Jeffrey LewisMore on Status-6/Kanyon

I have a new column (“Putin’s Doomsday Machine”) up on Status-6/Kanyon — the Russian underwater drone that is apparently armed with a very dirty thermonuclear weapon.  I wasn’t really able to do the science justice in the column, so I wanted to add a few thoughts here.

There are really two different things going on.  First, there is the question of how the Russians might produce the persistent radioactive contamination described in the weapon’s mission statement.  That is a concept called “salting.”  Second, there is the added impact of detonating the device underwater, in the harbor of a major metropolitan area.  That relates to the “base surge” seen during the Baker test conducted as part of Operation Crossroads at Bikini.  Together, these two phenomenon combine for a very nasty weapon.


 As I noted in the column, one method to increase the amount of long-lived radioistopes produced in the explosion is to jacket the bomb in something like cobalt.  Glasstone and Dolan, The Effects of Nuclear Weapons (1962) provide a concise, explicit explanation of this phenomenon:

9.11 The composition of the fallout can also be changed by “salting” the weapon to be detonated. This consists in the inclusion of significant quantities of certain elements, possibly enriched in specific isotopes. for the purpose of producing induced radioactivity. There are several reasons why a weapon might be salted.  For example, salting has been used in some weapons tests to provide radioactive tracers for various purposes, such as the study of the paths and relative compositions of the early and delayed stages of fallout.  By the choice of elements, to give radioactive products of suitable half lives and radioactivity, the characteristics of early fallout from a nuclear weapon could be modified for application in radiological warfare (§ 9.110).

The element usually suggested is cobalt, although elements with shorter half-lives have been mentioned including gold, tantalum and zinc.  (I was reminded that I have such a nice collection of various editions — 1950, 1957, 1962 and the 1977.)

Base Surge and Rainout

The other aspect that bears mentioning is that an underwater explosion will produce a “base surge,” as well as a rainout, that are a very effective ways to deposit significant amounts of radiation on surrounding areas.  Again, from Glasstone and Dolan:

9.121 In a shallow underwater explosion, radioactive contamination will arise from the visible and invisible base surge, which remains near the water surface, and from the radioactive airborne cloud, which is produced by condensation of the vented weapon residues (Chapter II). The radioactive cloud does not ascend as high as it would for a surface (or low air) burst of the same yield and so a large proportion of of the fission product activity rains out in a short time within a radius of a few thousand yards of surface zero. In the Bikini BAKER test (§ 2.61), the contaminated fallout (or rainout) consisted of both solid particles and of a slurry of salt crystals in drops of water.  This contamination was difficult to dislodge and had there been personnel on board the ships used in the test, they would have been subjected to considerable doses of radiation if the fallout were not removed immediately. Since the BAKER shot was fired in shallow water, the bottom material may have helped in the scavenging of the radioactive cloud, thus adding to the contamination.

To see this phenomenon, take a look at this video of the BAKER test.  You can see the visible base surge extend outward. Imagine that rolling through Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Operation Crossroads

Speaking of Operation Crossroads, I happen to have a copy of the official pictorial record of the test series, published by the Office of the Historian, Joint Task Force One.  It has a bunch of really great images.  There are two  particularly nice shots of the base surge that I wanted to share with you.

Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 4.04.14 PM

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  1. AEL (History)

    This is likely a response to America’s determination to build missile defense.

    • sferrin (History)

      Doubtful. Every other day we’re hearing from the Russians themselves how their strategic missiles are impervious to US ABMs. On top of that, they have their own missile defense systems and are building more.

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      The statement that Putin read was very explicit about American missile defense developments. I’ve not been able to find a complete transcript yet, but RT and BBC have excerpts:

      During Tuesday’s meeting Putin stressed that Russia will counter NATO’s US-led missile shield program through new “strike systems capable of penetrating any missile defenses.”

      “Over the past three years, companies of the military-industrial complex have created and successfully tested a number of prospective weapons systems that are capable of performing combat missions in a layered missile defense system,” Putin said. “Such systems have already begun to enter the military this year. And now we are talking about development of new types of weapons.”

      “References to an Iranian or North Korean nuclear missile threat are just used to conceal the true plans – their real goal is to neutralise the strategic nuclear potential of other nuclear states… above all, of course, Russia,” Mr Putin told the generals in Sochi, a Black Sea resort.

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      A bit more, perhaps giving some context:

      Channel One TV, Moscow, in Russian 1800 gmt 10 Nov 15

      Putin: It is known that the United States and its allies are not suspending development of a global missile defence system. Neither our concerns nor proposals for cooperation, unfortunately, have been taken into
      consideration. We have repeatedly indicated that we regard such activities as an attempt to undermine the existing parity in nuclear missile armaments, and in essence to shake up the entire global and regional stability system. They have assured us that the missile defence system and its European segment are designed to defend against Iranian ballistic missiles. However we know that the situation with the Iranian nuclear problem has been resolved and relevant agreements signed, and moreover ratified by the parliaments concerned, nonetheless development of the missile defence system continues.

      [video shows Status-6 page in briefing book]

      Putin: We have repeatedly said that Russia will take the necessary responsive measures to strengthen our strategic nuclear forces. We’ll work on our missile defence systems, but primarily, as we’ve said repeatedly, I
      repeat, we’ll work on development of strike weapons capable of overcoming any anti-missile defence systems. In the past three years, facilities of the defence industry have created and successfully tested a number of promising armament systems capable of performing combat missions in conditions of a multilayered missile defence system.

  2. stevenewell (History)

    Jeffrey, what are your thoughts on this weapon in regards to START, which has no preclusion for an underwater delivered weapon. Seems that that have thought to build a START compliant weapon that is also undetectable via satellites.

  3. cthippoCthippo (History)

    I strongly suspect this is a design that dates from the early Polaris era and was intended to be used as a first strike counterforce weapon against the US SSBN force in their bases. Guidance would have been primitive, probably inertial at best, which is unlikely to put you in the right post code over the distances involved. To compensate, a really big warhead would have been needed, long after other delivery systems had gone to the smaller warheads we see now.

    Speaking of the distance involved, at maximum quoted and and speed I make the time to target as 54 HOURS. No way the Yankee imperialists will be able to respond in time to that, eh comrade?

    Finally, something moving through the water at over 100 knots is going to be loud. The flow noise alone, not to mention any mechanical propulsion noise, is going to make this very detectable, though it may be hard to stop. On that same note, I have to wonder what carrying this is going to do to the sound profile of the “mothership”. Underwater warfare is all about being quiet and nothing about this design says quiet to me.

    TL:DR : We’re probably over-thinking this, but it sure is fun!

    • Steve Adams (History)

      The general idea of this project to plant those devices underneath the ocean for a time x.. Same goes for perimeter death hand witch could be activated only when Russian command centers and infrastructure destroy.I believe two Russian typed submarines can carry those’s not a new technology it’s been developing since 1950 and it can only be used in case of retaliation .

    • GL (History)

      The mothership should be ok noise wise, there is plenty of experience with similar concepts- special forces modules etc.

  4. Michael Krepon (History)

    Notice the ships arrayed at different distances from the stem of the mushroom cloud to gauge weapons effects.

    Not all nuclear weapons are equally grotesque. This concept speaks additional volumes about Putin’s Russia.


    • Dan Gilchrist (History)

      Yeah, I was squinting at the second picture wondering what the scale is, then saw the ships. Holy shit.

      “Imagine that rolling through Manhattan and Brooklyn.”

      You know what? I’d really rather not.

      I always thought there was some kind of restriction on salting weapons? Obviously I don’t know what I’m talking about from the wonk end – I’m just going on various government emergency management procedures, where the R and the N in CBRN are two quite different things in planning (even if they do overlap, of course).

      I’ve always thought of intentional radiological attacks (outside necessary side-effects of nuclear ones) as something wholly in the wheelhouse of non-state actors. It probably reflects the emergency management community’s (or more likely, my own) ignorance, but really? Has salting never been addressed by treaty? Thanks for giving me something to be angry about.

    • kme (History)

      I’m not sure I see a qualitative difference between this and your common-or-garden variety ballistic-missile delivered thermonuclear device designed to incinerate the civilian population of a city. The entire concept of nuclear deterrence comes down to threatening the mass-murder of civilians: once you have agreed to that, we are merely haggling about the price.

    • Dan Gilchrist (History)

      1. You can see a missile coming. You know who launched it, and you’ve got time to confirm it’s not a mistake, possibly shoot it down, and even respond in kind (the possibility of which means the other side is deterred from that course of action in the first place). A nuclear torpedo is already a serious problem from that point of view: the first you’ll know about it, a city is dead. This is a recipe for everyone being on a ridiculous hair trigger that leads to greater possibilities of accidental complete destruction of all life on earth.

      Which is bad.

      2. A limited nuclear war could be the worst thing that has ever happened to humans on earth, but seeding makes it worse again. Imagine things got to the point that there was a limited exchange. Many millions could die. But with seeding we ALSO get the side effect that vast amounts of territory could be rendered uninhabitable. So if Russia hit New York, and the US hit Moscow, and everyone came to their idiot senses and pulled back… Manhattan is now uninhabitable. Forever, to all intents and purposes.

      I don’t think a limited exchange is likely, but 1. that is, nevertheless, the point of nuclear weapons, so why build them if you’re not looking at that possibility? and 2. we’ve got to be aware of the possibility of an accidental or rogue attack. Any weapon, however well guarded, could be misused. As terrible any megaton-level event would be on a population centre, having that compounded by the *permanent* destruction of that area is a scar that would last thousands of years.

      Plenty of cities have been wiped out throughout history. It’s terrible, but it happens. Often, historically. Few have been rendered uninhabitable, though. If they were, there’d be precious little of the earth left to live in.

      3. The vast majority of deaths from such a weapon would be agonised and lingering.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Not aware of any restriction on “salting” nuclear weapons with extra radiation, other than international humanitarian law or just war principles. How long Manhattan would be a radioactive trash heap would depend on the half-life of the “salt” and how much “salt” was created. If the salt had a half-life of 5 years, less than a century of waiting to move back in. Of course, if the half-life was 500 years… permanent scar. Physicists will have to weigh in on what’s technically feasible for such a ridiculous weapon.

      The possibility of a counter-value surprise city attack (with or without extra radiation) is the least likely to put everyone on hair trigger alert. That is because the whole apparatus for nuclear retaliation remains intact, even if one waits days or weeks before responding. Rather, it is the possibility of a counter-force attack on nuclear weapons or command-and-control that has put the U.S. and Soviet Union/Russia on hair trigger alert, because counter-force gives potential advantage to a pre-emptive first strike.

      Most “rational” concepts for limited nuclear war focus on tactical nuclear weapons for military targets, not civilian targets. The hope would be that the limited nuclear war for limited military objectives would not escalate to a full-scale nuclear war. This hope would be entirely vain if one provoked a MAD response right from the start by attacking a large city.

  5. HMD (History)

    When I heard this news, I immediately remembered a story I read a few years back in Andrei Sakharov’s memoir, I do not have the book right now but the gist of it was: Sakharov said he was young and ambitious at the time and talked about this story as a shameful moment of his life. He said in a conversation he had with a soviet Navy admiral he proposed building a nuclear torpedo with a few hundred miles range to hit the enemy at the ports and harbors. Sakharov wrote that the admiral responded very angrily and said the Russian navy cannot accept such a dishonorable and treacherous type of warfare and he advised Sakharov to never come up with such sick ideas. Apparently with the fading immediate threat of a nuclear holocaust at the end of the cold war, everybody loses the grasp of horror of it. The sense of danger (that I can remember from early 80s) is gone and this make things more dangerous. By the way If someone had the Sakharov’s book at hand I will be grateful if it gets quoted here by Sakharov’s own words.

  6. David Clark (History)

    I get the impression that Putin is becoming increasingly frustrated – he’s trying to communicate that Russia retains the ability to mount a nation-killing strike against us, and that the West remains inescapably vulnerable to destruction, and it doesn’t seem to him that we’re listening, taking him seriously, or believing him. The nationalist/government press has been glorifying Russia’s historical nuclear achievements lately; Tsar Bomba, Perimetr and now this. I can imagine Putin instructing his generals to dig through the old speculative weapon design files from the fifties and whipping up more of these ‘accidental’ leaks.

    It strikes me that this sort of weapon may strike some in Russia as being almost a perfect example of what we would nowadays call an asymmetrical threat. A weapon that inundates coastlines is particularly well-suited to defeating a maritime power, while a response in kind leaves a continental power like Russia comparatively undamaged. It’s nonsense, of course, but I can imagine it would have a certain rhetorical power for certain audiences.

    As far as Mr. Lewis’s article goes, I don’t think that criticizing Putin on moralistic grounds is the way to go – our moral outrage would just tell him he ‘struck a nerve’ in the lingo of internet trolls everywhere. Responding in any way will encourage him to escalate these implicit threats. Not responding at all will also encourage him to escalate. We must choose carefully, but we must also keep our expectations as low as possible.

    • sferrin (History)

      “We must choose carefully, but we must also keep our expectations as low as possible.”

      Considering who’s in the White House, and his utter failure on the international stage, I’d say having expectations as low as possible is a virtual certainty.

  7. Jonah Speaks (History)

    O.K. A super-dirty massive nuclear/radiological weapon is technically feasible, though there are some doubts it can be delivered underwater without being detected and intercepted. Under what plausible scenario does such a weapon make sense?

    During the Cold War there was some plausibility to supposing that the Superpowers might grapple to the point of entering into a war of extermination, where every Communist tries to kill every Capitalist, and vice versa. Nuclear bombs, biological weapons, radiation, kill people, crops, and farmland, the whole world laid to waste.

    What about now? Russia is capitalist and Putin is the crooked capitalist in chief. A war of extermination? Wouldn’t that be bad for profits and all those billions I stashed away in my secret bank accounts?

    • Dan Gilchrist (History)

      No warning.

      Imagine, tensions are high, and boom, there goes New York. No time to recall it, no time to destruct in-flight, no time to be warned of retaliation. Boom. City gone.

      Now what? Russia claims it was a rogue submarine crew (and your fault for raising tensions so high), and further, that if the US responds it will mean the end of the world. What’s the rational thing for the US to do? End the world? Lose all their other cities, too?

      I don’t think for a second the US would take it lying down, but a no-warning attack means Russia could play the ultimate game of brinkmanship with the (however delusional) expectation of winning it. Whatever sanctions or even military attacks Russia suffered, it would pale in comparison to the permanent destruction of New York – rendered uninhabitable for thousands of years.

      A regular strike on a city, with a non-seeded device, that’s something that probably could realistically be avenged. But the permanent elimination of the most important city on earth? No way. Russia could consider any likely outcome one where they turn a sizable profit on the exchange. They may consider the cost – god, could we really sustain even 50 years of punishment? – worth it for the long term destruction wrought on their enemy. New York will still be gone in 100 years. And 200. And more.

      The expectation of winning a nuclear war is the most likely reason one might happen. Anything that makes anyone even suspect they’d win is extremely dangerous.

  8. Leo K (History)

    This “leak” was too well-timed to the Kogalymavia Airbus aircrash, especially with A.Carter’s recent threats of falling Russian airplanes in conjunction with Russia’s support of Syria.

    “Leak” my bottom. Seems like Putin knows who really arranged the disaster at Sinai and gives the clear hint that he no longer mainains any humanistic considerations for Obama’s “exceptional” empire.

    And yes, it would be better if it was supercavitating all the way to target. Unfortunately for USA, I suspect it will be released from a sleeping container close to US shores and silently do it’s job, when that time arrives.

  9. sferrin (History)

    This is nothing more than a terror weapon. It’s saying, “we want to make sure you don’t try to interfere as we do as we will about the world”. The next step will be to convince the US that Russia would absolutely start a nuclear war if the US so much as shoots down one of their aircraft, regardless of circumstance. This isn’t to say they WOULD start one. They just need to make the majority in the US think they would and they’ve accomplished their goal. China will do the same. The world is going to be a very “interesting” place for the foreseeable future. Until we do something about the weak and corrupt government we have running the show it will only get worse. (Before anybody wets themselves, no, I’m not suggesting a revolution. I’d settle for people actually educating themselves about the real world, and the candidates, before pulling the handle on election day.)

  10. David Clark (History)

    Jeffery, replies to your posts are no longer going through moderation since the update. You’ll probably want to change that.

  11. JO (History)

    “Dirtyness” shouldn’t be overstated as an aim. If antimissile defences improve past a point of confidence for Russia, an alternate means of getting through becomes required. With this weapon accurate guidance isn’t important, and once it is on station, detection is very hard. My guess is the deployment would be along the lines of sea mines. With that – the 100 knot stuff – why bother? Exploding in front of anti-submarine nets at entrance to harbor is probably going to be less effective than staying back a bit and pushing more water over – that is, if you’re talking the multi-megaton other part of this speculation. What sort of mega-tonnage did Soviet nuclear torpedos have anyway? Anything appear about use for port attacks?

  12. chochi80antonio oliveira (History)
    • HMD (History)

      Dear Antonio,
      Thank you very much for the time you spent to locate Sakharov’s quotation!

  13. YankeeCynic (History)

    What’s fascinating reading the Washington Free Beacon article is the fixation on this weapon being megaton-yield. It goes on to point out the numerous countries fielding megaton-range weapons and then seemingly laments that the US is retiring the B83.

    Never mind that more accurate warheads and improved targeting means having a megaton-range weapon is both unnecessary and unjustifiably expensive, it also leads me to wonder if, as time goes on and the US develops its own UUV force we can expect to see Buck Turgidson-esque “Gee, I wish we had one of them doomsday device” advocacy. If we do, it’ll be without a justifiable strategic need, but rather a mad rush to keep up with Ivan no matter the cost or logic.

    • kme (History)

      Maybe they’ll bring back Project Pluto!