About five years ago, the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin leaked secret plans for a bizarre new doomsday weapon.
It was not clear at the time whether Poseidon – a massive nuclear-tipped robotic submarine – was a real weapon or simply the centerpiece of a bizarre propaganda scheme.
Today, it’s increasingly clear that Poseidon isn’t just real, it’s a priority for the Kremlin. What is less clear is exactly Why Moscow thinks the “grotesque” robo-sub of the end of the world is a good idea.
Outside observers got their first glimpse of Poseidon in November 2015, during a televised broadcast of a meeting between Putin and senior military officials in the Black Sea city of Sochi.
A government-owned Channel One camera capture a fleeting glance at a briefing book, in which were visible diagrams of a 79-foot-long unmanned submarine containing a deadly radiological warhead.
The documents indicated that a larger manned submarine could serve as a launch vehicle for Poseidon. After launch, the robo-sub would potentially travel hundreds of miles to its target, and then set off its dirty bomb.
“Objective — the defeat of important economic installations in the area of the enemy coast and causing unacceptable damage to the… country by the establishment of large areas of radioactive contamination, unsuitable for implementation in these areas of military, economic activity. , commercial or otherwise for a long time, ”we read in Putin’s briefing.
Experts at the time believed Poseidon could be elaborate fiction. After all, the whole concept of a giant underwater robot irradiating an entire city is “ludicrous and, objectively speaking, beyond the pointless,” Kingston Reif, a nuclear expert with the Arms Control Association told Washington, DC
“The reported launch point (from a submarine near the Russian mainland), target (US coastal cities) and speed (60-100 knots) mean that the weapon could take about two days to reach its target, “Reif wrote in an email. .
“The weapon’s speed and travel time are also likely to make it detectable, although still difficult to defeat. Assuming Poseidon is never deployed (and I have my doubts), what is the value of a weapon that takes so long to hit its target? “
He scores a point. Who needs a slow and potentially vulnerable submarine dirty bomb when you have thousands of fast nuclear-tipped rockets that work perfectly well and against which there are no reliable defenses?
But despite all of its conceptual flaws, Poseidon quickly appeared as a prototype. It may be grotesque and unnecessary, but it is also real. The tests started in 2016. And now the Kremlin would intend to build a special base for up to 30 Poseidons.
This does not mean, however, that Poseidon is really useful as anything other than a symbol. “I don’t pretend to understand Poseidon’s logic,” said Pavel Podvig, an independent expert on the Russian military.
The logic could be entirely political, said Owen Cote, an expert in submarine warfare at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I think the concept of operations is to create the illusion of something new and important in order to improve the image of Russia as one of the only two nuclear superpowers in the world that it seeks desperately to be preserved, ”Cote said.
“It is increasingly difficult for Russia to do it the old fashioned way, building many real weapons,” Cote added.
If appearances are the point, there is a kind of perverse logic in the development of weird weapons that, even if they don’t work, make a bold statement – and make that statement without requiring a huge industrial effort. Poseidon is real, but producing 30 is hardly mass production. The propaganda value of robo-sub could very well justify the few billion dollars it could end up costing.
Perhaps the Kremlin truly believes Poseidon could play a significant role in a nuclear war ending civilization. Or maybe the Kremlin just wants the world to think it’s crazy enough to believe it.
Pavel Luzin, an independent military expert, proposed a third possibility. Maybe Poseidon is just a boring research submarine for unmanned deep water experiments. But the Kremlin seized the opportunity to derive some propaganda value from it by presenting it as a far-fetched weapon.
“I think Poseidon (…) is not a weapon in itself, but it is intended to be an essential part of the Russian submarine forces,” Luzin said. “At the same time, Moscow creates a sort of ‘strategic fog’ when it speculates that Poseidon is a super-duper nuclear mega-torpedo.”
If so, Moscow has its atomic cake and eats it too. And somewhere in a basement of the Kremlin, an obscure mid-level official in charge of underwater fiction reads Americans’ scandalized reactions to Poseidon and enjoys a good, warm laugh.
Whatever Poseidon’s raison d’être, it seems increasingly likely that Russia will build a bunch of copies. and a base to house them. Outside observers could spend decades staring at robotic submarines at the end of the world and wondering: is the joke on them?