Earlier this year, Russia was spotted building up its military presence in the Arctic, where several next-gen weapons have undergone continued tests. One of these, Russian officials claim, carries a warhead of several megatons.
That weapon is the Poseidon 2M39 torpedo, designed to glide past coastal defenses in the extreme depths of the ocean and then explode underwater, creating radioactive waves capable of inflicting significant damage to coastal cities and reportedly exposing many to dangerous levels of radiation.
However, the aim of developing such weapons may not be to best the United States at first-strike capabilities, or spur another nuclear arms race. "I think it's not a good first-strike weapon, and I think the development of a weapon like this shows how concerned Russia is about U.S. missile defense," said Professor Steve Fetter of the University of Maryland, who is also a member of both the Union of Concerned Scientists Board and the American Physical Society Coalition for Nuclear Threat Reduction, to IE. According to Fetter, Russia's investment in new nuclear weapons only makes sense "in response to concerns about U.S. missile defenses."
Russia 'hedging their bets' on mutual vulnerability
During the cold war, the concept of mutually assured destruction served to dissuade both the United States and the now-defunct Soviet Union from sparking a nuclear war, since it was obvious such an engagement could threaten the survival of the human species. "I think the leaders of all the countries with nuclear weapons understand that any use of nuclear weapons would lead to devastating retaliation," said Fetter to IE. "There's nothing we could do to Russia that would prevent Russian Retaliation and our destruction, and there's nothing Russia could do that would prevent us from retaliating. Leaders from both sides understand there's no political or military objective that would warrant the destruction of their own country."
However, much has changed since Russia's modern government replaced the Soviet Union. The dissolving of 20th-century treaties has prompted Russia's leaders — namely, President Vladimir Putin — to begin negotiations by other means: developing next-generation nuclear weapons to maintain its perceived levels of mutual vulnerability. "[T]here's no way we could defeat a Russian attack, but they engage in worst-case analysis," said Fetter. To him, the Russians are asking themselves: “What if the U.S. expanded those defenses in the future? Maybe they aren’t effective now, but what about 10 to 20 years from now?”
While this isn't an attempt to provoke an American military response, like building up its ballistic missile defense (BMD) system, Russia's Poseidon torpedo development could be construed as a reminder of the inevitable relationship the U.S. shares with it. "It's to show us that we can't escape our mutual nuclear hostage relationship," said Professor Frank von Hippel, a senior research physicist at Princeton University, to IE. Additionally, the torpedo might be a way for Russia to cover all of its bases in the future, regardless of how this "hostage relationship" turns out. "I view the new systems as Russia hedging their bets," said Professor Fetter. "So even if the U.S. develops highly effective missile defenses against Russia," new systems like Poseidon would enable Russia to maintain its retaliatory capabilities. And this seems an accurate description of Putin's position, who, in a 2018 address to the Federal Assembly of Russia, said of its forthcoming suite of next-gen weapons: They "are quiet, highly maneuverable and have hardly any vulnerabilities for the enemy to exploit," presumably referring to the United States and its allies. "There is simply nothing in the world capable of withstanding them."
"Back in 2000, the U.S. announced its withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty", said Putin in the address. This treaty was signed during the cold war in 1972, and Putin said the Soviet Union (and later, Russia) saw it as "the cornerstone of the international security system." It allowed signatories to deploy BMD systems in just one of their respective regions, with Russia basing its ballistic missiles near Moscow, and the U.S. building its system around the Grand Forks ICBM base.
Russia's Poseidon torpedo might 'not come online ever'
"We did our best to dissuade the Americans from withdrawing from the treaty," said Putin, seemingly exasperated, in his 2018 address. "All in vain. The U.S. pulled out of the treaty in 2002," and while Russia wanted a new compromise, "that was not to be. All our proposals, absolutely all of them, were rejected." To Russia, this apparent futility left the country no recourse but to improve its modern strike systems. While the roots of this anxiety about U.S. ballistic missile development can be traced back to at least the 1980s and former President Ronald Reagan's administration (for example, the "Star Wars" space laser defense program), a more recent drive involved President George W. Bush's administration withdrawal of the U.S. from the ABM in 2001. "[T]hat made Russia very concerned," said Fetter. Since then, Russia has "been concerned about scenarios where the U.S. launches a first strike that destroys many Russian weapons, leaving them with only a small retaliatory force."
And while "a U.S. missile defense could intercept and defeat that force," we probably won't develop new nuclear weapons in response to Russia's Poseidon, said Fetter. "[W]e have a very effective deterrent in [the form of] our ICBMs, SLBMs, and bombers, and Russia has no missile defense that we're worried about." And if the people of Russia and the United States want to keep giving the slip to nuclear war, we already have the best tool, according to Professor Harsh Mathur of Case Western Reserve University. "We've been in this situation before, [and] the best way out of it during the cold war was negotiating with the Soviet Union," said Mathur to IE. The same might be accomplished with Russia, but there is much to negotiate in the wake of the U.S. pullout from older treaties. "We have almost no treaties left — if New START had not been ratified, we would be in free-fall. Both countries would be completely free to start an arms race."
"That's where these new weapons come in," said Mathur. In Putin's address, he promises that Russia's Armed Forces and its Strategic Missile Forces will receive a new suite of next-gen weapons, including "hypersonic speed, high-precision" systems "that can hit targets at inter-continental distance". The goal of the new weapons systems like Poseidon, to Russia, is bypassing interception boundaries as a means of restarting talks with U.S. officials, who have said since 2004 that there are no plans to create a global BMD system designed to target Russia. And this is probably a good thing, since "new technologies using nuclear weapons are potentially a destabilizing force," added Mathur.
Although this might not be in the cards, since, while the Poseidon torpedo "is slated for deployment in 2027," the program might never reach fruition, according to Mathur. "It's possible that it will not come online ever," he said. "Many weapons like this have been proposed before and never came online." In fact, advanced U.S. weapons in development for years are sometimes canceled. Last week, the U.S. Navy ceased research and development of railguns, a futuristic weapon capable of firing projectiles approaching seven times the speed of sound with electricity. "The railgun is, for the moment, dead," said Matthew Caris, a defense analyst from the consulting firm Avascent Group, in an AP News report.
The most devastating nuclear weapons are detonated in the air
There might even be physics-based reasons for Russia's Poseidon torpedo to be canceled before it can come online. "The most devastating effects of weapons detonated in the atmosphere are the blast and thermal effects," explained Fetter about conventional nuclear weapon detonations. "The blast destroys buildings, and the thermal effects can ignite fires and cause a firestorm, which does most of the damage." Unlike a traditional nuclear device, these effects wouldn't happen with Poseidon. "When you detonate a bomb underwater to create a wave, most of the energy is lost," explained Fetter. "Only a small part goes into generating a wave." Of course, people on the coastline closest to the underwater detonation might be in trouble. But "this weapon's detonation delivered in a water-borne way would not cause more damage than the detonation of weapons currently on Russian missiles."
"This is a different way of delivering weapons, but not a more destructive way," said Fetter. In light of this, it seems there are still plenty of opportunities to avert nuclear war by a wide margin. For now, the U.S. still has the New START treaty with Russia, which is valid for another five years. "As citizens we have an opportunity to participate in the conversation ourselves," said Mathur, emphasizing the need for concerned non-politicians and citizen scientists to get involved and contact their representatives. It "[c]ould be that this is getting to the place where the best way to go is to negotiate," instead of waiting for either party to hit a technological snag. Indeed, by the time Russia's Poseidon torpedo enters service in 2027, the New START treaty "will have expired," said Fetter. "What we need is a new treaty to replace it, which would have to address these new weapon systems. After this recent meeting with Biden and Putin, I have hopes it will lead to a negotiation of a new treaty." And this could potentially shift international efforts away from building new nuclear weapons that may or may not be completed, and toward beginning a new chapter of peaceful dialogue amid the global community.