Last week, Russia President Vladmir Putin delivered an address that included quite a bit of nuclear rhetoric that was as reminiscent of the Soviet era as Putin himself. From new intercontinental ballistic missiles designed specifically to circumvent U.S. defenses to cruise missiles with nuclear propulsion and near limitless fuel reserves … it would seem that Russia has just dropped a bomb (of sorts) on the Geopolitical arena. As Putin said himself, “Russia still has the greatest nuclear potential in the world, but nobody listened to us. Listen now.”

Well, the world is listening now, Mr. Putin – but then, we always were. While plenty of news outlets are eager to market the end of the world to you, the nuclear “announcements” made by Putin last week weren’t really announcements at all. Let’s break down the four nuclear programs Putin outlined, and what we already know:

The RS-28 Sarmat or “Satan II” ICBM

(Makeyev Rocket Design Bureau)

The Satan II is Russia’s latest and greatest intercontinental ballistic missile platform, and it makes concerns about Kim Jong’s Un’s Hwasong-15 seem almost laughable by comparison. First announced in Russian state media in 2014, the platform launches like any other ICBM, and employs liquid fuel boosters, rather than solid fuel. This means it will take longer to prepare for launch, but offers benefits to the missile’s performance that Russian engineers seemed to feel warranted the added prep-time, including a maximum range believed to be around 11,000 miles.

Where the Satan II differentiates itself from other Russian ICBMs is in its approach to its target.

“It has a large number of divided parts, from 10 to 15 warheads, each with a capacity of up to 750 kilotons,” Russian military analyst, Alexei Leonkov, said in Russian state media. “They will fly to their target at hypersonic speeds performing maneuvers so that the existing American missile defense system would be incapable of intercepting them.”

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How does this affect our nuclear posture?

To be succinct … it really doesn’t. The RS-28 Sarmat, or Satan II, represents a significant leap forward in Russian ballistic missile technology, but there was never a question that Russia’s ICBMs could overwhelm America’s missile defense systems before. The Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System (GMD System) America employs for domestic missile defense has been experienced a number of issues over the years, including test failures and delayed updating required to make the interceptors reliable. As it stands, America would likely be able to intercept as many as a handful of incoming ICBMs by launching as many as five interceptors at each incoming warhead, but nuclear war with Russia would invariably mean hundreds of incoming missiles – and absolutely zero chance of American assets intercepting them all.

The Satan II, then, simply means that our mutually assured destruction remains mutual and assured.

The Ocean Multipurpose System Status-6 or “Kanyon”

This supposedly leaked image of the “Status 6” platform appeared on Russian television last year. (Twitter)

Once believed to be nothing more than Russian propaganda, Pentagon documents released earlier this year confirmed that Russia’s autonomous, submersible doomsday weapon is, in fact, a reality.

The autonomous submarine measures some 5.5 feet wide and 79 feet long, is capable of achieving a maximum speed of 56 knots at depths of up to 3,280 feet and has a supposed operational range of 6,200 miles. When launched from a Russian submarine, these massive nuclear weapons could easily reach any coastal area in the world, then lay in wait to be called upon to unleash hell.

How much hell? More than 100 megatons. No nuclear weapon of that size has ever even been test detonated, and no country has fielded a weapon of that power in over a half century. To make matters worse, the platform is rumored to be salted with an additional radioactive isotope, Cobalt-60, which would increase the weapon’s fallout potential as an area denial measure. That is, after the radioactive tsunami was done wreaking havoc further inland than the blast could reach.

How does this affect our nuclear posture?

The Status 6 represents a legitimate danger to American shores, but the U.S. is already working on developing new ways to counter it. Two programs, in particular, may soon be working in conjunction with one another to help root out any sneaky doomsday weapons attempting to swim their way to American shores. DARPA’s PALs initiative aims to use sensor nodes placed in coastal waters to track wildlife behavior, using algorithms to assess when wildlife appears to be reacting to the presence of a large vessel. If a 75 foot long nuclear weapon crept into Boston Harbor, the marine wildlife would react immediately upon seeing or sensing its presence – and when the sensors identified that, the data could then be relayed to the autonomous sub hunters from the Navy’s ACTUV program.

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U.S. Navy Sea Hunter Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel, or ACTUV, is a 132 foot long, 140 ton drone warship perfectly suited for hunting down enemy submarines. (Navy Photo)

These massive drone ships are designed to crisscross areas of the sea, hunting for submarines hidden deep below the surface. With no crew to need rest, the ACTUV ships can hunt for submarines in locations directed by the PALs system, theoretically making a stealth approach to U.S. shores impossible, or at least, very difficult.

These programs are still in their infancy, however, meaning one can’t disregard the threat posed by even a single operational Status 6 platform.

Nuclear-powered Cruise Missiles

Of all the nuclear assets Putin discussed in his address, the strangest one has to be the nuclear-powered cruise missiles. Unlike traditional cruise missiles, which are powered through liquid or solid chemical rockets, a nuclear powered cruise missile would theoretically be capable of supersonic flight, and more disconcerting, would have a near limitless fuel supply. With such a high top speed, the platform could maintain a near horizontal flight trajectory, making the chances of intercepting the platform slim, and with no concern for fuel, the missile could easily divert to avoid missile defense systems altogether.

How does this affect our nuclear posture?

Although the concept is an interesting one, Defense Officials have widely disregarded the threat such a nuclear-powered cruise missile may pose to the United States. Nuclear propulsion for for an aircraft or missile platform isn’t a new invention: the United States dabbled with the idea as far back as the 1950s, but the benefits offered from the methodology didn’t outweigh the risks or costs associated with using poorly shielded nuclear power plants in cruise missiles. The missiles would undoubtedly release radiation in flight, which may actually account for detected spikes in radiation levels drifting over Europe from Russia late last year.

A prototype nuclear ramjet developed by the U.S. military in the 1960s. (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

While the levels were not dangerous, nuclear watch dogs detected high levels of a nuclear isotope associated with nuclear fuel, rather than weapons – prompting some to speculate that their may have been an unreported disaster at a Russian nuclear facility. Instead, it may have simply been the radioactive exhaust expelled by testing these platforms.

“These – these weapons that – that are discussed have been in development a very long time,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said on Friday. “Our [new] Nuclear Posture Review takes all of this into account.”

The fact that nuclear-powered cruise missiles don’t actually appear in the nuclear posture review documents released  by the Pentagon could be a strong indicator that these platforms are not yet considered even close to operational – even by Russia’s standards.

Hypersonic Missiles

Perhaps the greatest threat posed by Russia’s new platforms are the hypersonic capabilities touted for both the Satan II’s warheads and new cruise missile and anti-ship platforms. Hypersonic missiles are often based on the same sort of ramjet technology currently being developed to power the SR-71 successor (the SR-72) as well as a litany of missile platforms currently under testing and development in Russia, China, the United States and Australia.

Lockheed promotional image for the SR-72

Make no mistake, hypersonic velocities represent the wave of the future for ballistic missiles – by traveling at speeds rumored to be as high as Mach 10, a hypersonic missile would be nearly impossible to intercept – in some cases, they may even be impossible to detect before they hit their target. The United States tested their first hypersonic platform in a joint project with Australia last July, though Russia is rumored to have successfully tested their own Yu-71 hypersonic platform the October prior.

How does this affect our nuclear posture?

Hypersonic missile platforms and aircraft will undoubtedly continue to develop in the decades to come, and will likely represent a technological leap in the way wars are fought in the skies. At those velocities, human beings become the limiting factor, as manned aircraft need to keep their pilots alive to function – though it seems likely that the lines between drone and missile may begin a blur slightly as hypersonic flight continues to develop.

The hypersonic X-51A Waverider, shown here under the wing of a B-52 Stratofortress. (Air Force)

Like nuclear weapons, hypersonic flight currently represents a near-indefensible threat, meaning the only way to stop a hypersonic weapon from reaching its target (outside of luck) may be to prevent its launch in the first place. Like the nuclear deterrent provided by mutually assured destruction, a hypersonic missile strike may soon be seen as comparable to a nuclear one: as countries begin to employ a “if you shoot yours, i’ll shoot mine” standoff mindset.

While many of Putin’s claims about new weapons platforms may exaggerate the usefulness, destructive capability, or how close to operational they are – hypersonic platforms are currently a threat without a reliable response.

Feature image courtesy of the Associated Press