Russia is preparing to put to sea a revolutionary underwater weapon—a long-range, high-speed, nuclear-powered, unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) with a thermonuclear warhead. The weapon is intended primarily for use against ports and coastal cities, with some Russian reports claiming a secondary role of attacking U.S. aircraft carriers.
Originally known as the “Status-6 Oceanic Multipurpose System,” the drone was named “Poseidon” by President Vladimir Putin in 2018 after a “naming contest” for new Russian weapons. As early as September 2015, U.S. Department of Defense officials reported the development of the underwater drone carrying a nuclear warhead to attack coastal cities. It was given the NATO reporting name “Kanyon.”
The existence of the program was first reported in the West—in a Washington Free Beacon article by Bill Gertz—after a 10 November 2015 Russian television show revealed some details of the weapon. A document shown during the program said Status-6’s purpose was to “damag[e] the important components of the adversary’s economy in a coastal area and [inflict] unacceptable damage to a country’s territory by creating areas of wide radioactive contamination that would be unsuitable for military, economic or other activity for long periods of time.”
Subsequent Russian accounts assert the Poseidon can operate as deep as 3,300 feet at speeds of more than 50 knots. Some sources report it has a multi-megaton warhead, with Russia claiming 200 megatons. While such a large warhead is probably an exaggeration, the potential effectiveness of even a smaller warhead deployed in this way would be considerable. The UUV’s development has been rationalized as part of several ongoing Russian efforts to get around U.S. ballistic-missile defense systems, including the Aegis Ashore systems installed in Poland and Romania.
The Russian document—said to have been “accidentally” made available to the television show—stated that the UUV would be carried externally by modified Project 949/Oscar SSGNs and another submarine type, unidentified but with project numbers 09851 and 09852. Plans announced at that time called for a prototype to be completed by 2019. Subsequent Russian reports cited a force goal of 30 or 32 such drones, with two drone-carrying submarines to be operational in the Northern Fleet and two in the Pacific Fleet in the near future.
The weapon’s potential target list of cities and major ports places it in the category of a “strategic” weapon, i.e., capable of striking an enemy’s homeland. However, the UUV concept is not addressed in the U.S.-Russian strategic arms treaty, nor in the now-being-discarded Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces agreement. As there is no known U.S. equivalent even under discussion, it appears unlikely that the Russian government would agree to the limitation of such a weapon without a major U.S. concession in another weapon category.
The drone-torpedo concept resembles the original Project 627/November nuclear-powered submarine initiated by the Soviet Union in the early 1950s. (See “The Big Torpedo,” Naval History, February 2018.) That submarine was to carry a single, massive T-15 nuclear torpedo to attack coastal cities and naval targets. The T-15 was to have a diameter of just over five feet and a length of approximately 77 feet while carrying a thermonuclear warhead, but the project was canceled following Josef Stalin’s death in March 1953. (The November class entered service as the Soviet Navy’s first nuclear-powered attack submarines in 1959, minus the T-15.)
The Poseidon reportedly is a bit longer at about 80 feet, with a similar diameter to the T-15. In March, The National Interest’s blog reported the Kanyon program began in 1989, with its miniaturized reactor in development since 1992. The blog also reports that the first Poseidon-capable submarine, the Belgorod, was scheduled to be launched in March. The boat originally was laid down as an Oscar-II but has been modified heavily and is officially described as an Arctic-research “special mission submarine.”