Throughout history, weapon system advances have created paradigm shifts for militaries. Occasionally these shifts are tectonic, unlocking new domains for warfare. The aircraft carrier took air warfare across oceans. The satellite brought electronic warfare to space. The next harbinger of strategic warfare’s future: autonomous unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs).
Russia has developed a submarine-deployed autonomous UUV (AUUV) that can travel thousands of miles and detonate a nuclear payload of several megatons in a foreign harbor—a capability that will be operational by the late 2020s.1 A strategic nuclear weapon that is deployed and detonated undersea is a true paradigm shift: Never before has a country’s nuclear kill chain remained exclusively undersea.
The “Kanyon” weapon system—also referred to as Status-6 or Poseidon—first emerged in footage on Russian television in 2015. It is a nuclear-powered (N)-AUUV that can travel thousands of nautical miles (nm) at approximately 100 knots and can operate at a depth of 1,000 meters. While it may carry a conventional weapons payload, its nuclear warhead is approximately two megatons.2 Russia designed it as a strategic weapon to take out ports and coastal cities. It may deploy on up to four submarines (modified Oscar II class) in both the Northern and Pacific Fleets, with each submarine carrying up to eight Kanyon weapons.3
Unlike any other nuclear weapon, Kanyon detonates underwater and is nuclear powered.4 Washington references it in its Nuclear Posture Review 2018 (NPR) as a “new intercontinental, nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered, undersea autonomous torpedo.”5 Russian President Vladimir Putin included Kanyon in his 2018 national address, along with three other advanced nuclear weapon vehicles.6 Russia began undersea trials for Kanyon in December 2018.
The ramifications of Kanyon cannot be overstated. Consider the realm of nuclear treaties and deterrence. Kanyon could deploy by 2027. This is past New START’s expiration, even if it were extended to 2026. As Kanyon is an N-AUUV, it does not fit New START’s current weapons definitions, much like another new weapon, Kinzhal (an air-to-surface nuclear missile). Thus, it would not be subject to the treaty’s restrictions in current form.7 Furthermore, Kanyon is impervious to ballistic-missile defense because it travels by and detonates in the ocean. There is no option to detect a Russian launch of this weapon and then execute a counterlaunch. The United States would not know of the threat until it had detonated.
The U.S. Navy should find this weapon horrifying. Naval Station Norfolk is the world’s largest naval base and houses approximately 75 ships and 130 aircraft. A single Kanyon detonation at Norfolk could wipe out half of the United States’ aircraft carriers and roughly a third of the surface Navy without warning. A coordinated attack against both Norfolk and San Diego ports would catastrophically cripple the Navy.
Since the Cold War, a successful deterrence strategy has played a large part in staving off nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. But what makes deterrence work? First, a country’s nuclear deterrent threat must be credible. In other words, an aggressor must believe that a country can and will execute the threat with which it deters.8 A country’s deterrent credibility increases if that country also enjoys primacy—meaning its nuclear forces are so great that no power could defeat them.9 Last, deterrence is strongest when the aggressor country is rational—meaning that the country acts using a cost-benefit analysis and with its own normative self-interest in mind.10
Kanyon calls these points into question. Consider an underwater nuclear attack against Naval Station Norfolk. Is a U.S. threat of a second strike credible? What if Russia denies the attack? Would Washington pull the trigger in the face of public Russian denial? And what of primacy? An attack on Norfolk would not destroy the U.S. nuclear arsenal; the United States could still volley a second strike. However, Kanyon is essentially undetectable. In terms of capabilities, then, the United States no longer holds primacy in nuclear weapons (or even parity). The U.S. nuclear triad still relies on the air domain for terminal delivery, and all U.S. delivery vehicles are detectable by Russian military technology. Last, Kanyon and its sister superweapons are evidence that while Russia may act rationally, it is not acting reasonably.11
Deterrence depends in part on rational actors, but it also assumes actors will act reasonably, insofar as they value international norms. But rationality and reasonability often are confused.12 Russia’s actions suggest that it is not acting reasonably. Weapons such as Kanyon show “Russia’s clear motivation to develop new offensive weapons to negate any perceived deterrent advantage sought by the United States.”13 Consider further that Russia wields 11 types of tactical nuclear weapons compared with the United States’ one, including at least one weapon that violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.14 The Russians have conducted multiple nuclear attack exercises against countries such as Sweden.15 While scholars might claim these are symptoms of Russia’s anxiety caused by perceived disadvantages in relation to conventional Western forces, it adds to the argument that Russia is not interested in a gentleman’s game of international norms. If satisfaction is demanded on the world’s stage, Moscow is here to win big.
Options for Deterrence
There are U.S. options to address Kanyon. First, the United States could continue to decrease its nuclear inventory to “return to an overtly deterrent posture” of minimal weapons.16 Second, the United States could pursue diplomatic means to address these new weapons. Third, the Department of Defense (DoD) could pursue its own new nuclear weapons to counter the Russians’.
Regarding the first option: Further reducing the U.S. nuclear inventory would seem to be a strategic misstep. Aside from being contrary to DoD’s national strategy and nuclear posture, it puts the nation in an uncomfortable position. If the United States reduces its inventory to a minimum number, then maintaining a deterrent posture arguably would require Washington to target cities and population centers.17 That is a problem, because the United States abides by the Law of Armed Conflict (LAC)—guidance that dictates how to conduct war.18 The LAC includes the rule of proportionality. Among other things, this stipulates that collateral damage cannot grossly outweigh the military advantage gained by an attack. In response to a Kanyon-vaporized carrier strike group, attacking population centers seems like “wanton destruction of lives.”19 The International Court of Justice holds an indeterminate stance on the use of nuclear weapons, even if the nuclear state’s existence is at risk.20 Regardless, as both Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft observed, there is no inherent strategic stability with a low weapon count.21
What of option two? Proponents of a New START II (or of prolonging New START) point to the weapons monitoring that both countries currently enjoy along with the predictability it brings. Further, extending the treaty for another five years gives the United States time to orchestrate a new treaty (or amendment) to include these new Russian weapons.22 Pursuing a new strategic relationship with Russia over “maintaining deterrence” also might allow Washington and Moscow to overcome barriers to cooperation that nuclear competition has built. This might allow the two countries to deal with new global threats together—threats that have occupied much of the post–Cold War international battlespace.
As with option one, there are several issues here (aside from one of the most glaring—the U.S. withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty). First, Russia does not have a recent track record of honoring the spirit of weapons treaties. Putin has offered to extend New START without any preconditions, but extending the treaty five years has no bearing on Kanyon.23 Critics claim declining a treaty extension is a destabilizing action. However, that critique misses the point that weapons such as Kanyon cause destabilization. Russia has demonstrated that it does not desire to “play” by international norms. Thus, the United States only hamstrings itself further by vying for either an extension of New START or a New START II treaty unless it receives significant gestures of goodwill from Russia. Second, Russia and the United States have attempted to deal with global issues side-by-side before. For example, cooperation over the Syrian civil war resulted in numerous proxy skirmishes between the two nations.
The Navy and N-AUUVs
Though controversial, there are merits to option three: matching capabilities. As observed during the Cold War, “parallel lines of technological development . . . encouraged a growing similarity of strategic doctrines.”24 It is this phenomenon that led both countries to agree to a missile-defense treaty. Where initially there might be power asymmetry with the advent of new weapons technology (and thus, instability), similar developments in both nations may force a period of stasis.25
But why choose to develop an N-AUUV? First, it acquires all the advantages of Kanyon—it meets the paradigm shift. Second, it is the logical progression of submarine-delivered nuclear weapons. Submarines have long been considered the most survivable component of the triad, given their stealth and endurance. The United States must adapt to meet the evolving threat to continue enjoying the benefits of undersea-delivered nuclear deterrence. N-AUUVs enable this. Last, the Navy is beginning to look toward UUVs and autonomy anyway. The Navy’s Undersea Warfare division asserts that UUVs will join the future undersea force. Consider too that then–Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus stated that “while unmanned technology itself is not new, the potential impact these systems will have on the way we operate is almost incalculable.”26 Former Secretary of Defense General James N. Mattis also wrote in the National Defense Strategy (NDS) that the United States must pursue “advanced autonomous systems” and that DoD will fund advances in “autonomy, artificial intelligence, and machine learning . . . to gain competitive military advantages.”
UUVs are relatively cost-effective. They do not need to surface or pull into port regularly, can be scuttled in an emergency without worrying about loss of life, and are difficult to detect. Further, acquiring an N-AUUV answers a U.S. competitor opening a new domain to the nuclear kill chain. The NDS speaks to “long-term, strategic competition” by revisionist powers and that (through the Nuclear Posture Review 2018) the United States “must recapitalize on [its] Cold War legacy nuclear forces.” If there was ever a moment for renewed parity between strategic competitors, surely this is it.
It is good to address the elephant in the room. It goes something like this: You are arguing for autonomous nuclear weapons. Are you crazy? As suggested earlier, autonomous weapons “once activated, can select and engage targets without further intervention by a human operator,” but that does not mean that humans cannot intervene.27 Imagine a U.S.-operated N-AUUV. An operator on a submarine inputs prioritized target coordinates into the N-AUUV’s program. She also inputs the desired attack time. The N-AUUV launches only when it is deemed necessary to strike. Once launched, the N-AUUV uses its navigation sensor suite to negotiate around terrain, mammals, and other obstructions to reach its target at the specified time, regulating its speed as necessary. If it finds an obstruction, it circumnavigates. If there is a weapon malfunction, it can scuttle itself deep in the ocean’s abyss. Autonomy allows for intercontinental travel without a man-in-the-loop the entire time. But the N-AUUV does not have a mind of its own. Humans still must launch it. The kill decision still resides with those who are capable of sovereign, ethical decision-making.
Objections to New Nuclear Weapons
The first objection concerns a renewed arms race. The argument describes the development of new capabilities as “counterproductive, enhancing rather than countering Russia’s destabilizing doctrine.”28 Races contribute to the “classical security dilemma,” whereby “everyone attempts to produce more security for themselves, which paradoxically leads to less security for all, because actions by the other party are seen as a threat and provoke counter steps.”29 As such, a situation might unfold such as a “political miscalculation, technical failure, a provocative third-party’s missile attack, or a terrorist nuclear explosion in either (or both) capitals [that] might trigger a nuclear holocaust.”30 Further, the more destabilizing actions the United States enables and commits through such a race, the more challenges emerge in uniting an already fragile NATO.31
Regarding signaling to allies such as NATO—that point cuts both ways. How do U.S. allies view its restraint in the face of such radical weapon developments? Inaction could easily breed skepticism of U.S. commitment.32 Second, many developments in Russian nuclear weaponry come as a reaction to U.S. conventional force superiority—not strategic developments.33 Again, the Russians have developed 11 tactical nuclear weapons to the United States’ one. Many advancements happened without U.S. provocation. Therefore, the United States has little to lose in answering Russia’s most recent strategic nuclear weapons.
Third, consider this Cold War–era idea—the essence of a nuclear arms race is no different than in any other “to and fro” in arms development between two countries: politics.34 There are multiple reasons a nation may develop new weapons, whether to appease a political base or in response to anxiety, pressure from domestic defense industries, international posturing, etc.35 This is signaling on the part of the aggressor country. The United States does this when it sends aircraft carriers toward a belligerent country. Nuclear weapons certainly have dire consequences if they are used, but signaling threat through developing them need not be so different than deploying carriers.
Another objection amounts to, so what? Russia is developing more advanced nuclear weapons than the United States and may steal the label of primacy. It is not the first time Washington has been outdone by Moscow or appeared weak. Note that there was no nuclear first-strike against U.S. soil in 1957 after Sputnik went into space, and subsequently the West was forced to come to terms with its vulnerability to a Soviet thermonuclear attack.36 Nor was there a U.S. nuclear strike when the Soviets “surpassed the United States in overall levels and capabilities of its nuclear forces,” or when the United States accepted defeat in Vietnam, instead of using nuclear force to further pursue an evasive victory.37 Yet here we are. The Soviet Union collapsed, and the United States enjoyed unipolar power through the turn of the 21st century.
This objection is well taken, but it is not quite right to draw direct parallels between the Cold War and now. The world looks different. For instance, U.S. international credibility is not what it has been in decades past.38 One might argue that U.S. military status paired with treaty organizations have allowed the United States’ reputation to take blows such as Vietnam without toppling the world order. It would be fair to question whether Washington still has such cushioning. Accordingly, not answering Russia’s nuclear advancements today may be more costly than it would have been decades ago. Further, the Americans and Soviets understood that, should a conflict play out, “the impact on each side’s vital interests would be high and symmetrical.”39 With these new weapons, that does not necessarily follow.
The U.S. military must rethink the nuclear triad in the face of new weapon advancements such as Kanyon. Militarily speaking, the Navy owns this threat almost exclusively. It also holds a potential solution. To be sure, a weapons-development competition between the United States and Russia holds risks, but inaction allows the status quo to continue, which too brings a heavy price tag. That is in part how we arrived at the problem of Kanyon. Diplomacy and treaties hold their own unique value in the balance of world politics. They are a testament to the proverb that “the pen is mightier than the sword.” But sometimes saber rattling is best answered with another, stronger saber.
1. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Nuclear Posture Review 2018, Department of Defense (2018); Amy F. Woolf, Russia’s Nuclear Weapons: Doctrine, Force, and Modernization (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 5 August 2019, updated 2 January 2020).
2. Woolf, Russia’s Nuclear Weapons: Doctrine, Force, and Modernization.
4. Pavel Podvig, “Is Russia Working on a Massive Dirty Bomb?” Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces, RussinaForces.org, 11 November 2015.
5. Mattis, Nuclear Posture Review 2018.
6. Pranay Vaddi, “Bringing Russia’s New Nuclear Weapons Into New START,” Lawfare, 31 October 2019.
7. Vaddi, “Bringing Russia’s New Nuclear Weapons Into New START.”
8. Richard A. Brody, “Deterrence Strategies: An Annotated Bibliography,” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 4, no. 4 (1960): 443–57.
9. Joan Johnson-Freese and Thomas M. Nichols, “Space, Security, and the New Nuclear Triad,” The Brown Journal of World Affairs 14, no. 1 (Fall/Winter 2007): 159–72.
10. Claudia Major and Christian MЪlling, “Adapting an Old Concept to New Challenges,” Policy Brief no. 130, German Marshall Fund of the United States (2016).
11. Vaddi, “Bringing Russia’s New Nuclear Weapons Into New START.”
12. Keith Payne, The Fallacies of Cold War Deterrence and a New Direction (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2001), 17–38.
13. Vaddi, “Bringing Russia’s New Nuclear Weapons into New START.”
14. Mattis, Nuclear Posture Review 2018.
15. Olga Oliker, “Russia’s Nuclear Doctrine,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (May 2016).
16. Johnson-Freese and Nichols, “Space, Security, and the New Nuclear Triad.”
17. Woolf, Russia’s Nuclear Weapons: Doctrine, Force, and Modernization.
18. Mattis, Nuclear Posture Review 2018.
19. John J. Klein, “Towards a Better U.S. Nuclear Strategy,” Journal of Strategic Security 7, no. 3 (Fall 2014): 84–94.
20. Edward Ifft, “A Challenge to Nuclear Deterrence,” Arms Control Today 47, no. 2 (March 2017): 6–14.
21. Klein, “Towards A Better U.S. Nuclear Strategy.”
22. Amy Woolf, The New START Treaty: Central Limits and Key Provisions (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 6 June 2019, updated 2 April 2020); Vince Manzo, “Nuclear Arms Control without a Treaty?” CNA (2019); Vaddi, “Bringing Russia’s New Nuclear Weapons into New START.”
23. Vladimir Isachenkov, “Putin Offers U.S. an Immediate Extension to Key Nuclear Pact,” Associated Press, 5 December 2019.
24. Colin S. Gray, “The Urge to Compete: Rationales for Arms Racing,” World Politics 26, no. 2 (January 1974): 207–33.
25. Gray, “The Urge to Compete: Rationales for Arms Racing.”
26. Bill Gertz, “Russia Building Nuclear-Armed Drone Submarine,” Washington Free Beacon, 8 September 2015.
27. “Defense Primer: U.S. Policy on Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems,” Congressional Research Service (2019).
28. Oliker, “Russia’s Nuclear Doctrine.”
29. Major and MЪlling, “Adapting an Old Concept to New Challenges.”
30. Arbatov, et al., “The Inherent Contradictions of Nuclear Deterrence.”
31. Manzo, “Nuclear Arms Control without a Treaty.”
32. Klein, “Towards A Better U.S. Nuclear Strategy.”
33. Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “United States Nuclear Forces, 2019,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Taylor & Francis 75 (2019): 122–34.
34. Gray, “The Arms Race Is about Politics,” Foreign Policy 9 (Winter, 1972–73): 117–29.
35. Colin S. Gray, “The Urge to Compete: Rationales for Arms Racing.”
36. Arnold Wolfers, “Europe and the NATO Shield” International Organization 12, no. 4 (Autumn 1958): 425–39.
37. David J. Trachtenberg, “How Much Strategic Force Is Too Little?” Strategic Studies Quarterly 10, no. 5 (2016): 62–92.
38. Several things come to mind here. First, the future of NATO is not necessarily straightforward, given some of the more recent strains between the leaders of France and Canada and the United Stated and comments by the Trump administration regarding NATO’s obsolescence. The United States has turned back from the Transpacific Partnership. It also abruptly withdrew from Syria, arguably abandoning its Kurdish allies.
39. Kevin Chilton and Greg Weaver, “Waging Deterrence in the Twenty-First Century,” Strategic Studies Quarterly 3, no. 1 (Spring 2009): 31–42.