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The Poseidon: Russians Automated, Nuclear Capable Submarine

Written by C. Christian Monson

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For fans of the Terminator film franchise, handing over nuclear weapons to artificial intelligence may seem like a pretty bad idea. But while it might sound like the premise of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie, it’s actually Russia’s newest nuclear deterrent strategy.

The Poseidon, also known by its codename Status-6, is an autonomous submarine armed with a nuclear warhead and capable of striking strategic targets around the globe. With more than 30 planned for construction and tagged for operation as early as 2027, Poseidon has provoked reactions from other countries, namely the US, the nation Poseidon is designed to attack. Regardless of the politics, though, an unmanned nuclear-armed submarine represents a major change in naval warfare and strategy.

SCARE TACTICS

The first official announcement of the Poseidon submarine was in March 2018, when Russian President Vladimir Putin described it as a weapon capable of launching nuclear attacks on US coastal cities. However, many of the components and designs used on it date back to the 80s and the conception of the Borei class of ballistic missile submarines.

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The Borei class submarines have been in development for decades with the goal of replacing many of the older Soviet-era Delta III, Delta IV and Typhoon class vessels. After a lot of reworking and scrapped construction, the modern iteration of the Borei class, also known as Project 955, finally saw its first submarine, Yury Dolgorukiy, enter the water in 2008.

While the initial idea for the Poseidon unmanned vehicle surely predates it, the first public mention of it was in November 2015 when the Russian TV channel NTV showed a page of a document discussing a secret “oceanic multi-purpose system” during a speech by Vladimir Putin criticizing US plans for defensive missile technology. Russia claimed the leak was an accident,  but the CIA concluded the leak was an intentional scare tactic.

These plans more or less coincided with the development of Project 09851, a class of submarines based on the Borei class but smaller and lacking the ballistic-missile section. This is because these submarines will be capable of carrying six Poseidons instead. The first of class, Khabarovsk was laid down in 2014 with launch planned for 2022, postponed from 2020. Another vessel, Ulyanovsk, was laid down in 2017, and two more have been ordered, though they aren’t yet under construction. Two of the four will serve in Russia’s Northern Fleet in the Arctic Ocean with the other two in the Pacific Fleet.

Although the submarines designed to carry them have suffered from delays and obstacles in development, Russia seems to have developed the Poseidons relatively quickly. In 2019, Vladimir Putin himself announced that the Poseidon had successfully completed its trial phase, and a few weeks later, the Russian Ministry of Defense released a video of a Poseidon successfully launching from a B-90 Sarov submarine.

In addition to the Khabarovsk class submarines under construction, Poseidons could be carried by similar modified Oscar-class submarines, or they could merely be staged on the sea floor while awaiting deployment. Russian Zvezdochka ice-breaking ships have been observed operating in testing exercises with the autonomous submarine, suggesting that they could be used to retrieve Poseidons standing by on the floor of the Arctic Ocean, even though placing nuclear weapons on the seabed 12 nautical miles beyond a country’s territorial limit is a violation of the Seabed Arms Control Treaty of 1972.

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SILENT BUT DEADLY

The Poseidon was developed by Rubin Central Design Bureau for Marine Engineering based in Saint Petersburg. They had two main things in mind: stealth and destructive power. 

Roughly 24 meters long, or less than 80 feet, Poseidon is definitely small for a submarine, but its warhead is not. The thermonuclear bomb is four meters in length, about 13 feet, and 1.5 meters in diameter, about five feet. This gives it a volume of seven cubic meters or nearly 250 cubic feet, meaning it could have a nuclear yield up to 100 megatons. 

Intelligence estimates vary widely, with some pointing to a yield closer to just two megatons, but if the 100-megaton analysis is correct, that would make Poseidon’s payload twice as powerful as the Tsar Bomba, the largest nuclear bomb ever detonated. Even a two-megaton yield would be some 125 times more powerful than the “Little Boy” atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

On top of that, many analysts have speculated that the Poseidon is equipped with a cobalt bomb. This is a thermonuclear warhead “salted” with ordinary cobalt metal. During the explosion of the device, neutrons produced by the nuclear fusion reaction transmute the stable cobalt to radioactive cobalt-60, which condenses and falls back down to earth. 

While normal radioactive fallout returns to levels tolerable to humans after just a few weeks, the fallout from a cobalt bomb can contaminate a large area for decades. In other words, the Poseidon’s warhead is a doomsday device designed, in theory, as an absolute last resort and deterrent based on the principle of mutually assured destruction.

However, what really makes the Poseidon intimidating isn’t its destructive nuclear warhead—Russia has had the ability to strike US coastal cities for some time already—but its stealth technology.

For one thing, it’s super fast. Intelligence estimates pin it at 100 kilometers per hour, or around 60 miles per hour, certainly faster than the current record-holding submarine, the Russian K-162, which hit a top speed of 83 kilometers per hour, or roughly 50 miles per hour, in 1969. It can also go deep, up to a kilometer or 3,300 feet, underwater and far, with a range of 10,000 kilometers, or 6,200 miles, more than the distance from Los Angeles to Fokino in Primorsky Krai, Russia, the headquarters of Russia’s Pacific Fleet.

In addition to its agility, Poseidon has a specially designed pump-jet. By changing the type of jet it produces in the water, the submarine can disguise its own acoustic signature and even imitate the sounds of other ships.

If that weren’t scary enough, Poseidon is also capable of “silent running.” When moving at low speeds, it can turn off the gas cooling systems for its nuclear reactor, instead relying on the seawater around it. It’s estimated that a US Virginia-class submarine would not be able to detect a Poseidon moving at less than 37 kilometers per hour (23 miles per hour) if it were more than 1.7 kilometers away, about a mile. As a result, Poseidon could travel for weeks undetected until it reached a target city, then hit the “gas,” so to speak, just before detonating its warhead.

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COLD WAR POSTURING

The Poseidon seems to be proof that the old Cold War animosities are far from reconciled. Russia has stated that the autonomous submarine is a response to US missile defense systems such as the sea-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system and air defense systems destined for Romania and Poland near the Russian border. 

Although the US has always stated these systems are meant for defending against rogue states like Iran, Vladimir Putin asserts that “their real goal is to neutralize the strategic nuclear potential of other nuclear states… above all, of course, Russia.” With its speed and stealth, Poseidon could counter and avoid these missile defense systems to attack important American military assets like naval bases and aircraft carrier battle groups. It’s fast enough to outmaneuver current anti-submarine warfare units and could get close enough to a battle group or base to detonate its warhead before even being detected. It could slip under the Golden Gate Bridge undetected and not only destroy most of the San Francisco Bay Area but create a cloud of radioactive fallout drifting as far east as Montana.  

After Vladimir Putin’s initial announcement, then US Defense Secretary James Mattis shrugged off the threat, stating that Russia was already capable of striking US cities. However, officials have since admitted that Poseidon is a nuclear threat that’s difficult to detect and target, and that the US military has nothing similar in its arsenal.

Russia’s fleet of 30 Poseidons is set to be war-ready by 2027, so the US doesn’t have much time to develop a defense against this new weapon that’s totally untouchable by conventional anti-missile systems. Instead, they will have to invest a lot of money into new anti-submarine technologies. 

One of these might actually be US Navy aircraft ironically named Poseidon as well. With full motion-cameras capable of functioning day or night, long-range radar, and an electronic intelligence package that can pinpoint hostile transmitters, the plane has been successfully identifying submarines in Eastern Europe since Russia began its troop buildup on the Ukrainian border in late 2021.

Plus, the US Navy is developing its own autonomous underwater vehicle capable of combat, the Orca. They ordered five of the vessels capable of surveillance, minesweeping and electronic combat from Boeing for a total bill of over $274 million.

With technological updates, planes like the Poseidon or vehicles like Orca could find, track and, if necessary, neutralize Russian Poseidon submarines. Despite their silent motion and resistance to detection by acoustic sensors, military scientists postulate that, due to Poseidon’s small size, it could be possible to detect the radioactive signature of its nuclear engine. 

Whatever route the US military decides to go, one thing is clear: Poseidon is changing the game when it comes to naval and nuclear warfare. Military strategy going forward, not just of the US and Russia but the whole world, will have to take into account this new technology, and we’re sure to see similarly innovative and intimidating weapons developed in the near future.

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