- - Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Russia is building a drone submarine designed to launch nuclear weapons against U.S. harbors and coastal cities, according to Pentagon officials.

The developmental unmanned underwater vehicle, or UUV, when deployed, will be equipped with megaton-class warheads capable of blowing up key ports used by U.S. nuclear missile submarines, such as Kings Bay, Georgia, and Puget Sound in Washington state.

Details of the secret Russian nuclear UUV program remain closely held within the U.S. government.

The Pentagon, however, has code-named the drone “Kanyon,” an indication that the weapon is a structured Russian arms program.

The drone submarine is further evidence of what officials say is an aggressive strategic nuclear forces modernization under President Vladimir Putin. The building is taking place as the Obama administration has sought to reduce the role of nuclear arms in U.S. defenses and to rely on a smaller nuclear force for deterrence.

Officials familiar with details of the Kanyon program said the weapon is envisioned as an autonomous submarine strike vehicle armed with a nuclear warhead ranging in size to “tens” of megatons, one megaton alone having a destructive power dozens of times that of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs.

On missiles, megaton warheads are called “city busters” designed to destroy entire metropolitan areas or to blast buried targets. An underwater megaton-class drone weapon would be used to knock out harbors and coastal regions, the officials said, declining to be named due to the sensitivity of the information.

“This is an unmanned sub that will have a high-speed and long-distance capability,” said one official, who noted that the drone development is years away from a prototype and testing.

Russian nuclear buildup

The Kanyon appears to be part of a Russian strategic modernization effort that seeks to give Moscow the ability to coerce the U.S. It is also expected to complicate the Obama administration’s attempts to seek further reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear forces after the 2010 New START arms treaty.

New arms cuts were derailed after Russia’s military annexation of Crimea and continuing destabilization of eastern Ukraine, as well as by Moscow’s failure to return to compliance with the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

“It’s very difficult to consider Russia a responsible party when it’s developing something like this,” the official said.

Another official familiar with the program said that the Kanyon will be a large nuclear-powered autonomous submarine. This official said the size of its nuclear warhead is not clear.

Russian leaders announced a new maritime strategy in July that provided hints about the new drone sub. The doctrine calls for developing innovative technologies, including unmanned underwater vehicles, IHS Jane’s 360 reported last month.

Lt. Col. Michelle Baldanza, a Pentagon spokeswoman, declined to comment on the nuclear-armed underwater drone.

The Pentagon said last week that it is closely watching a Russian military research ship that sailed along the east coast of the U.S. The ship, a research vessel called the Yantar, was engaged in underwater reconnaissance, gathering intelligence that could be used to support a weapon system like the nuclear UUV.

While the United States currently has no similar plans for a megaton-class underwater nuclear strike vehicle, the Navy is developing a range of UUVs, including a weapons-carrying drone.

The Pentagon is in the process of retiring all of its megaton weapons. The stockpile of 9-megaton B53 bunker-buster bombs were dismantled several years ago, and the 1.2 megaton-B83 will be retired after the upgraded B61 bomb is deployed.

Russia’s arsenal of megaton warheads and bombs includes an estimated five SS-18s armed with 20-megaton warheads and previously deployed 5-megaton warheads on SS-19s.

Goal: Catastrophic damage

“The Kanyon represents another example of Russia’s aggressive and innovative approach to the development of military capabilities against U.S. and Western interests,” said Jack Caravelli, a former CIA analyst who specialized in Soviet and Russian affairs.

“The possible yield of the warhead, in the megaton class, clearly is an attempt to inflict catastrophic damage against U.S. or European naval facilities or coastal cities,” he added. “Nations vote with their resources, and the Kanyon, along with an expanding number of other military modernization programs, indicates the priority Vladimir Putin places on military preparedness against the West.”

Mark Schneider, a former Pentagon nuclear policymaker, said Russian state-run media have announced plans for UUV development.

“In 2014, Putin stated that there were undisclosed strategic nuclear modernization programs that would be made public at the appropriate time,” Mr. Schneider said.

A Russian weapons engineer told the state-run RIA Novosti news agency in June that UUVs are being developed.

“Our institute already concluded a number of new developments in the sphere of command systems automation [including] remotely-operated, unmanned sea-based underwater vehicles. We hope that these developments will be applied for designing of a new destroyer vessel,” said Lev Klyachko, director of the Russian Central Research Institute.

Moscow nuclear threats worrying

Robert Kehler, who retired two years ago as commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, said development of a robot underwater nuclear strike vehicle could be part of what he termed a “troubling” Russian strategic nuclear buildup.

“Overall, we were watching the Russian nuclear modernization effort very carefully,” Mr. Kehler said in an interview. “And that effort was finally starting to put forces in the field.”

Mr. Kehler said he was not “particularly bothered” by the Russian nuclear buildup as long as Moscow stays within the limits of the New START arms treaty. The treaty limits the U.S. and Russia to 700 strategic missiles and bombers and a total of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads. The retired four-star Air Force general said he was unaware of the Kanyon drone program.

However, recent threats and belligerent statements by Russian leaders about using nuclear weapons are compounding concerns about Moscow’s arms buildup.

“That was disturbing as well, their rhetoric,” Mr. Kehler said. “Again, that said something about how nuclear weapons fit in their national security. From their perspective, they’re saying, ‘We still need these weapons.’”

Mr. Putin has stated publicly that he is willing to use Russia’s nuclear forces in response to Western opposition to the military annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.

Based on Soviet nuclear torpedo

Norman Polmar, a naval analyst and author, said the Kanyon could be based on a Soviet-era nuclear torpedo disclosed in his 2003 book, “Cold War Submarines.”

Both the Russian navy and its Soviet predecessor, have been innovators of undersea systems and weapons. “These efforts have included the world’s most advanced torpedoes,” Mr. Polmar said. “Early in the nuclear age, the Soviets began development of a massive torpedo for attacking coastal cities and ports.”

The T-15 torpedo was about 75 feet long and was capable of carrying a high-yield thermonuclear warhead some 15 miles underwater, something Mr. Polmar called “a truly innovative concept.”

Navy Secretary Ray Maybus said in a speech in April that unmanned systems are a high priority for future Navy weapons.

“While unmanned technology itself is not new, the potential impact these systems will have on the way we operate is almost incalculable,” Maybus said.

The submarine warfare division of the chief of naval operations stated on its website that the future submarine force will include UUVs.

“UUVs allow an [attack submarine] to safely gain access to denied areas with revolutionary sensors and weapons,” the website stated. “UUVs provide unique capabilities and extend the ‘reach’ of our platforms while reducing the risk to an [attack submarines” and its crew.

The site made no mention of a future UUV strike weapon, only intelligence and reconnaissance, mine warfare and mapping.

“UUVs are key elements in maintaining submarines’ future undersea dominance against any threat.”

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