February 28, 2019 · AUDEN Poseidon Skif Russia

Poseidon & Micronaval Priorities II

Photo by Sofia Bertomeu / Unsplash

-| Part one of this series, Status-6 & Micronaval Priorities, can be found here. |-

On February 20, while addressing the Russian Parliament, President Vladimir Putin announced that the Poseidon (aka Status-6 or KANYON) autonomous undersea nuclear torpedo had successfully completed sea trials, and that it was on schedule to deploy this spring on a "nuclear powered submarine," presumably Project 09852 Belogorod. Russian MOD released video footage purportedly depicting the interior of test submarine Sarov, as well as a test round being fired.

With its deployment now imminent, the urgent question before us is whether and to what extent Poseidon, as well as other as-yet undeveloped autonomous undersea weapons, should be taken into consideration when developing the next generation of comprehensive missile defense.

  • Poseidon is an autonomous nuclear torpedo, not a nuclear missile as conventionally defined and understood. Yet a missile is simply a projectile forcibly launched at a target, regardless of the medium in which it is operating, making a torpedo, by definition, an undersea missile.

  • While independent analysts have questioned the capabilities (and, until recently, even the outright existence) of Poseidon, the Pentagon takes the weapon seriously enough to have included it in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.

  • Poseidon, along with its "sister" program, the hypersonic 9M730 Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile, are quite explicitly designed to circumvent current U.S. missile defenses.

Thus, if we are to understand Poseidon as an intercontinental undersea missile, one that has been designed specifically to penetrate existing missile defenses, and one that the Pentagon explicitly recognizes as a potential threat, then it seems reasonable to include Poseidon in the larger missile defense discussion.

Poseidon possesses some of the same characteristics as an intercontinental ballistic missile, but is, in several ways, more concerning than an ICBM or hypersonic weapon.

  • It has unlimited range. In a strategic role, having unlimited range would seem to offer little advantage to Poseidon, given that a successful nuclear strike relies on covering large distances very quickly, and while Poseidon's speed is impressive by undersea standards, it falls far short of an ICBM. But in a tactical role, having unlimited standoff range could enable a pierside launch in Severodvinsk against a carrier battle group operating in the North Atlantic, a distance of anywhere from hundreds to thousands of miles, or in the Seventh Fleet area of operations, a distance of several thousands.

  • It can be launched from a submarine. Poseidon is also analogous to a SLCM or SLBM in that it is designed to be launched without warning from a stealthy, survivable undersea platform. Unless the platform's location is known and under surveillance, the launch would be undetected, except perhaps by a nearby submarine or fixed seabed sensors attached to SOSUS/IUSS.

  • It can be launched from the seabed. Reports indicate that a seabed variant of Poseidon, known as Skif, is also under development. Even if Russia abides by the Seabed Arms Control Treaty of 1972 and ensures that any emplacements are confined to territorial waters, this still would present a daunting defensive challenge.

  • The United States currently possesses no (known) countermeasures or defenses against it. Though it has been referred to as "the world's slowest and most vulnerable ICBM,", and is likely missing both critical noise dampening and nuclear shielding making it vulnerable to detection, at a speed of 70 kts, and running depth in excess of 1000 meters, it could conceivably evade any conventional torpedo in the U.S. or allied inventories. But these capabilities, while remarkable, would not necessarily be required in order to mount a devastating attack on a coastal installation or carrier battle group. If launched from close range by an otherwise innocuous surface craft or stealthy host submarine (manned or unmanned), Poseidon would still be unstoppable under the current U.S. missile defense regime.

Given that Poseidon is a missile that threatens both the continental United States, U.S. allies, and U.S. forces abroad, any future missile defense master plan must include countering this unique threat, and integrating the countermeasures into U.S. missile defense operations.

As we suggested in Part I of this series, a Strikepod, or group of Strikepods, could be configured as an undersea defense network to intercept, disrupt and/or destroy incoming Poseidon attacks. But critical to this mission would be first detecting and closely monitoring Poseidon launch platforms and Skif seabed deployments in order to maximize warning lead time.

  • Russian sources announced in January that Poseidon would be deployed on four platforms, two in the Northern Fleet, and two in the Pacific, each capable of carrying eight rounds for a total initial deployment of thirty two. Project 09851 Khabarovsk is slated to be one of the four, as well as "special purpose submarines" and a Project 949A Oscar-II "after the appropriate upgrade," which presumably refers to Belgorod.

  • Concentrating Poseidons within only four platforms, however, will make the entire Russian undersea micronuclear capability vulnerable to attack, potentially denying Russia a viable counterstrike option. We therefore believe that both Belgorod, Khabarovsk, and any additional host platforms will operate either exclusively beneath the Arctic ice where background noise provides acoustic camouflage, or in nearby strategic bastions (see below) where they can be protected by Russian attack submarines or micronaval assets, such as Istina-class microsubmarines.

  • At this time, very little is known of the Skif variant, including where it will eventually be deployed, how the weapon will be oriented on the seabed, or its means of command and control. Whether such a variant even exists, or how close it is to being operational, remain to be seen, but if true, the Skif may present the greatest challenge to undersea missile defense.

As also indicated in Part I, there are two likely deployment options under consideration by Russian planners: Strategic Bastion, similar to the Soviet and post-Cold War Russian practice of keeping SSBNs close to shore in areas heavily defended by sea and land-based ASW assets, and Strategic Dispersal, scattering Poseidons regionally or globally, both within host platforms and on the seabed, to increase survivability by presenting multiple autonomous, independently targeted vehicles.

  • Strategic Bastion
    Poseidons are held close to the Russian coastline either:

    1. Within host platforms defended by Russian attack submarines, surface ships, and air assets,
    2. On patrol in shallow littoral areas, accompanied by Istina-class microsubmarines, or
    3. Dormant on the sea floor, likely housed within hardened shelters or fixed launch platforms while guarded by pods of Istinas or other micronaval assets.
  • Strategic Dispersal
    Poseidons are scattered throughout the world's oceans in submarines and/or on the seabed, obscured by the vastness of the oceans and undersea geography while awaiting the order to launch. Such a strategy would be operationally challenging for Skifs, as they would require robust and reliable undersea communications, as well as a highly advanced command and control infrastructure that would likely involve additional micronaval assets to relay launch data and conduct counter-microsubmarine operations.

Russian attack submarines will sanitize the Barents and White Seas in advance of host platform (i.e. Belgorod, Khabarovsk) deployments. Strikepods should therefore be positioned well inside the White Sea, loitering approximately 2km N/NW of the port's breakwater, in order to acquire and track them as they sail from Severodvinsk.

  • As targets transit the White Sea, Strikepods will obtain valuable acoustic intelligence and capture undersea imagery to be transmitted via Relay to underway and ashore assets for analysis.

  • Remoras will then attach to target anechoic tile using the Turbo-Injected Quadhook Assembly of their Embedded Remora Modules, transmitting real-time tracking data to Relays for uploading to surface, air, or space assets.

  • Strikepods will then provide continuous tracking of target platforms as they assume their patrol.

With Poseidon having very recently completed sea trials, it is unlikely that Skifs have been deployed to the seabed. Therefore, time is of the essence to establish an effective ISR network to monitor and identify the locations of Skif deployments.

  • While Moscow may ultimately choose to disregard the Seabed Arms Control Treaty of 1972, and deploy Skifs throughout the world's oceans, given the considerable technological challenges involved, as well as the political risk in violating the treaty, we believe that Skifs will initially be deployed within twelve miles of the Russian coastline.

  • Strikepods should therefore be immediately deployed to Russian coastal waters to assist in the detection of Skif emplacements, vectored as needed onto surface vessels to obtain surface and undersea imagery.

  • Ports and shipyards, particularly Severodvinsk, should be aggressively monitored for indications of Skif and associated materiel onloading, with Strikepods vectored onto vessels identified by reconnaissance satellites or other intelligence assets and tracked to deployment waypoints.

In Part III of this series we will discuss the Atlantic Undersea Defense Network (AUDEN), a prototype for Strikepod defense of coastal installations from Poseidon and similar micronaval weapons, and its integration into the broader missile defense framework.

Strikepod Command


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