What Russia's deadliest nuclear sub could do to the US

In the inky black water, a predator slowly rises from the depths of the Gulf of Mexico like an Old God or Godzilla, but even more devastating and lethal: The Russian submarine Yuri Dolgoruky with 16 nuclear-tipped Bulava cruise missiles on board. When it begins ripple-firing its missiles, it could send 96 warheads into American cities and military installations.

It's a real submarine that's in service right now, and it could annihilate American cities in a surprise attack.

The Yuri Dolgorukiy in sea trials in 2010.

(Schekinov Alexey Victorovich, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Yuri Dolgoruky has 16 vertical launch silos for missiles and it can pack a single Bulava into each one with a range of almost 6,000 miles. That means it could surface west of Hawaii, fire east, and still hit New York City.

But that would force the Russians to fire their missiles past multiple American missile defenses. After all, some of America's best missiles defenses are in Hawaii. So, it would be better for the subs to give up their range advantage by firing from a position with fewer defenses, like the Gulf of Mexico.

From there, the crew could still hit literally all U.S. states and most U.S. territories.

Eight warheads from a Peacekeeper missile hit targets during testing by the U.S. Navy. Russian MIRVs work in a similar way, allowing subs to hit multiple targets with one missile, but navies keep the potential spread of MIRV warheads secret.

(U.S. Army David James Paquin)

And those missiles each carry 6 warheads with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles, or MIRVs, meaning that each warhead can hit a different target. And, each of those warheads has an estimated yield of 100 kilotons. So, the total explosive power is 9,600 kilotons spread over up to 96 locations, like U.S. military installations and cities. And, to top it all of, it's thought to be capable of firing all its missiles in just 1 minute.

So, what would happen if the Russians actually attacked the U.S. with this or similar submarines?

Well, first, the Yuri Dolgoruky is part of the Borei class of submarines, and its 100-kiloton warheads cannot penetrate the most hardened installations. So, an attack on Cheyenne Mountain might degrade NORAD's communication capabilities, but the base would survive.

Instead, the Russian planners would likely select other targets that would reduce America's ability to respond and would maximize confusion and chaos immediately after the attack. So, we're talking targets like The Pentagon, Kings Bay Naval Base in Southern Georgia, and Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.

A missile equipped with warheads on MIRVs could likely hit multiple targets in the Washington, D.C. area.

(Screenshot from NukeMap)

At most of these locations, all 6 warheads from a missile would likely be set to hit nearby locations at a single target. Navies keep the details of their MIRV capabilities secret because, obviously, they don't want an enemy commander to know exactly what spread they can create with their warheads. But it's unlikely that a missile striking against King's Bay would have another logical target within range of the MIRVs. So, the missiles would probably drop all six warheads on or near the naval base.

The exception would be a strike against the Pentagon. When hitting the Pentagon, warheads could almost certainly also reach the White House, the Capitol Building, and maybe even nearby Forts Meade and Detrick and the U.S. Marine Corps Base Quantico.

For people on the ground, the next few seconds and minutes are key to survival. If you're at ground zero and the bomb goes off, you have little chance. Absent a true, robust bomb shelter, you're either dying when the blast hits you or when the building collapses around you. Literally just the over-pressurization of the air can kill you. The heat and radiation are just gravy.

​A nuclear missile targeting the King's Bay Naval Base in Georgia might not have the ability to spread its warheads far enough to hit other military targets, so it might stack them all on top of the base to ensure all the submarine pens and naval headquarters are taken out.

(Screenshot from NukeMap)

But outside of that, there are still acute dangers. At 2 miles from a blast, you can survive the immediate explosion but still die within seconds. If you see the flash of the bomb and step toward the window to get a better look, the over-pressurization wave will hit the glass as you step toward the window, creating a shotgun burst of glass that would go right into your face and torso.

But even if you avoid the glass exploding, you need to deal with your own injuries from over-pressurization and radiation while also fighting fires in your local area and rendering medical aid. If you fail to do first aid on yourself and those around you, you'll all likely die of wounds. And fires are a real possibility, especially if there are dark surfaces or flammable debris where you are.

Many emergency planners even think there's a risk that people will drive towards ground zero to check on loved ones, increasing chaos in the area and exposing themselves to additional higher levels of nuclear radiation.

The Borei Class of submarines poses a significant threat to Russia's enemies, but they will almost certainly never fire their nuclear missiles in anger since since doing so would demand a retaliatory strike against Russia.

(Russian Military)

Now, one good thing about a strike against U.S. military facilities is that many of America's nuclear platforms were intentionally built far from population centers to reduce civilian casualties in a war. So, while D.C. is obviously a major city where hundreds of thousands would die in a strike, Kings Bay has about 60,000 people living on and near the base. Still a catastrophe, but at least a numerically smaller one.

Still, hundreds of thousands would die and dozens of U.S. nuclear bombers, submarines, and missiles would be wiped out, limiting our response capabilities. And all of that is with just one enemy submarine. Multiple submarines or submarines paired with jet or missile attacks would be even worse.

So, if Russia sailed one of its Borei-class submarines to our shores and did an attack like this, would they be successful? Or what if they used the Yasen-class with fewer warheads but larger payloads, would America be defeated in one sure stroke?

USS Kentucky, a ballistic-missile submarine, departs for a strategic deterrence mission since 2016.

(U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Amanda R. Gray)

We would be devastated, for sure. But the reason that Russia would never even hope to conduct an attack like this is simple: Even if they were able to cripple the submarine base at King's Bay, the Air Force bases in the Midwest, and the command and control at the Pentagon, America keeps nuclear submarines from King's Bay on patrol. So, our response capability would be limited after an attack, but it's nearly impossible to eliminate the capability all at once.

And those ballistic missile submarines are extremely resilient. If America were attacked, it would be the job of these submarines to retaliate, unleashing their own massive payloads of missiles against Russian targets with similar results. If four or five were on patrol, which is fairly standard, they could send dozens of nuclear missiles against Russian targets, causing even more devastation there than we suffered here.

While the nightmare can be scary (but also cathartic) to think about, it's important to remember that it's just a nightmare. The U.S. military maintains a robust nuclear deterrent to keep anyone from actually going through an attack like this. And our submarines, as well as the slightly less survivable bombers and missiles, ensure that no enemy could launch such an attack without losing their own country in the process.