How seriously should we take President Vladimir Putin’s address to the Russian Federal Assembly on the 1st of March 2018, where he boasted about radical breakthroughs with Russia’s new nuclear weapons?
This article was written by Paul Dibb. Paul Dibb is emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University.
Were these merely the rantings of a deluded leader? Putin, however, asserted that ‘everything I’ve said today is not a bluff … it is not a bluff, believe me.’
So, what are these threatening nuclear weapons that Putin claims Russia now has? He began by describing the capabilities of the new super‑heavy (200 tonnes) intercontinental ballistic missile called the RS-28 Sarmat. According to Russian sources, the missile carries 10 to 24 independently targetable nuclear warheads for a total of 20 megatons or more.
Putin said that this ICBM is the first to be able to attack targets from over the South Pole. In that case, its sub‑orbital trajectory would threaten America from its southern approaches and so bypass US ballistic missile warning radars, which face northwards to detect attacks from over the North Pole. It has a very short boost phase, which shortens the interval during which it can be tracked by satellites with infrared sensors.
Putin went on to claim that Russia is also developing new types of nuclear weapons that render missile defence systems ‘absolutely pointless’. One of them allegedly is powered by a small nuclear propulsion unit in an air‑launched missile called X-101. Apparently, it’s a low‑flying stealth missile carrying a nuclear warhead ‘with an almost unlimited range and unpredictable trajectory’. Putin claimed that ‘no other country has developed anything like this’.
Another weapon that Putin mentioned is an unmanned, nuclear‑powered submersible vehicle that can operate in the ocean at extreme depths, has an intercontinental range, and can travel at underwater speeds in excess of 100km/h. This weapon is known as Oceanic Multipurpose System Status‑6 (or Kanyon) and has been dubbed a ‘doomsday drone’ because it may carry a cobalt nuclear warhead of up to 100 megatons capable of devastating ports like New York and Los Angeles with massive radioactive contamination. Putin claimed, “There is simply nothing in the world capable of withstanding them.”
Putin also asserted that Russia has a high‑precision, hypersonic air‑launched missile system called Kinzhal (Dagger). Again, he asserted that ‘it is the only one of its kind in the world’. This missile is allegedly capable of flying at Mach 10 and delivering nuclear and conventional warheads over 2,000 kilometres.
He claimed another technological breakthrough with the development of a missile that’s a gliding wing unit. This new hypersonic‑speed, high‑precision weapon system called Avangard can apparently be fitted to an ICBM warhead and hit targets at intercontinental distances and engage in intensive manoeuvring as it travels. This makes it ‘absolutely invulnerable to any missile defence system’. Once more, Putin asserted that ‘no country in the world as of now has such arms in their military arsenal’.