March 05, 2018

Russia's New Nuclear Weapons - A Skeptical Look

Putin’s announcement last week of several new and improved strategic systems has thrown the internet into a frenzy. They will supposedly render US ABM systems useless and, at least if you listen to some of the more hysterical pundits, completely change warfare as we know it.

Fortunately for the US, none of this is true. The systems announced are either fairly mundane or likely vaporware. Of course, recognizing this requires familiarity with military economics and nuclear history, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that so many people are freaking out. In fact, it appears that Putin has simply taken a list of abandoned strategic weapons systems, repackaged them, and brought them out for political reasons.

We’ll start with the nuclear-powered cruise missile. This is not a new idea. The US investigated it extensively during the 50s, and ultimately decided against it. Nuclear reactors are heavy compared to conventional systems of similar power, and nearly impossible to test, given the risks of nuclear contamination if something goes wrong. Why Putin would buy a risky, expensive, and strategically dubious missile is not clear. Russia is traditionally very concerned with maintaining positive control over nuclear weapons, and having them flying around on an unmanned platform is not exactly likely to make anyone comfortable. Particularly given the communications problems involved in using a weapon like this effectively, I believe it to be a fake.

The nuclear-powered minisubmarine is much the same. Nobody wants to let nuclear weapons run around the oceans unattended, and communications have always been the Achilles heel of submarine operations. The characteristics described don’t go well together, as high speed means lots of noise and a relatively large size, while being undetectable also drives up size. The concept of using underwater vehicles to attack ports dates back to the initial plans for the first Soviet nuclear attack submarine, the November class.

The hypersonic glider is somewhat more plausible, although as is fairly common, the characteristics are rather overstated. Hypersonic aerodynamics are inherently inefficient, which means that range is somewhat limited and maneuver capability is nowhere near what proponents would have you believe. Too much maneuver means that you run out of energy and fall short of the target. The inconsistent information we’ve gotten on this one, such as very different speed values, make me classify it as probable vaporware.

The RS-28 ICBM is a fairly mundane development. They're building a new heavy ICBM because their previous one is made in Ukraine, but it’s not a game-changer. The ability to attack over the south pole is also not particularly novel, although the deployment of a missile with this capability does suggest a new Russian attitude towards arms control, which might profitably be answered with a similar attitude on the part of the US.

The Kinzhal hypersonic missile was quickly identified by the internet as an air-launched version of the existing Iskander ballistic missile. This is yet another system with roots in the Cold War, and it’s nowhere near as revolutionary as it’s made out to be. Iskander is an impressive weapon, but it’s not exempt from the laws of physics, and it’s well within the envelope of the SM-3 and SM-6 missiles. It’s also the subject of inconsistent performance claims, some of which are clearly stated to be terrifying when they actually aren’t. One mode is “a 90-degree dive at 7-800 m/s”. This sounds impressive, but it’s only about Mach 2.5. It could be useful if you’re attacking a missile site that doesn’t have another one covering it, but this is not the case at sea, and Mach 2.5 is well within the envelope of most SAMs.

The last system announced was a laser point-defense system for base protection. This is not a strategic system, and I’m not really qualified to evaluate how useful it is. Similar systems have been under development for years in the US, and have even been deployed for operational evaluation.

Putin blamed US missile defenses for the array of new weapons, but this is utter nonsense. The US has 44 ABMs with capability against ICBMs, mostly in Alaska. These are positioned to protect the US against missiles from North Korea, which also gives some protection against China. The Russians have enough missiles to comfortably overwhelm the existing GMD system, and most of them are on trajectories that are not within the system’s engagement zone anyway. It does bear pointing out, though, that he’d have no reason to do this if ABM systems are as ineffective as their detractors claim.

So what is he up to, then? Again, we must look back to the Cold War. During that conflict, the Russians twice managed to convince the US that they had a major edge in strategic weapons, first bombers and then missiles. In both cases, the US was comfortably ahead, but bad intelligence and Soviet deceptions lead to panic in the west. Later, Reagan used a similar strategy. Fake black programs were set up and details were “leaked” to the Russians, with massive funding flowing to programs in an attempt to duplicate American technology that never existed in the first place. The strain of these programs played a vital part in bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union.

There’s also a domestic political angle. The Russian presidential election is on March 18th, and Putin is presumably trying to bring the opinion the country more in line with the election results.

The other big question missed by the media is how all of this is being funded. Russia’s GDP is smaller than that of South Korea in nominal terms, and just behind Germany in PPP terms. Even with the mess that most of the west has made of military equipment procurement, it’s hard to see them being able to fund a strategic buildup of this magnitude, particularly when combined with ongoing operations in Syria and Ukraine, and the modernization of their conventional forces that we see articles about every so often.

Ultimately, since the end of the Cold War, the Russians have established themselves as masters of military vaporware. Their systems arrive late or not at all, and it’s impossible to definitively say just how effective they are when they get there. Putin’s latest announcement of a bunch of repackaged Cold War-era concepts is entirely in line with traditional Russian strategy. Hopefully we’re smart enough to avoid playing into his hands this time.

2024 Update: Fortunately, we haven't gotten clear information on most of these systems, but my view on the Kinzal has been amply confirmed. In 2023, the Russians used a number against Ukraine, and Patriot has performed very well against them. Weirdly, they do seem to have actually gone in and built the nuclear-armed minisubmarine and claim to be working on the nuclear-powered cruise missile. That said, I remain skeptical of how far they will go with either system.


  1. March 05, 2018John Schilling said...

    The reason Russia wants a new heavy ICBM is almost certainly that their old heavy ICBM was built by Yuzhmash, now a Ukranian company. Makes it rather difficult to get factory technical support these days. The RS-28 "Sarmat" looks like a perfectly straightforward exercise in designing a heavy ICBM with "Made in Real Russia" stamped all over it.

    The reasons Russia wants heavy ICBMs at all seem to be, A: delivering a few very large (20+ megaton) warheads to turn Cheyenne Mountain into Lake Cheyenne or otherwise defeat very hard targets, B: carrying large packages of warheads and decoys to defeat missile defenses by saturation, and C: using fractional-orbit trajectories to defeat missile defenses and early warning systems by sneakiness. The latter two, as you note, are not needed against current US missile defenses but are a useful hedge against future developments.

    Plus, the Russian military has always been big on heavy artillery, and this is as heavy as artillery gets.

  2. March 05, 2018bean said...

    Thanks. I'd forgotten about that, and have edited to include it.

  3. March 05, 2018Evil4Zerggin said...

    as high speed means [...] a relatively large size, while being undetectable also drives up size.

    Why is this? Square-cube law effects?

  4. March 05, 2018bean said...

    That's part of it. Skin friction dominates on submarines, and AIUI there are some minimum size limits on nuclear reactors. (A battery-powered nuclear minisub is not particularly interesting, but I suppose it's possible from Putin's description. More evidence of vaporware.) For silencing, you need space for things like machinery rafts. If you compare the Skipjack and Permit classes, I believe most of the increase in size was due to silencing in the machinery plant.

  5. March 06, 2018Garrett said...

    Silly question, but could nuclear-powered mini-submarine refer to something that uses a RTG? Probably not optimal, but if you're willing to travel very slowly over time it might be workable. Especially as a remote-commanded drone which could slip into place over a period of months.

  6. March 06, 2018bean said...

    I suppose it's possible, but it's completely incompatible with the other claims, particularly those re speed. RTGs have pretty low power density, although they might not be a horrible choice if you need something small to stay underwater for months.

  7. March 07, 2018Chuck said...

    The thing I found suspicious about the roster of supposed new weapons is that most didn’t seem to have any doctrinal basis. Specifically, the sub, what possible purpose could that be designed to achieve? Even as a retaliatory weapon it’s foolish, as it gives your target days to mount a defense. The cruise missile, as already noted, is redundant at best. It certainly gives the whole enterprise a dog-and-pony show feel.

    I also wonder if Russia may feel the need to develop new launch vehicles since it may simply be infeasible to maintain the number of old vehicles they currently have. From that standpoint, this could be looked at both as a budgetary measure and an expression of Russia’s anxiety over the readiness of their forces.

  8. March 10, 2018Levantine said...

    1/3. Michael Kofman, a Senior Research Scientist at CNA and a Fellow at the Wilson Center researching and writing on the Russian military, is less optimistic than you about defense from the aeroballistic missile "Iskander" Kinzhal. He writes:

    If anything, this weapon is ideally suited for the Pacific theater, where many Mig-31s are based, and in the anti-ship role, as it will prove incredibly difficult to intercept.<<

    2/3 I'm glad that you pointed a number of trade-offs in the employment of these weapons. Good as it is, a serious assessment would need much more, I think. You pointed out that many of these technologies had been investigated five to seven decades ago. It left me puzzled about what it meant to imply.

    3/3 I forwarded your article to readers of, and received three responses. I'm genuinely sorry about a couple of derogatory descriptions of your work. Other comments were purely technical and therefore good to read.

  9. March 10, 2018bean said...


    1. I disagree openly with the received wisdom on ABM systems, and outlined the basis of this disagreement in Why the Carriers are not Doomed, Part 3. For reasons I don’t understand, I didn’t link to it originally, although I’ll go back and add it.

    2. I do genuinely think that Putin is basically bluffing, and might have actually gone through the annals of nuclear history looking for weapon system ideas to put together. In most cases, the systems were abandoned for good reason. I’m not even sure Kinzhal exists as more than an Iskander strapped to a MiG-31 to give Putin pictures, for instance. Russia has a long history of doing this kind of stuff, and nobody seems to be asking questions about if they’re playing games again.

    3. Interesting. I’m mostly just laughing at the one who kept describing me as a ‘butthurt fanboy’. He seems to think I’m ignorant of the various titanium-hulled, deep-diving and very fast submarines of the Cold War. I’m not. If they want to build an unmanned, nuclear-powered torpedo with approximately the performance of an Alfa or a Papa, they can do that. But it won’t be 100 times smaller than a manned submarine, and it won’t be undetectable. Those classes had their virtues, but silence was not among them. The noise inside the Papa’s control room was estimated at about 100 decibels. You’d better believe the US could hear it. I’ll admit that dealing with it would be difficult, but I was primarily pointing out the contradiction in Putin’s statements, not saying that such a thing would be totally useless. Of course, how it’s supposed to hear anything at high speed and very deep is beyond me.

    Likewise, his use of “hypersonic” as a talisman to ignore my statements on Iskander. Hypersonic just means it’s faster and harder to intercept, not that it’s immune to all weapons.

    I’d recommend avoiding Saker. The first article of his I was linked made no sense. Let’s see. The Russians don’t need supplies, clothing, or food to fight? The US was a sideshow in WWII in Europe, and then hasn’t achieved anything since then? Oh, I don’t know, maybe the bit where we DEFEATED JAPAN BASICALLY WITHOUT YOUR HELP. And Desert Storm is the least bad war since then? How about the bit where we’ve stayed in Afghanistan a lot longer than you did, and with a lot lower casualties? Seriously, just ignore him.

    And then there’s FB, who seems to be accusing me of ignoring Russian turbopumps in an article on battleship propulsion, which he didn’t read that closely. I’d suggest that if that’s the level of their reading comprehension, it might not be a good place to get information from. I can be accused of many things, but having my facts wrong on battleship details is not one of them.

  10. April 07, 2022Carey Underwood said...

    From the linked Saker: “Russia is now the most powerful country on the planet. (…) the Russian armed forces are probably the most powerful and capable ones on earth”

    That aged like fine processed cheddar left out in the sun.

  11. April 08, 2022Doctorpat said...

    To be fair, the nuclear cruise missile 9M730 Burevestnik, and the air launched Kinzhal have turned out to be real weapons that the Russians actually made.

    Though Bean's comment about testing a nuclear cruise missile risking radioactive contamination if anything goes wrong did also turn out to be absolutely spot on.

    And I don't know if the Kinzhal has proved to be more militarily effective than any other similarly sized missile.

  12. April 08, 2022bean said...

    Yeah, this post hasn't aged particularly well. It looks like Putin was crazy enough to actually do this stuff (the nuclear minisubmarine/torpedo is also a real thing), but Saker's claims have aged even worse.

  13. April 08, 2022Doctorpat said...

    I think of it as The 1913 Fallacy

    In 1913, there were many people who argued that the economies of Europe were so intwined, and that modern (sic) weapons were so deadly, that a major war between the European powers would destroy the world (as it existed). And they were absolutely correct.

    Therefore, they concluded, such a war would not happen. And they were absolutely wrong.

    Put more succinctly: Just because something would be an incredibly, obviously, stupid thing to do, does not mean that nobody will do it.

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