Russia building devastating nuclear weapon; Pentagon seeks to counter

WASHINGTON — In late 2015, word leaked out that Russia was working on a powerful nuclear weapon designed to be an unmistakable, existential threat to the U.S.

On Feb. 2, the release of the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) confirmed its existence.

The “Ocean Multipurpose System Status-6” as it’s called by the Russian military, has generated genuine and profound concern among current and former U.S. military and intelligence community members.

“I cannot offer you in Mike Hayden’s own logic, what in God’s name, such a weapon would be useful for,” said Michael V. Hayden, former director of both the Central Intelligence and the National Security Agencies; and a retired four-star Air Force General.

The armament known as “Kanyon” to the U.S. military, is a 100 megaton thermonuclear drone-torpedo that would be launched from a Sarov-class submarine. It would be the most powerful thermonuclear device ever built.

The existence of the “Kanyon” was allegedly accidentally leaked on Russian television in November of 2015. One minute and 46 seconds into a news video about a military meeting, a document showing the weapon appeared on camera.

“I remember this. That document, showed up as a view graph during a Russian presidential meeting at his villa in Sochi,” Hayden said.

At that meeting, between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his generals, Putin warned that Russia would do all in its power to preserve the strategic balance.

Based on what’s known about the capabilities of the weapon, it would do much more than achieve balance.

According to, the “Kanyon” would be at least 6,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and if a large city like New York were targeted, almost 9 million people would be killed instantly, and another five million would be injured.

The weapon would be two times more powerful than Russia’s Tsar Bomba, which was tested in the 1960s.

Hayden, who clarified that he no longer gets briefings on U.S. intelligence matters, said his 40 years of experience tell him Russia is aiming to deploy a weapon that could truly devastate the U.S.

“There is no doubt the Russians are adjusting their nuclear doctrine to include ‘first use’. They are looking at ‘first use’ as some sort of de-escalatory step, in other words, if we use it, the war will stop. I don’t think that’s very logical either.”

First use refers to the order in which a conflict is started using nuclear weapons.

Michael Kofman, Senior Research Scientist at CNA Corporation thinks the Russian weapon under development would be used not as a first-strike tool, but one to achieve the last word.

“It’s principally a third strike weapon designed to ensure that Russia has a viable nuclear deterrent which cannot be intercepted by missile defenses.”

Entering an era of uncertainty and risk

The chilling possibilities of this new nuclear era have not been lost on the Pentagon.

The NPR states, “There now exists an unprecedented range and mix of threats, including major conventional, chemical, biological, nuclear, space, and cyber threats, and violent nonstate actors. These developments have produced increased uncertainty and risk.”

The rapid deterioration of the threat environment since the 2010 NPR, according to the document, “must now shape our thinking as we formulate policy and strategy, and initiate the sustainment and replacement of U.S. nuclear forces.”

Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan said during the NPR release, “Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has worked to reduce the number and role of our nuclear weapons, but the world looks different since the last NPR in 2010,”

The NPR states, “While the United States has continued to reduce the number and salience of nuclear weapons, others, including Russia and China, have moved in the opposite direction. They have added new types of nuclear capabilities to their arsenals, increased the salience of nuclear forces in their strategies and plans, and engaged in increasingly aggressive behavior, including in outer space and cyber space.”

The world Shanahan referred to includes confirmation by U.S. military officials in 2017 that North Korea’s nuclear program could likely produce a reliable, nuclear capable, intercontinental ballistic missile sometime in 2018.

Ambassador Joseph Detrani, former director of the National Counter Proliferation Center and U.S. Special Envoy for negotiations with North Korea, told WTOP that North Korea has a missile that “could reach the whole of the United States,” Detrani said.

The overall global nuclear weapons climate and threats from North Korea, Russia, China and Iran have led the Pentagon and its partners at the State and Energy departments to develop what Shanahan called “a tailored nuclear deterrent strategy”, that can “deter any potential adversary”.

That strategy includes modernizing nuclear land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), strategic bombers, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and command and control systems.

Shanahan said “it’s necessary, affordable and long overdue. Our nuclear fleet has kept us safe for more than 70 years. We can’t afford to let it become obsolete.”

Strategy criticized

While the Trump administration’s National Security strategy seeks, “Peace through strength,” critics of the Nuclear Posture Review say any kind of nuclear build up is risky.

“President Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review is deeply troubling and is a dangerous departure from past reviews. It lowers the threshold for using nuclear weapons, a particularly frightening proposition given this president’s support for a nuclear arms race,” said California Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein in a statement.

Massachusetts Democrat Sen. Ed Markey accuses the Trump team of fueling a new nuclear arms race.

“This isn’t deterrence — it’s an invitation for America’s adversaries to expand and diversify their nuclear arsenals too. These policies also would divert resources away from maintaining America’s conventional military superiority, especially after years of uncertainty from running our Defense Department on short-term budget agreements,” Markey said in a statement.

Shananan and his counterparts from State and Energy all vigorously pointed out the U.S. does not want to use nuclear weapons, but will if it has to even in response to some other non-nuclear attack.

They say the gap between U.S. nuclear superiority and the rest of the world is closing and Russia appears to be most aggressively pursuing that objective.

Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana White told WTOP that is a challenge the U.S. military has to meet.

“Russia is a strategic competitor. Russia seeks to undermine our leadership around the world. It was Russia that defined NATO as its greatest threat. We have to work with Russia where we can, but we will confront them if we have to.”

Read the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (PDF)

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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