The Russian government recently revealed new details about several high-tech, nuclear super-weapons that the Kremlin has claimed are essentially invulnerable to enemy defenses. But experts say Moscow is exaggerating, and that none of the new weapons fundamentally alter the balance of power between Russia and its rivals, including the United States.
At least, not yet.
The new munitions do, however, "introduce additional uncertainties and risks" in the US-Russian relationship, Pavel Podvig, an independent expert on Russian weaponry, told me.
Russian president Vladimir Putin's new super-weapons, all of which could carry a nuclear payload, include an intercontinental ballistic missile, an atomic-powered cruise missile with "unlimited" flying range, a hypersonic missile that travels too fast to shoot down, and a stealthy torpedo with a radiological "dirty bomb" warhead.
All of the munitions have been in development for years. Putin personally hyped several of them during a lavish official event in March that included video clips and flashy computer graphics.
The Kremlin's more recent announcements, which took the form of stories in state media and official videos on YouTube, confirm that all of the weapons exist at least in prototype form. "Everything seems real," Podvig told me.
Putin characterized the new weapons as defensive. "Any use of nuclear weapons against Russia or its allies, any kind of attack, will be regarded as a nuclear attack against Russia and in response we will take action instantaneously no matter what the consequences are," Putin said at the March event. "Nobody should have any doubt about that."
Yet many of the super-weapons appear to be designed specifically in order to evade enemy missile-defense systems. Indeed, the US and several of its closest European and Asian allies are fielding missiles theoretically capable of intercepting cruise missiles and some ICBMs.
In November, the Pentagon installed the last of 44 long-range Ground-Based Midcourse Defense rockets at bases in Alaska and California. The GMD rockets are supposed to provide a layer of defense against incoming nuclear-tipped ICBMs, although experts question whether they can hit the biggest and fastest rockets.
Russia clearly hopes its new super-weapons will sidestep existing missile shields. For instance, the Kinzhal hypersonic missile, launched by a modified MiG-31 fighter, travels 10 times the speed of sound along a flatter trajectory than heavy ICBMs, making it potentially very difficult to intercept. "The Kinzhal has no analogues in the world," the Russian defense ministry boasted.
For its part, the Burevestnik atomic-powered cruise missile possesses essentially unlimited flying range, allowing it to maneuver around the coverage zones of enemy radars and missile-launchers. That makes the Burevestnik "invincible to all the existing and advanced air- and missile-defense systems," the Kremlin claimed.
The Poseidon radiological torpedo, meanwhile, dodges US and allied defenses by simply swimming underneath them. While many countries possess sophisticated aerial missile shields, no country has managed to develop a system for intercepting undersea weapons over a wide area. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has proposed to somehow "weaponize" coastal sea life to detect enemy submersibles, but experts are skeptical that such a system would ever work.
If anything, the Kinzhal (“dagger”), Burevestnik (“thunderbird”), and Poseidon are delicate, expensive, and potentially dangerous to users. The Kremlin is outfitting just one squadron of MiG-31s with the Kinzhal, making it a token weapon at best during an actual war. The main reason to fit hypersonic rockets to fighter jets is "to say you can," James Acton, a physicist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me.
A Burevestnik cruise missile could easily malfunction and spread radiation over a wide area that Russia did not intend to hit, potentially even Russia itself. That's why every other country possessing cruise missiles and miniature atomic reactors has declined to combine the two. "The nuclear-powered cruise missile is new—and batshit crazy," Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told me.
The Poseidon radiological torpedo, meant to travel thousands of miles before contaminating a huge swathe of ocean and coast, likewise also "sounds insane," Lewis told me.
As for the new super-munitions, just one, the RS-28 ICBM, is truly practical and likely to enter mass production. Moscow approved development of the RS-28 in 2009 as a replacement for the Cold War-vintage R-36M, one of Russia's main nuclear-tipped rockets and a mainstay of the country's nuclear deterrent.
The Kremlin wants the new missiles to be ready for possible wartime use as early as 2020. And despite earlier delays to the weapon's development, it just might meet that goal, if a video the Russian government posted with last week’s announcement is any indication. The footage appears to depict a successful test-launch of an unarmed RS-28.
With the RS-28, Russia simply modernizes its existing nuclear arsenal with a slightly better version of the same kind of weapon that Russia, the US, and other atomic powers have possessed for more than 50 years. Podvig told me none of the new weapons alter the overall balance of power between the US and Russia.
"Putin and some of his cohorts might indeed believe that an array of fancy weapons has made Russia the number-one world military power and that the US will now be forced to negotiate a strategic compromise on the basis of equality," Pavel Felgenhauer, an expert on the Russian military with the Washington, DC-based Jamestown Foundation, wrote in March as the Kremlin began hyping its new super-weapons.
"But the basic equation of nuclear deterrence between Moscow and Washington, while possibly rattled, is still in place," Felgenhauer continued. To truly upset the balance of power, Russia would have to double down on its new, high-tech munitions and find ways of safely deploying them in large numbers.
"Mutual assured destruction is still keeping the peace," Felgenhauer noted, "but it also may be threatened in the coming years as the Russian rearmament program steams ahead."