Russia’s nuclear drones

Is the likelihood of nuclear war increasing? In March 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed footage of six prototype advanced weapons systems being developed by the nation. Mr. Putin said, “I want to tell all those who have fuelled the arms race over the last 15 years, sought to win unilateral advantages...

 

Russia bets on nuclear arms drone. Is the likelihood of nuclear war increasing?

Background

In March 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed footage of six prototype advanced weapons systems being developed by the nation. Mr. Putin said, “I want to tell all those who have fuelled the arms race over the last 15 years, sought to win unilateral advantages over Russia, introduced unlawful sanctions aimed to contain our country’s development: all what you wanted to impede with your policies have already happened… You have failed to contain Russia.” The weapons included drones, nuclear powered and armed cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and laser systems. At the time of the speech, analysts were uncertain as to how close Russia was to delivering platforms capable of entering service.

Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms or the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is an agreement between the United States and Russia that reduced by half the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers. This and other arms reduction treaties have recently come under fire under the Trump administration, including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Mr. Trump attacked the primary tenets of the treaty, arguing that it unduly favoured Russia and was “one of several bad deals negotiated by the Obama administration.”

Analysis

Russia recently floated its Belgorod submarine. Although the submarine has yet to be fully constructed, tests of the submarine’s nuclear reactor are scheduled for late-2019. The submarine will then undertake sea and state trials in 2020, before being delivered to the Russian Navy. Some estimates hold that the ship will be fully operational by 2022.

Reports suggest that the vessel’s long gestation period was extended by an engineering process that saw the re-design of the submarine’s central hold. Instead of just the missile compartment, the sub will contain space for special equipment, airlock chambers for divers and deep-water submersibles. The Status-6 ocean-going multi-purpose system, an autonomous underwater drone project named Poseidon, is likely to be fitted to the ship. Poseidon is reported to be nuclear-powered, giving it unlimited range, and can be armed with conventional or nuclear munitions.

As the largest submarine in the world, Belgorod’s nuclear reactor provides its infinite range, although its size is likely to make tracking the vessel an easier affair. However, the sub is rumoured to be fitted with six Poseidon drones, whose smaller size makes its detection virtually impossible. The strategic platform is intended to “strike an enemy’s important coastal economic facilities.” Although not officially confirmed, reports indicate that the drone is fitted with dirty bombs. This would make the quick clean up and repair of economic facilities impossible. Other reports suggest that the Poseidon can create a tsunami wave that would contaminate a wide area of the enemies coastline with radioactivity.

In 2018, Norway’s military intelligence agency said that Russian assets had simulated attacks on key military installations in the country and NATO targets in the region. The simulated attacks included coastal economic facilities and powerful radar installations. When President Putin released simulated footage of the weapons, the Poseidon was shown as targeting radar installations and aircraft carriers. It is a clear asymmetric counter to American and NATO missile defence systems.

Strategic arms limitation regimes are likely to lose their importance given the continued proliferation of tactical nuclear weapons. The US and Russia will continue to develop technologies that are outside the purview of these regulations. Unless a more comprehensive treaty governing all nuclear weapons is signed, rather than the current focus on its delivery methods, it is likely that a new arms race will begin in previously unexplored spheres such as underwater drones. If America and Russia demonstrate underwater drones capable of delivering nuclear weapons, it is likely that other aspiring superpowers such as China would seek such weaponry. Russia is expected to procure a total of 30 Poseidon weapon platforms to fit on the Belgorod and Khabarovsk class submarines. 

Assessment

Our assessment is that the proliferation of tactical nuclear weapons increases the likelihood of war. With every additional weapons platform developed, the probability of its use exponentially increases. We believe that the most viable recourse to reducing this likelihood is a consolidated international regime targeting all nuclear delivery systems. However, we are aware that multilateral treaties are difficult to come by. Thus, it is important for America and Russia to set aside their differences in order to set legal precedents. This must involve the effective re-committing of controls pertaining to nuclear-capable weapon systems.

India Watch

India is likely to be threatened if China secures nuclear-capable underwater drones. In order to regain nuclear parity, India may be compelled to purchase such systems from Russia or develop its own. India needs to think about whether it requires tactical nuclear weapons, given its historic policy of “minimum credible deterrence.”

 

Image Courtesy: Russian DoD (lincese in bottom of the page) [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)]

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