The assessment, known as a Nuclear Posture Review, mainly concerns U.S. nukes and missiles.
But buried in the plan is a mention of a mysterious Russian weapon called “Status-6.” On paper, at least, Status-6 appears to be a kind of doomsday device. The report refers to it as “a new intercontinental, nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered, undersea autonomous torpedo.”
“The radius of total or near-total destruction is the size of a pretty large metropolitan area, actually,” says Edward Geist, a Russia specialist at the Rand Corp. who has spent time looking at the weapon. “It’s difficult to imagine in normal terms.”
Status-6 made its first public appearance in 2015, while Russian President Vladimir Putin was visiting with his generals in the city of Sochi.
“The detonation would cause a very large amount of radioactive fallout,” adds Pavel Podvig, an arms control expert who runs a blog called Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces. Podvig believes the weapon could potentially bathe the entire Northeast Corridor in radioactive soot.
Status-6 would probably be used as a “third-strike” weapon of last resort. If Russia fell under attack from the U.S. and couldn’t retaliate with its missiles, it might trigger Status-6: a doomsday machine. Or at least a doomsday-ish machine.[…]
“My read of the whole Status-6 slide leak is that the Russians were trying to send us a message,” Geist says.
Podvig agrees that the leak of Status-6 is probably just a warning shot. But the fact that it appeared in the Pentagon’s newest report on nuclear weapons shows that some war planners are taking the idea seriously.
There may be some politics involved in that decision as well, says Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists. The Trump administration is pushing hard for upgrades to America’s nuclear arsenal. In his State of the Union address, the president called for making the arsenal “so strong and so powerful that it will deter any acts of aggression by any other nation or anyone else.”
Citing Status-6 helps to build the case that upgrades to American nukes are needed, Kristensen says.
For all the rhetoric around Status-6, Podvig and Geist both believe that the program isn’t completely made-up. Geist says a long-range underwater drone without a nuclear warhead would be a useful weapon.