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New Super Weapons – Changing the Status Quo

The Russian President recently announced a number of high-tech weapons during his annual address to the nationUsing a combination of speed, delivery methods and size, these weapons have the ability to deliver extremely large payloads and are aimed at defeating current missile defence systems. Although some doubt remains about just how developed some of these new capabilities are, they nevertheless represent a significant challenge to the status quo in weapon technology.

This article gives an overview of these new weapons (Part I) and is supported by a second article (Part II) focused on the directed energy weapons as they are the most relevant to the Australian Army.

The Russian Presidents address was guised in vague rhetoric and accompanied by computer generated animations, leading to many assumptions about these new capabilities. The below summary is an attempt to gather some of the most accepted views on these new technologies using a range of sources. It is not, however, a hard and fastguide due to the lack of detail surrounding the announcement.

1. RS-28 Sarmat (NATO SS-X-30 Satan 2)

The RS-28 Sarmat is a liquid-fuelled super heavy thermonuclear armed Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) that Russia has been working on for a number of years. The Sarmat allegedly completed successful testing in December 2017 and can launch large nuclear payloads with only a short active flight path, making it difficult to detect and intercept by anti-ballistic missile systems. It is designed to replace the R-36M (NATO SS-18 Satan), Russias current soviet-era primary silo-based ICBM. The computer generated depiction of the RS-28 in the address to the nation showed the ICBM deploying a number of independent warheads onto Florida.

The RS-28 is supposedly significantly faster than the older R-36M and will carry an enhanced payload of multiple nuclear sub-munitions which may be capable of independent movement. These sub-munitions are also suspected to have a fractional orbital bombardment system which aims to briefly place nuclear warheads into earth’s orbit before they deploy and descend onto their targets. Using the earth’s orbit gives the Sarmat a theoretical unlimited range and the ability to bypass traditional detection systems as it does not have a ballistic trajectory (which is traditionally used to plot intended target locations).

2. Nuclear powered Cruise Missile

The second weapon announced in the address to the nation was not given a name, but is nevertheless a serious capability a nuclear powered cruise missile that also has the ability to carry a nuclear warhead. The U.S. Air Force exploded a similar concept in the height of the Cold War known as Supersonic Low Altitude Missile (SLAM). Due to several unacceptable risks (such as radioactive exhaust), the SLAM project gave way to the far more tenable ICBM program.

Russia has claimed that its missile was powerful enough to deliver its warheads via the south pole. Despite extended ranges giving the ability to reach the far edges of the globe, this also gives Russia the ability to dodge missile-tracking radars which are currently focused over more direct routes from Europe to America. It was also suggested that these cruise missiles are capable of attaining high speeds at a very low altitudes, which would prevent detection from current early warning and defence systems such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) and Aegis Ashore missile defence system.

3. Status-6 (Kanyon) Oceanic Multipurpose System

The Status-6 (also known as Kanyon) has apparently been completed since 2017. Reportedly capable of delivering conventional and nuclear payloads the Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) has been previously suspected and appeared in the 2018 U.S Nuclear Posture Review as an “undersea autonomous torpedo”. The UUV, depicted as being launched from an Oscar II class submarine, may be nuclear powered which would allow it to reach anywhere in the world. It was specifically mentioned that the Status-6 could target an Aircraft carrier group as well as “coastal fortifications and infrastructure”.

The announcement specified that the drone would be ‘100 times smaller’ than a traditional submarine and therefore easily remain below the detection threshold. A weapon delivery system such as this would be immune to traditional anti-missile defence systems and with speeds of up to 100 kts, it would unlikely be intercepted despite its loud signature. With a reported 100 megaton thermonuclear warhead, the Status-6 would not necessarily have to come into contact with its target to have its desired effect. All indicators suggest that the Status-6 is a deterrent weapon of last resort.

4. Kh-47M2 Kinzhal Hypersonic Missile

The Kinzhalis a dual purpose air-launched hypersonic air to surface missile. It is not clear whether the Kinzhal has the ability to carry a nuclear warhead, but with a reported range of approximately 2,000 km and a top speed of more than 10 times the speed of sound this missile is likely to be primarily designed as an anti-ship weapon.

Reportedly the Kinzhal is able to perform evasive manoeuvres at all stages of flight. It has also been reported that military units in Russias Southern Military District, which borders the Ukraine and the Black Sea, have successfully deployed the missile operationally. Footage that accompanied the announcement showed the Kinzhal being launched from MiG-31, although it is intended to also be comparable with the Sukhoi Su-57. Traditionally, weapons such as these use a rocket motor for their initial thrust and then have a secondary means of propulsion to continue to accelerate past Mach 6 (a standard benchmark as the majority of radars and anti-missile systems can be defeated past this speed).

Russia has previously claimed to be working on a hypersonic anti-ship missile called the 3M22 Tsirkon or Zircon (NATO SS-N-33). It is unclear if these two weapons are linked, but it possible that the Kinzhal is an air-launched variant of the surface-launched Zircon.

5. Avangard: hypersonic boost glide vehicle

This is a nuclear hypersonic boost glide vehicle what has been suspected of being comparable with the RS-26 Rubezh Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM), which is lighter and smaller than its RS-28 cousin. Weapons of this type are different from your garden-variety ICBM as they vary their flight trajectory, and travel at hyper speeds, can make rapid course changes and have unique signatures which can make them hard to detect.

Described as hitting targets like a meteorite, like a fireball the Avangard can travel up to 20 times the speed of sound. This gives conventional missile defence systems far less time acquire and intercept the Avangard than other types of threats.

6. Short-range directed energy system

Similar to the U.S. Navy’s AN/SEQ-3 Laser Weapon System, the last major announcement was a motorised laser cannon designed as a point-defence system. Using directed energy (emissions of highly focused energy such as lasers, micro-waves and particle beams) this system is likely to be employed against existing and emerging threats, such as Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAVs).

The short-range directed energy system is suggested to be in response to Russia’s recent experience in Syria where several of its bases received mass drone attacks. The short-range directed energy cannon is likely to part of a much larger layered Air Defence and Electronic Warfare system.

Conclusion

Of all of the weapons listed above the most relevant to land forces is the directed energy system. Directed energy systems are relatively cheap, safe and have a range of utilities depending on their power output and the type of energy emitted. The U.S. Navy’s AN/SEQ-3 Laser Weapon System, for example, is designed specifically to target low end asymmetric threats such as small boats, helicopters and UAVs with minimal collateral damage. As the proliferation of high-tech capabilities continues to increase, the technological advantage currently enjoyed by western militaries will likely decline. Emerging technologies such as directed energy systems represent a feasible solution to a range of asymmetric and conventional threats. This is discussed further in Directed Energy Weapons: A Defence Against Emerging Threats.


About the author

Nick Waugh is an Artillery Officer in the Australian Army, Associate Editor of Grounded Curiosity and #DEFAUS Idea Pitcher.