If there was one thing that the world could really do without these days, it’s an arms race sequel. But if you look at the monsters that are reported to be appearing out of the Soviet Union – sorry Russia – recently, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we’d somehow travelled back to the early 1960s.
When Russian President Vladamir Putin took to the stage at the Federal Assembly in Russia in 2018, he announced to the world that his nation had developed a new super-weapon that he referred to as “invincible.” A hypersonic intercontinental ballistic missile capable of evading traditional detection systems and hitting any location on the planet with next to no warning. An example attack played out through animated video at the Federal Assembly, even showed a hypothetical strike on the old enemy, the United States.
The RS-28 Sarmat is a liquid-fueled multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle equipped with a super-heavy intercontinental ballistic missile. In more simplistic terms, an enormous missile which eventually splits apart to reveal numerous smaller warheads inside. A nuclear Russian doll missile if you will.
NATO has given it the reporting name Satan 2 – the sequel to its younger brother, Satan, known in Russia as the R-36M, a fearsome goliath in itself. There seems to be a little confusion over whether or not the Satan 2 has actually become fully operational, or simply in the final stages, but either way, the next generation of Russian nuclear might is just around the corner.
Arms Race 1.0
I’m not going to go into too much detail over the first arms race because we’ve done an entire video on it here on Megaprojects and we seem to have covered it on numerous occasions in other videos. But let’s just say that it was a fairly nerve-jangling time in which the two superpowers built up a stockpile of so many nuclear weapons that they would never have had any hope of using them all.
Apart from a few rare occasions, these two boneheaded brutes thankfully never came anywhere near fighting each other. Instead, both sat atop their respective nuclear warhead mountain, playing proxy in various bitter conflicts around the world and slinging mud at each other until the USSR collapsed in 1991.
While this signalled the end of the Cold War, in truth it had become much more of a mildly chilly war for some time. A series of arms treaties during the 1980s had seen both sides begin to reduce their nuclear Arsenals – which principally involved getting rid of the worst and oldest weapons while keeping the best and most destructive.
When you actually look at how many nuclear warheads were left, the START treaties weren’t exactly groundbreaking as they still left plenty in the tank to blow the world apart many times over. But, it was certainly a start.
Another topic we’re not going to spend long on is the collapse of the Soviet Union, because, guess what, we’ve done a video on that too. Basically, anything Soviet/Arms Race/Nuclear Weapons based, don’t worry, we’ve got you covered on Megaprojects.
But we do need to touch on it quickly because it does lead to what we’re talking about today. After the USSR finally splintered apart, Russia was left in a dicey situation. Suddenly the bluster was well and truly gone and the country faced significant economic problems. The road from communism to capitalism and a market economy for the largest country on the planet was fraught with difficulties and at times Russia faced real economic collapse.
Goods began disappearing from shelves, the GDP dropped by a sixth in 1991 alone and the Russian government resorted to printing money just to keep up. The 1990s was a bleak period, but if you can say one thing about the Russians, they’re a ferociously hardy bunch, and slowly the nation began to pick itself up. Now all they needed was a uber-manly commander in chief who would ride in – bare-chested on horseback of course – to restore the glories of the Soviet Union, sorry, Russia.
When Vladamir Putin took office in 1999, Russia was already emerging from its economic malaise, but the ex KGB man gave the nation an extra shot in the arm – sports doping pun not intended, but enjoyed nonetheless.
There was never really any doubt about Putin’s desire to reestablish Russia on the global stage. And by that, I mean a menacing return of the old Soviet Union-style of doing things. Russian Tu-95 bombers began their patrols once again, which typically took them into NATO airspace, requiring jets to scramble and chase them off.
Over the last decade, Russia has made a lot of headlines. There was their otherworldly success at the Sochi Olympics in 2014 – and I think we now all know why – the annexation of Crimea, the support for Ukrainian separatists and the Assad regime in Syria, election meddling, misinformation programs and so on and so on.
Russia has been throwing its weight around like it was 1962 for some time now, and this has included a steady military build-up and the return of the dark spectre – nuclear weapons.
Now of course nuclear weapons never went away. Since the 1960s there’s been plenty of nukes lying around and while the fall of the USSR may have slowed things down for a while as Russia stepped away from the top table temporarily, the country always maintained a hefty number of civilization-ending weapons.
Hypersonic missiles are quickly becoming all the rage and a few nations are currently battling out to be top dog – Russia, the United States and China – no shocks with that terrible trio.
Travelling at least five times the speed of sound and most likely much more, harder to detect and intercept and with a massive punch capable of burrowing down deep into even the most seriously reinforced building or aircraft carrier, hypersonic missiles certainly sound like something we should be worrying about.
The next-generation Russian destroyer has been under development at Makeyev Rocket Design Bureau since 2009 and is broadly slated to replace the Cold War-era R-36 missile. The fact that work began a year after the election of President Obama which saw U.S relations with Russia take a tumble might be pure coincidence – and might not. It was first formally mentioned by military officials in 2014 with a projected 2020 deployment.
Information was fairly scant over the next four years, with only patchy clues concerning the development of this new weapon. We believe the first-stage engine named PDU-99, a modified version of the RD-274 liquid rocket engine, was tested in August 2016 with an official image of the missile appearing in October the same year.
The first successful ejection test of the missile occurred towards the end of 2017 and on 1st March 2018, Putin stood before the Federal Assembly to give his annual address where he explained to the world how Russia could theoretically destroy Florida with the use of a Satan 2.
The video that accompanied Putin’s dark sermon showed what looks like a successful launch of the Satan 2, then cuts to computer animation of the missile zigging and zagging between mountains and around American missile defence systems before breaking into several different warheads above the Sunshine State. It’s not exactly clear why Florida was the target, I mean I think we can all probably think of a few reasons but that’s beside the point.
The entire show was bizarre to say the very least. The animation looked like it might have been made by a 14 year old for a school project and the gushing response from Putin’s chums in the audience to a hypothetical nuclear attack on another country, probably says a lot about his friends – and him if we’re honest.
But still, the video was played extensively on TV around the world, which of course freaked people out, with many a hysterical commentator declaring that the United States needed to up its game in the face of such an appalling threat.
Others were significantly more restrained and dare I say less reliant on clickbait. Ex-Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice described this particular nuclear menace as an “empty threat,” while many poured cold water on the entire show saying it was little more than propaganda fear-mongering.
Putin had effectively told the world that Russia now had a missile capable of carrying nuclear weapons undetected and unopposed to any corner of the globe at speeds of 25,560 km/h (15,880 mph). If this was entirely true surely most NATO countries would be quaking in their boots right now, but as far as we know this hasn’t really been the case.
“No one listened to us,” Putin said during his speech. “Listen to us now,” he added. I don’t know about you, but that sounds more like a petulant child looking for attention, rather than the grand unveiling of a weapon that would bring the entire world to heel.
I should also add that this particular speech didn’t simply focus on Satan 2, but was one of six new weapons flaunted by the Russian leader, which included new cruise missiles and a new nuclear torpedo capable of crossing entire oceans. I would also like to highlight that 2018 was an election year in Russia and we all know what happens in election years. What better way to convince voters that you’re still Russian Strongman Number 1 than by dusting off the old war drums and pounding out the Cold War march once again.
The Satan 2
So is Satan 2 worth all the hype? Will it be coming to a cinema in Miami Beach anytime soon? Let’s put aside Putin’s bluster and take a look at the missile itself.
Satan 2 is a big boy – hence the tag superheavy intercontinental ballistic missile – and comes out at a hefty 208.1 tons, with a length of 35.5 metres (116.4 ft) and a diameter of 3 metres (9.8 ft). It has an operational range of 18,000 kilometers (11,000 miles) and a top speed of Mach 20.7 (25,560 km/h – 15,880 mph).
Unlike traditional Intercontinental ballistic missiles which travel up then down along a well-determined arc, the Satan 2 uses a much shallower trajectory and the Russians claim it can weave close to the ground, and so evading Florida’s much-touted missile defence system. Russian media has also reported that it can fly over either the north or south pole adding an extra degree of surprise when it lands in America. We can only assume that the Americans and their impressive missile defence system had never thought of this crazy possibility.
As I mentioned at the start of the video, the Satan 2 is also a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV), meaning that once it nears its target, the missile breaks into 10 to 15 separate warheads, each capable of acting like an independent cruise missile and each packing a 750 kiloton warhead. Alternatively, it could carry 24 YU-74 hypersonic boost-glide vehicles, known as Avanguards, though these are reportedly still some way off full operational use.
In theory, a single Satan 2 could deploy a combined nuclear attack with the equivalent of 8 Megatons of TNT – which is around 400 times more powerful than either of the bombs dropped on Japan at the end of the Second World War.
Putin’s claim that the Satan 2 is invincible is faintly plausible – in theory. We don’t know nearly enough about this weapon to get an accurate idea of how exactly the Satan 2 would be able to weave smoothly through the most sophisticated missile defence system on the planet as it did in the animated video. The Russian claim that the missile can take an “unpredictable route” is about as clear as Putin’s real net worth and certainly creates more questions than answers.
It’s entirely likely that several of the warheads aren’t actually weapons at all, but rather countermeasures designed to fool anti-missile systems. Perhaps only five or six of the separate missiles would carry a warhead and the rest are simply there to cover the scent. Another option might be that the Satan 2 comes with warhead cooling systems that can be used to confuse heat-seeking anti-missile systems. Unfortunately, we just don’t know, so we’ll just have to take honest Vlad at his word.
Arms Race 2.0?
The fever that erupted in the wake of Putin’s announcement in 2018 was enough to convince many that we are barrelling towards another arms race, which to be honest was probably exactly what the Russian leader was hoping for.
What’s clear is that towards the end of the Cold War, the emphasis was on the reduction of warheads and MIRVs. Both superpowers kept most of their nuclear weapons but agreed to begin lowering the number of warheads. It now appears we may be moving in the opposite direction again, with both countries, and potentially China as well, placing their faith in smaller intercontinental missiles capable of carrying more MIRVs at higher speeds. The age of the mighty Cold War armament may be over, but the sneaky speedsters of the 21st Century could well pose a very different threat.
Both Russia and the United States have vast stockpiles of nuclear weapons, most of which are now starting to look a little dated, so the idea of modernising their Arsenals isn’t exactly radical. President Obama certainly made his feelings towards nuclear weapons perfectly clear when he spoke of his dream of a world without nuclear weapons, but his administration also instigated an upgrade program to U.S nuclear armaments that will probably cost at least $1 trillion over the next three decades.
It’s difficult to say whether the arrival of the Satan 2 will spark another genuine arms race or is simply being used to score points and inflate Russian interests. The thing about dictators that stick around for a prolonged period, is that they continuously have to justify their position to the people they govern. If Russia was on friendly terms with the rest of the world, Putin would have a much harder time convincing the Russian people that they need to waste billions each year on the military, rather than fixing the country’s many social issues. The protests earlier this year in the wake of the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of Alexei Navalny were larger than most in recent history and showed that Russia might just be ready for a change. That flicker has certainly died down again but you get the feeling that Putin is going to pull out all the stops in the coming years to retain control and keep the illusion in place.
The Satan 2 is due to have its final testing phase over the next couple of years and should be deployed sometime in 2022. Whether or not we’ll ever see this invincible wonder weapon is quite a different matter – but let’s hope not.
Now, I know we’ve lampooned Putin and his new weapon quite a bit in this video, but honestly, we have very little idea just how powerful and technologically advanced the Satan 2 is. This is Russia after all, with a long pedigree of rolling out obscenely powerful weapons, so let’s not count them out entirely. How much of this new missile is cutting edge and how much is simply a propaganda tool, remains to be seen.