulnerable to such interference. Rest assured, slamming such a torpedo into the coast of the United States near a major populated area would still create one hell of an explosion, even if the actual detonation occurred off-shore.
The Pentagon report notes the Russians plan attacks from the erroneous position that a coercive nuclear “first use” policy might allow Russia to then negotiate terms favorable to itself (this is referred to as the escalate-to-de-escalate doctrine). The Pentagon writes:
Effective U.S. deterrence of Russian nuclear attack and non-nuclear strategic attack now requires ensuring that the Russian leadership does not miscalculate regarding the consequence of limited nuclear first use, either regionally or against the United States itself. Russia must instead understand that nuclear first-use, however limited, will fail to achieve its objectives, fundamentally alter the nature of a conflict, and trigger incalculable and intolerable costs for Moscow. Our strategy will ensure Russia understands that any use of nuclear weapons, however limited, is unacceptable.
If there’s any good news to the situation, it’s this: The Pentagon doesn’t seem overly concerned about Kanyon as a whole, despite its high-profile status and massive kill potential. It’s clearly a significant threat capable of killing millions of people, but it’s not a world-shaking development. It’s estimated a Sarov-class submarine (pictured, top) is the only Russian sub currently believed to be capable of launching Kanyon.
General Tone: Not Particularly Positive
The report is generally pessimistic about the current state of nuclear armaments around the world. The United States has reduced its warhead count by 85 percent from its Cold War height. That said, strict references to warhead counts aren’t particularly useful without corresponding data on yields, delivery methods, and accuracy. The gap in total operational capability between then and now is less reduced, and conventional thinking suggests you only need to be able to nuke the planet’s population centers so many times before you’re engaging in overkill.
Nonetheless, the Pentagon report notes America’s efforts to convince other nations to reduce their own armaments or avoid building new ones has been unsuccessful. It isn’t very optimistic that near-term efforts to reduce the number of nuclear weapons deployed in states like North Korea will be successful, either.
Now read: How do nuclear bombs work?