Back to the Future, 1984: Putin’s Announcement of New Strategic Nuclear Weapons Gives Us The Future We Never Had.

“What’s he going to do, drop a nuclear reactor on London?” So thought Niels Bohr when Werner Heisenberg showed him a drawing of what appeared to be a nuclear reactor during a mysterious meeting of the pair in Copenhagen during the war. That meeting still puzzles historians of science and of the nuclear age. Bohr’s refrain came to mind as I watched Vladimir Putin announce a nuclear propelled intercontinental cruise missile during Russia’s version of the State of the Union.

Of course, it wasn’t the only strategic weapon system that Putin discussed. Many commentators have dismissed Putin’s remarks as chest thumping rhetoric for the gallery prior to the upcoming presidential election, and a response of sorts to the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review published last month.

That would be a mistake. To be sure the timing of Putin’s address serves a domestic political function, but many of the strategic systems discussed have been known of and the research and development process predates the election campaign and the NPR development process in the US. Also, some of the tests Putin speaks of occurred after his last Presidential Address. It has been noted, furthermore, that the video graphics of the weapon systems did not feature physical systems in flight however for each system shown the graphical depictions follow on from real physical imagery of the research and development process.

The big ticket strategic nuclear items that Putin focused on his address were

Sarmat ICBM

Hypersonic Glide Vehicle

Nuclear Propelled Intercontinental Cruise Missile

Nuclear Propelled Undersea Drone

Vladimir Putin’s address is best seen as Moscow’s long range response to Ballistic Missile Defence, and NATO expansion. Some of the strategic systems discussed, as revealed by Putin’s use of lecture presentation slides, also had tactical dimensions. For instance, the “Status-6” undersea drone is depicted as striking naval concentrations at sea. Moreover, the military dimension of Putin’s remarks began with a discussion of the historical aspects of BMD and was couched within the framework of that survey thus demonstrating the relatively long progeny of the programmes unveiled.

That long range programme is very similar to the response that the Soviet Union developed to Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative or “Star Wars” in the mid-to-late 1980s. The USSR decided upon an asymmetrical response to SDI based upon the development of countermeasures rather than the building of a symmetrical multilayered BMD system of its own and offensive space weapons. The asymmetrical response did include a space weapons programme, however that followed on from the space based BMD platforms envisaged by the SDI programme and was not as ambitious as the space based components of the symmetrical response.

One aspect of that asymmetric response was the SP-2000 programme which was focused on the modernisation of the Soviet strategic triad in the short term and the development of new weapon systems to assure retaliation in the long term, which Pavel Podvig discusses in a paper on the topic

All projects of this kind involved two stages – a short-term improvements in survivability and a longer-term research that aimed at exploring additional measures that would increase the effectiveness of missile defense penetration.

Putin in his address demonstrated that Russia’s response is of a kind with the Soviet response

As such, Russia has developed, and works continuously to perfect, highly effective but modestly priced systems to overcome missile defence. They are installed on all of our intercontinental ballistic missile complexes. In addition, we have embarked on the development of the next generation of missiles.

The shorter term aspects of Russia’s response to BMD find their direct origins in the Soviet modernisation drive in response to SDI, for example solid fuelled ICBMs and SLBMs such as the Topol-M and its MIRVed version the RS24-Yars. The SS-19 liquid propelled ICBM was planned to be deployed with MaRV warheads, and the Sarmat ICBM, the first cab off the rank in Putin’s address, is often seen as the successor to the SS-19 by analysts.

The Sarmat is the first of the long range responses to BMD that we shall focus on here, to take Putin’s lead as it were.

The first thing we note about Putin’s remarks is the stated mass of the Sarmat. Contrary to the view of analysts Putin suggested that the Sarmat ICBM will be more akin to the heavier SS-18 ICBM than the SS-19. In the week leading up to the address imagery of what some took to be parts of the airframe of the Sarmat in manufacture were released, however analysts felt that the dimensions of the purported airframe components were too large for the Sarmat. That supposition could well be wrong. Putin stated that the total mass of the Sarmat will be 200 tonnes. The launch mass of the SS-18 was approximately 200 tonnes, and that of the SS-19 approximately 100 tonnes.

The video of the Sarmat shows what appears to be the December 2017 silo ejection test, and then graphical imagery of 9 MIRV warheads descending upon Florida. Additionally, the graphical imagery showed a Sarmat trajectory overflying the South Pole by means of a fractional orbit. It has been reported that Sarmat would have a FOBS capability, and Putin’s address has done little to dispel this notion. A heavy ICBM with significantly more than three MIRVs and with a FOBS capability is very much consistent with an integrated asymmetric response to BMD. A number of the Sarmat ICBMs will be deployed with hypersonic manoeuvrable reentry vehicles, according to Putin.

Putin also made mention of a hypersonic glide vehicle, “a real technological breakthrough is the development of a strategic missile system with fundamentally new combat equipment – a gliding wing unit, which has also been successfully tested.” Accprding to Putin the vehicle has passed experimental testing and approaches deployment

In this respect, I am pleased to inform you that successfully completed experiments during these exercises enable us to confirm that in the near future, the Russian Armed Forces, the Strategic Missile Forces, will receive new hypersonic-speed, high-precision new weapons systems that can hit targets at inter-continental distance and can adjust their altitude and course as they travel

Hypersonic glide vehicles are usually to be released by a missile into the upper reaches of the atmosphere whereupon they glide to their targets at hypersonic speeds. Their trajectory is not ballistic, and can vary significantly in altitude and cross range and they provide a far more formidable interception challenge for BMD than MaRVs.

This too was featured in the Soviet long range asymmetric response to SDI, again citing Podvig

At first, the “SP-2000” program apparently concentrated on incremental modernization of the existing ICBMs, avoiding any major new development projects. But the program eventually was taken advantage of to launch new projects as well. The NPO Mashinostroyeniya design bureau developed a concept of an intercontinental missile with a gliding reentry vehicle, presenting it as one more way to defeat the U.S. missile defense. This project, known as “Albatros”, was added to the “SP-2000” program in 1987

The Sarmat and the hypersonic glide vehicle we knew about, if not some of the details mentioned by Putin especially their purported R&D progression. But the nuclear propelled cruise missile came out of left field. Putin has alleged that Russia has developed a small nuclear reactor, some argue a fast neutron reactor, able to be emplaced in a X-101 cruise missile body, effectively turning it into a nuclear powered scramjet that would operate at altitudes lower than the hypersonic glide vehicle. The reactor would heat supersonic air intakes to generate thrust. The nuclear powered cruise missile can loiter for very long times, possess an unlimited range and, naturally, fly on non ballistic trajectories so evading BMD.

The US experimented in the 1950s with something similar and altogether much bigger. On Putin’s telling it would appear that Moscow has made some advances in reactor technology, although quite a few are sceptical of this. Hitherto nuclear propulsion, using plutonium-238, has been limited to deep space exploration probes. One aspect supportive of Putin’s assertion was the appearance of mysterious traces of radioactivity in Russia’s arctic region at the time Putin purported Russia tested the nuclear powered cruise missile. According to some US sources the test was a failure.

The nuclear powered cruise missile should be seen as a type of doomsday device, because the missile is dirty. The reactor would be unshielded so would release a very high number of neutrons, and it would spew out fission products. A weapon so dirty best functions as a tool of assured retaliation after all is lost.

Intercontinental cruise missiles, perhaps not nuclear powered, also featured in the Soviet long range asymmetric response to BMD

The part of the “SP-2000” program that addressed strategic aviation included research on improving hardness of cruise missiles and reducing their signature as well as a research on a new low-altitude long-range cruise missiles. The program also included an unusual project, “Podzol”, that called for deployment of intermediate- and long-range cruise missiles carried by Mi-26 helicopters.

Furthermore, so did a “dead hand” doomsday like device to assure retaliation after a potential US first strike. This tale has been well told in a book pitched to the broader public by David Hoffman, appropriately titled The Dead Hand.

The nuclear powered undersea drone we also knew about. If you can build a reactor to power a cruise missile why not a reactor to power an undersea drone? The advances made in reactor technology underpin both weapon systems, it is implied by Putin’s remarks. Some reports had suggested that the drone would feature a 100MT warhead targeting ports, akin to Tsar Bomba which was designed at 100MT but tested to 50MT. The massive yield and its unmanned nature is suggestive of a doomsday device to assure retaliation should the worse scenario, loss of nuclear command and control following a first strike, come about. The 100MT yield, often cited in the Western media, is surely too high. Putin in his address specified that the undersea drone would have a “massive nuclear ordnance” likely in the megatonne range.

On top of those programmes Putin announced the trial testing of an Iskander air launched ballistic missile known as Kinzhal, which has a range of 2000km according to Putin, and the vanguard weapon system without providing any real specifics. The Kinzhal sort of makes the reported INF treaty busting intermediate range ground launched cruise missile kind of moot, which pointedly wasn’t mentioned in Putin’s speech.

Much of this does not alter the strategic balance between the United States and Russia, and does not have as deleterious an impact on strategic stability as often stated. This is because the emphasis is on assuring retaliation, that is second strike deterrence, not first strike counterforce. One aspect, however, that is potentially strategically destabilising is the compression of early warning and response times posed by hypersonic glide vehicles. Hitherto that has been an acute problem faced by Moscow, but Washington, at least in the area of hypersonic glide vehicles, now faces early warning and response time parity with Russia and that’s something new. That doesn’t augur well for proposals to de-alert strategic nuclear forces through the elimination of launch-on-warning postures, perhaps the most important strategic implication of the Putin address.

Much of the Soviet response to BMD did not eventuate because of the end of the cold war, the development of strategic arms control occasioned by it, but which arms control also contributed to, and the cancellation of SDI. Gorbachev offered the West a regime of cooperative and common security that would dismantle both cold war alliance systems, but that offer was not only rejected but worse the US, and its NATO partners, expanded NATO both in range and mission. Furthermore, the US abandoned the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty, the cornerstone of strategic arms control, to develop a ballistic missile defence system that cannot defend the US, and its allies, from North Korea one of its main rationales. Moreover, an element of US unipolarity following the end of the cold war was the modernisation of its strategic nuclear forces, in part, to augment a desired counterforce capability to assure escalation dominance.

The Russian response to BMD is over the top, and kind of grotesque, but such comes when the salience placed upon nuclear deterrence in international relations is high. Put simply, we are slowly heading toward that stage of nuclear history we would have reached had not Gorbachev decisively moved to end the cold war.

We are heading back to 1984 and the future it held out for us. Trump’s BMD Review is currently in progress, we might add.

To be sure the number of nuclear warheads are lower than then, but those numbers were well beyond overkill, however the qualitative trajectory we are on is clear.

The deterioration of US-Russian relations has seen the West place economic sanctions upon Russia. When Dmitry Medvedev replaced Putin as President a key concern of his was maintaining relations with the West to support the modernisation of Russia’s industrial production capacity. Reliance on commodity exports, as demonstrated by the global financial crisis, is not a viable economic model for Russia. In the absence of healthy relations between East and West, updating Russia’s industrial base, much like with the case of North Korea, through the military-industrial complex becomes a relatively more rational strategic industry policy.

The FY2017NDAA and FY2018NDAA includes language calling for an expansion in the scope of BMD, to even encompass boost phase interception and space based sensors. Russia’s long range asymmetric response to BMD doesn’t have a space component like that of the Soviet, but a gradual extension of BMD to space would see that come to. The Soviet collapse might be seen in future as an aberration in nuclear history, rather than the dawn of a new era.

The new year has seen Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump, and now Vladimir Putin engage in nuclear sabre rattling and its only just March already. The display has a certain vulgar aspect to it.

One of the advances necessary for hypersonic glide vehicles to function, it might be added, lies in the materials used for the thermal protection system. These would be invulnerable to directed energy weapons using current laser technology, some are talking about the revival of laser interception for BMD, given that the thermal protection system is well hardened to protect the warhead travelling at hypersonic velocities.

A nuclear pumped X-ray laser, however…