Putin’s New Strategic Systems: Plans, Realities, and Prospects

By Leonid Nersisyan 

On April 24, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (Washington) hosted an event dedicated to the new Russian Strategic Systems presented during the message of Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Federal Assembly. 


Hypersonic winged combat unit “Avangard”


The editor of New Defence Order Strategy magazine Leonid Nersisyan made a report on Russia's new weapons and their impact on the balance of power between Russia and the United States. After that, a discussion has been held with the participation of Olga Oliker (director of the Russia-Eurasia Program at CSIS) and Michael Kofman (senior researcher at the CNA Corporation). We present the full text of the report with little changes, related to new information which appeared after April 2018. 

  On March 1, 2018 President of Russia Vladimir Putin addressed to the Federal Assembly. The most unexpected and unpredictable part of his speech was dedicated to the Armed Forces, or more specifically, to the new strategic weapons. Vladimir Putin confirmed the implementation of specific projects, which until now have only been mentioned as rumors. He presented the nuclear-powered cruise missile and the ground-launched combat laser system, among other items. Today, I would like to assess the weapons he mentioned, and to discuss their purpose and whether they are capable of changing the power balance between Russia and the United States. 


Nuclear-Powered Cruise Missile – Implementation of the Cold War Concept 

The nuclear-powered cruise missile had never been mentioned before in the public sources. Judging by the announcement and the footage shown, this system is new and unprecedented. According to this concept, the small-size nuclear power plant on board of the missile ensures almost unlimited range capability. The real state of preparedness of this missile is still unclear (as well as its actual testing with the reactor onboard), but the concept itself is interesting. The actual cost of such a missile may become the problem, as well as its limited use – it is clear that nobody is going to use nuclear-powered weapons in local conflicts. Its other drawback is a necessity of the staff permanent work with the nuclear-powered missiles, which requires the provision of effective radiation safety. According to the official version, the tests were conducted at the end of 2017 at the Central Testing Ground of the 12th Main Directorate of the Ministry of Defense in Novaya Zemlya Archipelago, where the nuclear power plant reached the planned capacity and ensured the required level of thrust. Later, one of Russian independent experts found out that the test launch was conducted from a launcher located near Pankovo, Novaya Zemlya. Apparently, the cruise missile prototype flew about 100 km. Evidently, a United States official had issued a statement that confirmed that the US had observed a small number of Russian nuclear cruise missile tests and had seen them all crash.

One can definitely cast doubts on the statement. In July, 2018, the Ministry of Defense of Russia has demonstrated a video from the plant where Burevestniks are produced. The video shows only the head part of the missile, its most interesting “details” not being disclosed yet.

In fact, the concept of the nuclear-powered cruise missile is not unique, though it has never been brought to the flight-test stage before. As early as in the late 1950s, the American military developed a huge (it was supposed to carry up to 24 warheads) Supersonic Low Altitude Missile (SLAM) with the nuclear-powered ramjet engine. In such an engine the air flows directly through the reactor, cooling the reactor itself, while the passing air is heating up, so the hot air flows out of the nozzle at great speeds thus developing required thrust. However, it caused a radioactive trail along the entire length of the flight. This was exactly one of the reasons that the project was cancelled.

As for the Russian missile – apparently, it is subsonic with a focus on low observance and low flying altitude. The type of engine used is not clear yet. By the way, there are currently no real tasking for such a missile – the existing system of the US National Missile Defense is far from being able to handle the Russian retaliatory strike by means of the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). As the first-strike weapon, the system does not have so many advantages over the Russian air-launched cruise missiles Kh-101/Kh-102, capable of flying, by various estimates, from 4,500 to 5,500 km.

Combat Laser System – Is it a Short-Range Air Defense System? 

President Putin also announced the ground-based combat laser system. According to a few available pictures and general trends in the development of laser weapons, we can assume Vladimir Putin demonstrated the short-range air defense system. Such systems are being developed and tested in several countries, while their main purpose is the defense against drones, mines, munition shells etc. at relatively short distances. The laser may also be used to flash the optics of the reconnaissance aircrafts and drones.

The advantage of such a system is the minimum cost of the laser shot and the highest speed of target destruction (a laser beam propagates at the speed of light). But also there are many limitations – low efficiency at poor weather conditions, and high scattering at the distances exceeding 5–10 km. This system cannot be designated as a strategic one. There is a small possibility that the laser is powered by a portable nuclear reactor – almost similar to the Poseidon nuclear-powered torpedo or the Burevestnik cruise missile, which we will discuss later. In this case, the capacity may be enough for the above-stated purposes, however even in this scenario laser remains a rather intricate weapon and it is apparently not suitable for strategic missile defense tasks.

Later, in August 2018, following from comparison of a video record published by the Minister of Defense and satellite images, one of specialists discovered that the systems were situated in launch sites of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces, where intercontinental ballistics missiles are located. In view of this, it was supposed that the task of Peresvet can also include flashing the optics of Earth observation satellites and missile early-warning satellites. 

Kinzhal Hypersonic Air-Launched Missile 

The mere fact of the Kinzhal missile development has not become great news – the pictures of an air-launched missile very similar to the 9М723 aero-ballistic missile which is part of the Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile system appeared and disappeared at various specialized Russian internet forums several times.

The missile has already been tested in the Southern Military District with the MiG-31BM converted supersonic interceptor aircraft (which are not permanently based in the SMD) as a launch platform. It should seem more logical to use the Tu-22M3 long-range bomber (and such works are already carried out) or Su-34 frontline bomber as such a platform – they have higher combat radius and higher capacity. It is quite possible that such an opportunity will be implemented in the future. According to the official statement, the maximum range of the Kinzhal complex is 2,000 km with the flight speed of about 10 Mach (10 times faster than the speed of sound). It is sufficient to damage any land target, especially considering the ability of maneuvering during flight. There will probably be an anti-ship version of this missile, and in this case the air-launched Iskander missile will be equipped with the active radar homing.

Certainly, one cannot fully classify Kinzhal as a hypersonic weapon – it is still a ballistic missile, and these missiles have already reached such speeds before during test flights. However, the idea of adapting 9М723 Iskander-M missile for the needs of aviation is quite sound – it does not require too much investment, and it solves key tasks: precision strikes on the most important enemy targets protected by the layered air defense and missile defense systems. The maximum flying range of the missile itself remains one of the disputed questions – the majority of experts believe that 2,000 km is the maximum range, considering the combat radius of the delivery aircraft. It is logical then to take into account the flying range of the ground-based 9М723 missile which is around 500 km. Of course, the launch of a missile at higher altitude and speed ensures longer flying range compared with the launch from the ground, but the difference will certainly be much less than 4 times.

It is noteworthy that many people confuse Kinzhal with the GZUR air-launched hypersonic cruise missile, which is expected to be developed by 2020. According to the available information, its flying range will be equal to 1,500 km with the speed of about 6 Mach. It is quite probable that GZUR will be interchangeable with the 3M22 Zircon sea-launched cruise missile, which must be adapted to Russian ships and submarines in the future. 

Hypersonic Glide Vehicle – Is Russia the First in the World to use it? 

Russia, China, and the United States have been actively developing hypersonic glide vehicles for a rather long time in order to equip their ICBMs with it. However, Russia has already apparently achieved the level of sub-serial production. Generally speaking, this was predictable, considering unsuccessful testing of such systems in the USA, compared to the latest successful testing in Russia. The new glider is called Avangard, though earlier all public sources called it ‘Izdelie 4202’.

Unlike usual warheads flying directly along the ballistic trajectory with late entry into the dense atmospheric layers (which provides time for their high altitude interception by the anti-missile defenses), this glider spends much more time in the atmosphere, moving there at the speed of about 15–20 Mach. At the same time, during the flight in the dense atmospheric layers a plasma cloud is formed around the warhead, which, according to some experts, hinders kinetic interceptors from precision targeting (for radar locators and infra-red homing heads the target turns into big and ‘blurred’ spot thus making the delivery of direct hit almost impossible).

Moreover, the glider is guided along the entire length of the flight – presumably with inertial guidance system and configuration of terrain navigation (by radar or optic system) on the flight’s final part, which achieves high target accuracy (non-nuclear warheads may be used) and is capable of altitudinal and directional maneuvering. Considering low efficiency of the BMD systems even against the ordinary ICBM warheads, the interception of such glide vehicles is almost impossible, according to current military technologies. 

Unmanned Underwater Vehicle – Implementation of the 1950s’ Idea 

The idea to create a giant nuclear-powered torpedo with a tremendously powerful thermonuclear charge appeared in the USSR as early as the 1950s. The project was called T-15 and has actively been promoted by Andrey Sakharov, one of chief Soviet scientists and then a future political dissident. The technologies of those times didn’t allow for the creation of a compact nuclear plant, and there were also problems with naval carriers for such a huge object.

However, modern technologies ensured the implementation of this old concept – the Status-6 nuclear-powered submarine drone was ‘accidentally’ demonstrated on the Russian TV in 2015. Since then there has been almost no official information regarding this item, but there were quite a lot of rumors whether it was a real project or just a prototype. The existence of the project was recently recognized in the ‘American Nuclear Posture Review’ in 2018. And now it was officially reported by the Russian president in front of the global audience.

The carrier platform for this unmanned underwater vehicle, as seen from the footage and demonstrated during Putin’s speech, is the project 09852 Belgorod nuclear-powered submarine. In the televised footage, the submarine is carrying both nuclear-powered torpedoes (earlier mass media reported of the range of Status-6 as equal to 10,000 km, submergence depth of 1 km and the rate of sailing up to 185 km/h), and Klavesin-2R-PM unmanned underwater vehicle (this vehicle is capable of implementing various ISR tasks such as mapping of the sea bottom, and possibly affecting the underwater communication lines).

As for detection and interception of these ‘nuclear’ torpedoes, considering their operational depth and rate of sailing, the task is very complicated. At the same time, even if one torpedo reaches the enemy coast, the consequences will be catastrophic. Status-6 has already been officially called Poseidon. 

Pop-Up Test of Sarmat Missile are Finished 

In the presidential address to the Federal Assembly, one could see the footage of the first ejection tests of the liquid-fueled heavy Sarmat ICBM, which is going to replace the aging R-36М2 Voevoda missile.

These tests were initially scheduled for 2015, but were postponed three times – finally, they were conducted in late December 2017 and appeared to be successful (which was corroborated by the footage shown by Vladimir Putin). On March 29, 2018, the second ejection tests of Sarmat were conducted with ignition of four first-stage main propulsion engines. Later the third ejection test was also conducted, so this stage of tests is completed.

The new missile resembles the previous one; however, new technologies will contribute to the facilitation of the system exploitation, and to decrease in the time period from receiving of the attack order to the missile launch (it will be less than one minute). Besides, the ICBM will be capable of carrying new hypersonic glide vehicles or just greater amount of regular warheads, if compared to Voevoda (not less than 14). Moreover, Sarmat will be configured for sub-orbital flight of almost unlimited range, which will allow attacking the enemy from any direction. Timely development of Sarmat is vital because of the ageing of R-36M2 Voevoda ICBMs and the need for their routine replacement. Otherwise, the strategic nuclear potential of Russia will be significantly decreased. Sarmats are expected to enter service in 2024. 

NPR-2018 and New Russian Weapons Systems 

Quite recently the United States adopted the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR-2018) describing the new global challenges and planned responses.

The document was mostly focused on the violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty by Russia, as well as deterring Moscow from using tactical nuclear weapons in case of a conflict in Europe. From the above listed strategic weapons, the American document mentioned only Status-6, Sarmat, and the hypersonic glider, while the new nuclear-powered cruise missiles were left out. The conclusions of the document about the need of deploying tactical nuclear warheads on the SLBMs Trident II and decrease in the threshold reduction for the use of tactical nuclear weapons is in no way adequate to address the new Russian developments. Probably, there was an attempt to address the increased capacities of the Russian tactical missile systems, such as Iskander-M (with the possibility of using cruise missiles of various ranges, including intermediate if necessary), Kalibr, and the air-launched cruise missiles. 


As we can see, a part of these presented weapons are quite real, and their serial production is a matter of time. First of all, this applies to the Sarmat ICBM and the Kinzhal aero-ballistic missile, as well as the Avangard hypersonic glider. Creation of Sarmat missile will allow for the maintenance of the ground-launched strategic nuclear potential of Russia after the retirement of all Voevoda ICBMs.

Serial production of the air-launched version of Iskander-M will allow for strengthening the striking capacities of the Russian aviation, and in the case of using tactical nuclear warheads, to solve strategic tasks beyond the European continent. At the same time, the new missiles may be produced at the same industrial enterprises where the ground-launched aero-ballistic missiles 9М723 are manufactured, allowing for savings to the military budget.

It should be noted that some of the demonstrated weapons are at the stage of concepts or potential future development prototypes. Anyway, it strengthens the positions of Russia at the negotiations with the US. And real deployment of Poseidon UUV may appear quite reasonable in case of creating operational strategic missile defense system by potential adversaries. However, it is not probably going to happen for the next 15–20 years.

The new weapons have no impact on the power balance between the US and Russia – today’s mutual nuclear deterrence is at the sufficient level due to the fact that both sides have enough ground-launched ICBMs and SLBMs. At the same time, the BMD system of both sides is still not capable of countering anything but single ICBM’s warheads, Deployment of additional indigenous weapons, such as Poseidon or Burevestnik, will in no way enable Russia to gain an opportunity of making an efficient preemptive strike on the United States, while the ‘traditional’ weapons are enough for the retaliatory strike and are already available.

In this regard, it is totally unnecessary for the US to symmetrically respond to Russian developments. It is enough for Washington to just physically update their ageing ICBM Minuteman III and Ohio submarines, budget permitting. At the same time, Russia has demonstrated that the aspirations of making a preemptive strike on its territory are senseless even in the quite distant future, and the nuclear deterrence will hopefully contribute to the maintenance of peace for the foreseeable future.

This is exactly why the leaders of both nations need to use all their willpower to find the way out of the impending disagreements regarding the strategic security, in order to avoid the looming armaments race.


©New defence order. Strategy | 01 | 2019   


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