Russia Releases Videos Offering An Unprecedented Look At Its Six New Super Weapons
After a controversial summit between Trump and Putin, the Kremlin gives us a glimpse of its latest strategic weapons developments.
Russia has released new footage of all six of the advanced weapon systems that President Vladimir Putin revealed in an impassioned speech in March 2018. The goal seems to be to prove that there are physical prototypes of each one, but questions remain about how close any of the systems, especially the Poseidon long-range nuclear-armed torpedo and the Burevestnik nuclear-powered and armed cruise missile, are to actually entering service.
The Russian Ministry of Defense posted the clips on YouTube on July 19, 2018. In contrast to previous imagery the country has shown of the weapons involved, in many cases, censors blurred or otherwise obscured certain components, as well as identifying markings on the systems. The new imagery also comes after a controversial summit between Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump that reportedly included discussions
“I want to tell all those who have fueled 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,” Putin had said in his state of the union-style address on March 1, 2018. “You have failed to contain Russia.”
A closeup of the nuclear-powered cruise missile...sort of
The most interesting video of the group is one that offers the first official close-up look at the Burevestnik cruise missile, which reportedly uses a nuclear-powered engine to give it essentially unlimited range. The weapons are heavily obscured in the video, hidden inside launch canisters and under tarps, and censors blocked out additional information in post-production.
We do get a good sense of the missile’s overall side, though, which seems surprisingly small given the scale of previous designs for nuclear-powered air-breathing engines for aircraft and missiles. From what we can see, the missile has a large, high-mounted main wing over its mid-section that pops out after launch and smaller stabilizers at the rear.
It also has a very angular nose cone, suggesting that it may have some level of low-observability. Its immense range would already allow it to skirt defenses and avoid detection, but this could make it even more difficult for an adversary to spot it and try and shoot it down as it penetrates into contested airspace.
“The missile’s component makeup is being improved based on clarified requirements, while ground tests continue and preparations are being made for experimental flight tests of the improved missile,” a Russian Defense Ministry official told reporters on July 19, 2018, according to state-run outlet TASS. “In the meantime, launching systems are also being designed, while technological processes to manufacture, assemble and test the missile are being improved.”
It remains unclear exactly what sort of progress the Russians are actually making on this system. Previous reports, citing unnamed U.S. intelligence officials, said that the initial tests had been failures.
More recent information suggests that the Kremlin may not even be testing the design with the nuclear powerplant yet, which would make sense. A conventionally powered version would allow the Russians to continue working on other aspects of the system and then integrate the new reactor-powered engine when and if it becomes viable. Still, we at The War Zone have already examined the potential hazards of doing so at all in detail.
There is also a question about whether or not the Burevestnik will violate the bilateral U.S.-Russia Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, which bans both nuclear and conventional ground-launched missiles with ranges between 310 and 3,420 miles. The weapon would occupy a gray area since it will be able to fly well beyond those distances, as well as being able to hit targets less than 3,420 miles away. The Kremlin could easily get around this issue entirely by mounting the final weapon on a naval platform, which the agreement doesn't cover at all.
See the Poseidon torpedo's propeller spin...kind of
The views of the Poseidon long-range torpedo, previously known as Kanyon or Status-6, are even more unique. Censors blocked out the weapon’s propeller, but one can still see it moving during an apparent test. The rear fins also move back and forth in what is likely an effort to show the example on camera is more than just a mockup.
This weapon remains one of the more controversial systems Russia is developing now. The country may end up coupling it with a nuclear-powered underwater drone, possibly based on the Harpsichord-1R design, that has effectively unlimited range and is especially difficult to detect, as well.
Another Kremlin attempt to avoid western ballistic missile defenses, from the information available now, it appears that Poseidon’s main job is to strike at coastal installations with little to no warning. It reportedly has an especially dirty warhead, which means it would not only cause immediate damage, but also contaminate the area and impede any continued operations or repairs.
New computer generated graphics accompanying the live footage show a submarine firing two of the weapons, including one at a coastal radar installation. This is a somewhat ominous reference given recent Russian mock attacks on exactly this sort of site in Norway.
The submarine uses the other Poseidon to attack at carrier strike group. Notably, the notional flattop in the clip is a Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR), a configuration that the United States and its allies
do not employ. The only countries that do are China, India, and Russia itself.
A new look at the Avangard hypersonic boost-glide vehicle
We also get an entirely new, if still limited, look at the Avangard hypersonic boost-glide vehicle on top of what may be either an RS-26 Rubezh or UR-100N UTTKh Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The entire missile is shielded from view as crews load it into a silo, but the especially flat planform of the vehicle on top is clear.
Hypersonic boost-glide vehicles have few of the vulnerabilities associated with traditional ICBMs since they have a more limited signature and can rapidly change course in flight to avoid detection and defenses. Their speed gives any potential opponent very little time to react even if they do see the weapon coming. It is “like a meteorite, like a fireball,” Putin said of Avangard in March 2018.
Russia has spent considerable resources on getting this particular system ready for operational service, going so far as to shelve the RS-26 program entirely to free up additional funding. The U.S. military’s admission that it has no defenses what so ever at present to counter hypersonic weapons has almost certainly provided the Kremlin with an added emphasis to complete the system’s development.
The goal is to have the weapons ready for combat by 2019 and using the older UR-100N UTTKh design appears to be part of that plan. However, in the future, Avangard may find its way onto the RS-28 Sarmat, as well as road-mobile missiles, such as the RT-2PM2 Topol-M and RS-24 Yars, which could further expand Russia’s capabilities in this regard.
A more detailed view of the RS-28 Sarmat ICBM
Another video offered a new look at the RS-28 Sarmat ICBM, known to NATO as the SS-X-30 Satan 2. Russia has been working on this silo-based weapon since at least 2014 as a replacement for the existing R-36Ms or SS-18 Satans. In May 2018, Putin said that the RS-28 would enter operational service in 2020. After that, it will likely steadily become the country’s primary heavy ICBM.
The clip shows a transporter loading the missile into a silo and a higher-resolution look at a test launch than we have seen before. More interestingly, the second half of the video gives a detailed look at components of the Sarmat’s body, as well as the parts that link the sections together, under construction or test.
Again, the Russian Ministry of Defense blurred out the faces of individuals working on the missile. They did not block out any views of the parts themselves.
Sarmat is perhaps the least novel and best known of the weapons Putin talked focused on in March 2018. Questions remain, though, about what type of warheads it might use. It is possible that it might feature the ability to carry Avangard hypersonic boost-glide vehicles, have a fractional orbital bombardment capability, or employ independent post-boost vehicles (IPBV).
Each one of these arrangements is intended to help defeat ballistic missile defenses. Russia has repeatedly criticized U.S. and European efforts in this regard, despite the fact that none of the existing systems can, in any way, challenge the country’s nuclear deterrent capabilities.
To reinforce the point of Sarmat's ability to strike the United States, one computer-generated clip in the March 2018 speech notably showed an RS-28 depositing its warheads onto the state of Florida. Putin has, unsurprisingly, since denied this was the case.
“As far as the footage is concerned, well, they did not specify that it – the missile is about to hit the United States. You have to look at it more carefully,” Putin told Fox News’ Chris Wallace in an interview on May 16, 2018. Wallace subsequently pressed the Russia leader on the issue.
“It – that was not signed ‘Florida.’ There was not a caption saying ‘Florida,’” a clearly exasperated Putin countered again. “They could – take a more careful look at it. There was never a caption, ‘Florida.’”
You can decide for yourself below.
More of the Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile
In the order they were posted, the first video features the hypersonic Kh-47M2, a modified ground-launched Iskander-M quasi-ballistic missile, and the specially modified MiG-31K carrier aircraft. Out of the six new weapon systems, this is the one we have already seen the most of in official pictures and video.
The clip is relatively uneventful, showing MiG-31Ks taking off, launching the weapon, and returning to base. It is notable that the Russians blocked out the faces of pilots and ground crew, as well as the “Bort” numbers on the side of the aircraft.
This could be an attempt to obscure just how many MiG-31Ks the country actually has available. Two of these jets flew over Moscow during the annual Victory Day parade in May 2018.
“The MiG-31 is its carrier, this aircraft is most suitable to disperse this missile to the required speeds at the right altitudes,” Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov told the Russian military’s official news outlet Zvezda that same month. “In support of the fact that this is not some kind of exotic: Today, ten aircraft are on experimental combat duty and are ready for use depending on the situation.”
Russian officials have said that the Kinzhal has a maximum range of between approximately 930 and 1, 240 miles, three to four times that of the ground-based Iskander-M. Earlier in July 2018, CNBC reported, citing unnamed U.S. officials, that Kremlin had only tested it out to a range of nearly 500 miles.
It is likely, that the boost in momentum from the MiG-31K itself, as well as the launch altitude, has an impact on the weapon’s flight path and the total distance it can cover. Computer generated graphics that accompanies Putin’s March 2018 announcements showed the weapon initially following a ballistic trajectory before dropping down to a lower altitude before striking the target, but there is no indication that this is an accurate representation of its capabilities.
You can read more about the Kh-47M2s possible capabilities in our past analysis here. According to CNBC, the U.S. government expects the weapon to truly enter operational service by 2020.
The Peresvet laser weapon reappears
The last video is the last informative, showing the Peresvet laser, but offering little in the way of new details. There are no clips, live or computer generated, of the directed energy weapon in operation to give a sense of its capabilities.
As we at The War Zone noted in the past, it looks very similar in size and purpose to the U.S. Navy’s own AN/SEQ-3 Laser Weapon System. Still, there is every indication that it could be useful as a point defense weapon, especially against small drones, a threat that Russia is particularly aware of given its experiences in Syria.
There are reports that Russia’s Khmeimim Air Base in that country suffered yet another attack by small unmanned aircraft earlier in July 2018. Past official statistics indicate that this has become something of a regular occurrence.
Whatever the actual status of any of these programs is or isn’t, it’s clear that Russia was eager to tout its advanced weapons developments following Putin’s meeting with Trump. Though politicians and experts in the West widely criticized the outcome of the meeting, it was very positive for the Kremlin.
Russian officials have said that the two leaders made a host of agreements, despite there being no written documentation or other evidence to support these claims. As noted, Russia has been particularly eager to find a way to halt the expansion of missile defenses in Europe, as well as elicit a host of other concessions related to its illegal occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea region, its intervention in that country and in Syria, as well as negotiate favorable new terms for arms control agreements, including those covering strategic weapons.
“It's crucial that we fine-tune the dialogue on strategic stability and global security and nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” Putin told reporters on July 17, 2018. “We submitted our American colleagues a note with a number of specific suggestions.”
The United States already accuses Russia of violating the INF treaty and the Open Skies Treaty, the latter of which is supposed to improve transparency in military affairs. Putin has also warned that the New START arms control deal might sunset when it comes up for renewal in 2021 if relations between the two countries remain so poor.
There have been indications in that past that the U.S. government may be willing to trade away some of its own new strategic weapons developments in exchange for the Kremlin halting work on various systems and agreeing to extend existing limitations. With these videos, the Russian government seems keen to emphasize that it is willing and able to dramatically expand its nuclear weapons and other advanced weapon capabilities if any future negotiations collapse.
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