By far the greater part of President Putin’s State of the Nation address on 1st March 2018 was devoted to economic issues. However inevitably it was the part of his address which touched on new weapons systems which attracted the most attention.
Here they are
(1) Sarmat heavy ICBM
This is the best known of the new strategic nuclear weapons systems that President Putin touched on in his State of the Nation address. In fact we have discussed it previously.
Here is what President Putin had to say about it
Sarmat will replace the Voevoda system made in the USSR. Its immense power was universally recognized. Our foreign colleagues even gave it a fairly threatening name.
That said, the capabilities of the Sarmat missile are much higher. Weighing over 200 tonnes, it has a short boost phase, which makes it more difficult to intercept for missile defence systems. The range of the new heavy missile, the number and power of its combat blocs is bigger than Voevoda’s. Sarmat will be equipped with a broad range of powerful nuclear warheads, including hypersonic, and the most modern means of evading missile defence. The high degree of protection of missile launchers and significant energy capabilities the system offers will make it possible to use it in any conditions…..
Voevoda’s range is 11,000 km while Sarmat has practically no range restrictions.
As the video clips show, it can attack targets both via the North and South poles.
Sarmat is a formidable missile and, owing to its characteristics, is untroubled by even the most advanced missile defence systems.
Sarmat’s range has previously been disclosed to be 17,000 km. Putin says it weighs 200 tonnes – roughly the same as its predecessor Voevoda – and double what had been reported previously.
One aspect of the Sarmat which Putin did not touch on is that it may have revived a 1960s Soviet concept referred to in the US as ‘FOBS’ (‘Fractional Orbital Bombardment System’).
The idea behind FOBS was that an ICBM would place its nuclear warheads in low earth orbit from where, after orbiting for a short time, they would fall upon their targets on earth.
Such a system would have no range limit, whilst the orbital flight path of the warheads would not reveal the target location.
It would allow a path to North America over the South Pole, hitting targets from the south, which is the opposite direction to the one from which US early warning systems are oriented.
Putin’s references to the Sarmat having “practically no range restrictions” and being able to “attack targets via the North and South Poles” suggests strongly that it uses a FOBS system.
If so then there is a huge irony to this.
The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 was supposed to ban nuclear weapons being placed in earth orbit. However the US government – presumably because at that time it had a FOBS programme of its own – decided that FOBS did not violate the Outer Space Treaty because a FOBS warhead was technically not in orbit as it did not make a complete cycle of the earth.
FOBS was then supposed to be banned by the SALT II Treaty agreed by US President Carter and Soviet President Brezhnev in 1979. However the SALT II Treaty was never ratified by the US Senate, and never came into legal force.
The US therefore had two opportunities to ban FOBS in 1967 and 1979, and passed up both.
The result is that with the coming of Sarmat it now quite possibly faces the prospect of having such a system deployed against it, which had it been less intransigent in pursuing its weapons programmes it might have prevented.
Needless to say, a nuclear warhead falling upon the US from space and coming towards the US from any direction is effectively impervious to interception by any of the missile defence systems the US has created or is planning.
The two next systems which President Putin discussed appear to use shared nuclear reactor technologies. They are a nuclear powered cruise missile and a nuclear powered underwater drone.
(2) Nuclear powered cruise missile
Here is what President Putin had to say about this system
Russia’s advanced arms are based on the cutting-edge, unique achievements of our scientists, designers and engineers. One of them is a small-scale heavy-duty nuclear energy unit that can be installed in a missile like our latest X-101 air-launched missile or the American Tomahawk missile – a similar type but with a range dozens of times longer, dozens, basically an unlimited range. It is a low-flying stealth missile carrying a nuclear warhead, with almost an unlimited range, unpredictable trajectory and ability to bypass interception boundaries. It is invincible against all existing and prospective missile defence and counter-air defence systems. I will repeat this several times today.
In late 2017, Russia successfully launched its latest nuclear-powered missile at the Central training ground. During its flight, the nuclear-powered engine reached its design capacity and provided the necessary propulsion.
Now that the missile launch and ground tests were successful, we can begin developing a completely new type of weapon, a strategic nuclear weapons system with a nuclear-powered missile……
You can see how the missile bypasses interceptors. As the range is unlimited, the missile can manoeuvre for as long as necessary.
The key breakthrough is in miniaturising a nuclear reactor so that it can be fitted inside the engine of a cruise missile with dimensions similar to those of the US Tomahawk and the Russian Kh-101 cruise missiles.
This is a revolutionary breakthrough which – as President Putin says – gives Russia’s subsonic cruise missiles effectively unlimited range.
This incidentally negates any advantage the US might obtain by siting land based cruise missiles in Europe as it did in the 1980s.
In the 1980s the USSR had no effective counter since whilst US land based cruise missiles based in western Europe could reach the territory of the western USSR, Soviet land based cruise missiles based on Soviet territory or in eastern Europe could not reach the territory of the continental United States.
With the imminent deployment of a Russian nuclear powered cruise missile with unlimited range – and therefore capable of reaching the continental United States from Russian territory – that advantage has now gone.
As President Putin says a subsonic nuclear powered cruise missile is moreover essentially invulnerable to the anti ballistic missile system the US is currently deploying.
However though small and stealthy cruise missiles are difficult targets, they are not immune to interception.
The effectiveness of these missiles may therefore depend on how many of these missiles Russia can build?
If it can build large numbers of them then it is possible that US defences might become overwhelmed. However that depends on the cost of the nuclear motor.
(3) Nuclear powered underwater drone
The existence of this drone has been known about for some time, ever since November 2015 in fact when the existence of this drone (referred to as “Status-6”) was briefly – and perhaps intentionally – disclosed by Russian television.
Here is what Putin had to say about it
Now, we all know that the design and development of unmanned weapon systems is another common trend in the world. As concerns Russia, we have developed unmanned submersible vehicles that can move at great depths (I would say extreme depths) intercontinentally, at a speed multiple times higher than the speed of submarines, cutting-edge torpedoes and all kinds of surface vessels, including some of the fastest. It is really fantastic. They are quiet, highly manoeuvrable and have hardly any vulnerabilities for the enemy to exploit. There is simply nothing in the world capable of withstanding them.
Unmanned underwater vehicles can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads, which enables them to engage various targets, including aircraft groups, coastal fortifications and infrastructure.
In December 2017, an innovative nuclear power unit for this unmanned underwater vehicle completed a test cycle that lasted many years. The nuclear power unit is unique for its small size while offering an amazing power-weight ratio. It is a hundred times smaller than the units that power modern submarines, but is still more powerful and can switch into combat mode, that is to say, reach maximum capacity, 200 times faster.
The tests that were conducted enabled us to begin developing a new type of strategic weapon that would carry massive nuclear ordnance.
The purpose of the drone when launched against the continental United States would appear to be to create a tsunami wave 500 metres tall, which apart from causing massive loss of life would also radioactively contaminate a large area of the US coast.
It is assumed that in its nuclear tipped form the drone carries a large thermonuclear cobalt warhead of up to 100 megatons – twice the power of the so-called ‘Tsar Bomb” detonated by the USSR in 1961 – which would be by a very great distance the most powerful nuclear warhead ever built.
Here is how Wikipedia describes the drone
It appears to be a torpedo-shaped robotic mini-submarine which can travel at speeds of 185 km/h (100 kn). More recent information suggests a top speed of 100 km/h (54 kn), with a range of 10,000 km (5,400 nmi; 6,200 mi) and a depth maximum of 1,000 m (3,300 ft). This underwater drone is cloaked by stealth technology to elude acoustic tracking devices. Its size appears to be 1.6 metres in diameter, and 24 metres long. The warhead shown in the leaked figure is a cylinder 1.5 meters in diameter by 4 meters in length, giving a volume of 7 cubic meters. Comparing this to the volumes of other large thermonuclear bombs — the 1961 Soviet-era Tsar Bomba itself measured eight meters long by 2.1 meters in diameter — indicates that the yield is at least several tens of megatons, generally consistent with early reports.
As Wikipedia rightly says, the indiscriminate nature of this weapon system when used in its nuclear tipped form means that it is intended to be a weapon of last resort intended to inflict maximum damage upon an enemy in case Russia’s land based missile arsenal is disabled by a first strike.
Two further points can be made about this drone.
The first is that its nuclear reactor almost certainly shares technologies with that used in the engine of the nuclear powered cruise missile discussed above.
The second is that President Putin’s words show that it also comes in a form with a conventional warhead, and that in this version it is intended to be used as an anti-carrier weapon.
(4) Aircraft launched Kinzhal hypersonic missile
It has been know for some time that Russia is developing long range hypersonic missiles, and President Putin provided details of one of them
Countries with high research potential and advanced technology are known to be actively developing so-called hypersonic weapons. The speed of sound is usually measured in Mach numbers in honour of Austrian scientist Ernst Mach who is known for his research in this field. One Mach is equal to 1,062 kilometres per hour at an altitude of 11 kilometres. The speed of sound is Mach 1, speeds between Mach 1 and Mach 5 is called supersonic, and hypersonic is above Mach 5. Of course, this kind of weapon provides substantial advantages in an armed conflict. Military experts believe that it would be extremely powerful, and that its speed makes it invulnerable to current missile and air defence systems, since interceptor missiles are, simply put, not fast enough. In this regard, it is quite understandable why the leading armies of the world seek to possess such an ideal weapon.
Friends, Russia already has such a weapon.
The most important stage in the development of modern weapons systems was the creation of a high-precision hypersonic aircraft missile system; as you already know for sure, it is the only one of its kind in the world. Its tests have been successfully completed, and, moreover, on December 1 of last year, these systems began their trial service at the airfields of the Southern Military District.
The unique flight characteristics of the high-speed carrier aircraft allow the missile to be delivered to the point of discharge within minutes. The missile flying at a hypersonic speed, 10 times faster than the speed of sound, can also manoeuvre at all phases of its flight trajectory, which also allows it to overcome all existing and, I think, prospective anti-aircraft and anti-missile defence systems, delivering nuclear and conventional warheads in a range of over 2,000 kilometres. We called this system Kinzhal (Dagger).
President Putin’s description makes it clear that this is an aircraft launched hypersonic standoff (ie. long range) missile, with the carrier aircraft being presumably Russia’s current TU-160 and TU-95 strategic bombers and Russia’s prospective PAK-DA stealth bomber.
President Putin says that development of this missile is complete and that it is already on flight test with aircraft of the Southern Military District, presumably at Engels airforce base in southern Russia.
President Putin gave a range for the Kinzhal – which may share technologies with the pending Zircon hypersonic anti ship missile – of 2,000 kilometres, and gave it a speed of Mach 10.
If the Kinzhal is indeed about to enter service as President Putin says – and there is no reason to disbelieve him – then it will be the first strategic hypersonic standoff missile to enter service with any military.
(5) Avangard hypersonic projectile
This is a completely different and much more advanced hypersonic weapons system than Kinzhal.
Here is what President Putin had to say about it
A real technological breakthrough is the development of a strategic missile system with fundamentally new combat equipment – a gliding wing unit, which has also been successfully tested……
……I am pleased to inform you that successfully completed experiments during these exercises enable us to confirm that in the near future, the Russian Armed Forces, the Strategic Missile Forces, will receive new hypersonic-speed, high-precision new weapons systems that can hit targets at inter-continental distance and can adjust their altitude and course as they travel. This is a very significant statement because no country in the world as of now has such arms in their military arsenal…..
Unlike existing types of combat equipment, this system is capable of intercontinental flight at supersonic speeds in excess of Mach 20.
As I said in 2004, in moving to its target, the missile’s gliding cruise bloc engages in intensive manoeuvring – both lateral (by several thousand km) and vertical. This is what makes it absolutely invulnerable to any air or missile defence system. The use of new composite materials has made it possible to enable the gliding cruise bloc to make a long-distance guided flight practically in conditions of plasma formation. It flies to its target like a meteorite, like a ball of fire. The temperature on its surface reaches 1,600–2,000 degrees Celsius but the cruise bloc is reliably guided.
For obvious reasons we cannot show the outer appearance of this system here. This is still very important. I hope everyone understands this. But let me assure you that we have all this and it is working well. Moreover, Russian industrial enterprises have embarked on the development of another new type of strategic weapon. We called it the Avangard.
We are well aware that a number of other countries are developing advanced weapons with new physical properties. We have every reason to believe that we are one step ahead there as well – at any rate, in the most essential areas.
Unlike Kinzhal this system is clearly still in development.
President Putin’s description of it makes it clear that unlike Kinzhal this is a projectile not a missile ie. it glides to its target at hypersonic speed (Mach 20) and is not powered by an onboard motor. Though President Putin did not release any picture of what it would look like, it probably somewhat resembles the caption picture, which supposedly illustrates a similar Chinese system.
Probably the launch system for Avangard is the new heavy Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, with Avangard possibly being launched from near earth orbit.
In other words Avangard appears to be an advanced hypersonic warhead for the Sarmat, though it should be said that President Putin’s words were – intentionally – somewhat vague about it.
Avangard’s advantage over FOBS is that it is a manoeuvring warhead with a longer and more flexible range than a FOBS warhead. Conceivably it could also be used with a conventional warhead for example to attack carrier groups.
That the Russians have been working on a hypersonic glide warhead vehicle has been known about for some time, and it is known that work on such systems is also underway in the US and China.
President Putin’s comments suggest that the Russians believe their system is further advanced in development than the parallel systems being developed in the US and China.
(6) Laser weapons
President Putin spoke of ‘laser weapons’ being already in service with the Russian military. However when referring to these weapons he gave almost nothing away
We have achieved significant progress in laser weapons. It is not just a concept or a plan any more. It is not even in the early production stages. Since last year, our troops have been armed with laser weapons.
I do not want to reveal more details. It is not the time yet. But experts will understand that with such weaponry, Russia’s defence capacity has multiplied.
Those interested in military equipment are welcome to suggest a name for this new weaponry, this cutting-edge system.
Of course, we will be refining this state-of-the-art technology.
These words do not make it clear whether these laser weapons are strategic or tactical weapons. Nor did the accompanying video, which showed a laser weapon being deployed from a trailer, make clear their purpose. Possibly they are some sort of anti aircraft or anti satellite system.
President Putin’s presentation has provoked a mixture of incredulity and ridicule in the US, with claims that the weapons systems he unveiled do not exist or that Russia cannot afford them, and that his presentation was a bluff.
This is despite President Putin’s warning that his presentation is not a bluff
Now we have to be aware of this reality and be sure that everything I have said today is not a bluff ‒ and it is not a bluff, believe me ‒ and to give it a thought and dismiss those who live in the past and are unable to look into the future, to stop rocking the boat we are all in and which is called the Earth.
In fact apart from the laser weapons and the nuclear powered cruise missile all of the weapons systems President Putin spoke about in his State of the Nation address have previously been discussed in open literature.
Thus the fact that the Russians were developing a hypersonic warhead glide vehicle, a nuclear powered underwater drone, a hypersonic standoff cruise missile, and the new Sarmat heavy ICBM, were things that were already previously known and talked about.
The Pentagon has even confirmed Russian tests of some of these systems: for example the underwater drone is known to have been tested in 2016 in the Arctic seas.
These systems do involve important technological breakthroughs, but the one area where the Russians appear to be farthest ahead of the West – and where President Putin’s presentation today will cause the Pentagon the greatest concern – is in Russia’s success in miniaturising nuclear reactors to the point where they can be used to power Tomahawk sized cruise missiles.
Rosatom – Russia’s giant state owned corporation which directs Russia’s nuclear industry – is known to be at the forefront of nuclear reactor technology, and the Russians have a long history of developing and building small nuclear reactors, as for example in their ocean reconnaissance satellites of the 1980s and – reputedly – in their current Sarov submarine, so skepticism about President Putin’s claim that they have developed a nuclear reactor small enough to fit into the engine of a Tomahawk sized cruise missile is unwarranted.
A nuclear reactor small enough to fit inside the engine of Tomahawk sized cruise missile could in theory also be used in engines to power civil and military manned aircraft, giving them effectively unlimited range.
The Soviets did in fact experiment with a nuclear powered bomber (the TU-95LAL) in the early 1960s.
However concerns about the effectiveness of reactor shielding for the crew and about the environmental effect of an accident put paid to the idea of nuclear powered aircraft in the 1960s, and despite the huge technological advances since then the same concerns would almost certainly defeat any project for a nuclear powered manned aircraft today.
As to the affordability of these weapons, the reality is that apart from the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle warhead – which has its analogues in the US and China, and which Russia was previously known to be developing – none of the weapons systems discussed by President Putin in his State of the Nation address look especially expensive.
Probably the most costly of these systems apart from Avangard is the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, which uses technologies with which the Russians are highly experienced.
In summary, these are real weapons or – in the case of the still being developed Avangard – real programmes, and there is no reason to doubt that they will all shortly be deployed with the Russian armed forces, just as President Putin says.