NEWS

This is how Russia's 'unstoppable' nuclear weapon works

During Vladimir Putin's annual speech on March 1, 2018, the Russian president played videos that unveiled brand-new nuclear weapons with startling capabilities.


Putin announced an "unstoppable" nuclear-powered "global cruise missile" that has "practically unlimited" range, then showed an animation of the device bobbing and weaving around the globe. He also played a computer animation of a high-speed, nuke-armed submarine drone blowing up ships and coastal targets.

"Russia remained and remains the largest nuclear power. Do not forget, no one really wanted to talk to us. Nobody listened to us," Putin told a crowd in Moscow, according to a translation by Sputnik, a Russian-government-controlled news agency. "Listen now."

Related: Putin personally just launched 4 ballistic missiles

David Wright, a physicist and missile expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Business Insider that the idea of an "unstoppable" cruise missile going around the world without being detected is "fiction," since it'd heat up to an extreme degree. (CNN also reported that all tests of the cruise missile ended in crashes.)

But he said that at least one device Putin showed off likely does exist.

"We know they're developing some new systems with a longer range and a larger payload," Wright said.

The known weapon is called the RS-28 Sarmat, though NATO refers to it as the SS-X-30 Satan 2. Russia has been developing it since at least 2009.

Putin showed a video of the Satan 2 during his speech. In it, footage shows an intercontinental ballistic missile launching out of a silo, followed by an animation of it rocketing toward space. The video-game-like graphic follows the ICBM as it sails over a faux Earth in a high arc and opens its nosecone to reveal five nuclear warheads.

 

 

Putin claimed this 119-foot-tall missile is "invincible" to missile defense systems.

What makes ICBMs so threatening

Intercontinental ballistic missiles are similar to rockets that shoot satellites and people into orbit, but ICBMs carry warheads and hit targets on Earth.

The missiles travel in a wide arc over Earth, enabling them to strike halfway around the world within an hour. (North Korea recently launched its new ICBM in a high, compact arc to avoid rocketing it over US allies.)

Satan 2, which Putin claimed is already deployed in some missile silos, is a replacement for a 1970s-era Satan ICBM. The new version is slated to reach full service in 50 silos around 2020, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Also read: In grand finale, Russia tests massive ICBM during European wargames

According to the Center's Missile Defense Project, the Satan 2 "is reported by Russian media as being able to carry 10 large warheads, 16 smaller ones, a combination of warheads and countermeasures, or up to 24 YU-74 hypersonic boost-glide vehicles."

That means one Satan 2 ICBM could pack as much as eight megatons of TNT-equivalent explosive power. That's more than 400 times as strong as either bomb the US dropped on Japan in 1945 — both of which, combined, led to roughly 150,000 casualties.

The technology used to deliver multiple warheads to different targets is called a "multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle," or MIRV. Such devices deploy their warheads after reaching speeds that can exceed 15,000 miles per hour.

Depending on where the warhead is deployed in space and how it maneuvers, each one can strike targets hundreds of miles apart.

Why Putin says the Satan 2 is 'invincible'

A recently demonstrated technology made to neutralize a nuclear warhead is a "kinetic kill vehicle:" essentially a large, high-tech bullet launched via missile. The bullets can target a warhead, slam into it mid-flight, and obliterate the weapon.

"But there are a number of different ways to penetrate defenses" like a kill vehicle, Wright said, which may explain Putin's "invincible" claim.

More: Russia reportedly wants to build this doomsday bomb and hide it on a train

Satan 2 has advanced guidance systems and probably some countermeasures designed to trick anti-missile systems. This might include "a couple dozen very lightweight decoys made to look like the warhead," Wright said, which could result in a kill vehicle targeting the wrong object.

Wright has also studied other methods to sneak past US defenses, including warhead cooling systems that might confuse heat-seeking anti-missile systems, and "disguising a real warhead to make it look different."

But simply deploying large numbers of warheads can be enough: Kill vehicles may not work 50% of the time, based on prior testing, and they're a technology that's been in development for decades.

Yet Satan 2 is not exactly unique.

A long exposure of a Peacekeeper missile's mock nuclear warheads blazing back to Earth during a test. (Department of Defense)

What the US has that compares

The US, in 2005, retired the "Peacekeeper" missile, which was its biggest "MIRV-capable" weapon (meaning it could deploy multiple warheads to different locations).

One Peacekeeper missile could shed up to 10 thermonuclear warheads, each of which had a 50% chance of striking within a roughly football-field-size area.

But the US has other MIRV-capable nuclear weapons in its arsenal today.

More reading: 4 powerful weapons you didn't know were built by Ford

One is the Trident II ballistic missile, which gets launched from a submarine and can carry up to a dozen nuclear warheads. Another option is the Minuteman III ICBM, which is silo-launched and can carry three warheads.

Arms-control treaties have since reduced the numbers of warheads in these weapons — Trident IIs carry up to five, Minuteman IIIs just one — and retired the Peacekeeper.

Today, there are still about 15,000 nuclear weapons deployed, in storage, or awaiting dismantlement, with more than 90% held by the US and Russia.

A Trident II ICBM launching.

Cold War 2.0?

Wright said Putin's recent statements and the similarly heated comments and policy made by President Donald Trump echo rhetoric that fueled nuclear arms build-up during the Cold War era.

"What's discouraging is that, at the end of the Cold War, everyone was trying to de-MIRV" — or reduce the numbers of warheads per missile — he said.

Removing warheads helped calm US-Russia tensions and reduce the risk of preemptive nuclear strikes, either intentional or accidental, Wright said. Russia's move to deploy new weapons with multiple warheads, then, is risky and escalatory.

"One of the reasons you might want to MIRV is if you're facing ballistic missile defenses, and Putin talked about that," Wright said, noting that the US has helped build up European anti-missile defenses in recent years. "The clear response is to upgrade your offensive capabilities."

He added that Russia's move also shouldn't be surprising in the context of history: After George W. Bush withdrew the US from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty in 2001, a Russian general told the New York Times the move "will alter the nature of the international strategic balance in freeing the hands of a series of countries to restart an arms buildup."

The charged statements of President Trump, who has called for a new arms race, have done little to reverse that course.

In fact, the Trump Administration plans to expand an Obama-era nuclear weapons modernization program. Over 30 years, the effort could cost US taxpayers more than $1.7 trillion and introduce smaller "tactical" nuclear weapons that experts fear might make the use of nukes common.

History

This pilot shot down an enemy fighter at Pearl Harbor in his pajamas

Comfort is important when doing a hard job. If it's hot on the work site, it's important to stay cool. If it's hazardous, proper protection needs to be worn. And comfort is apparently key when the Japanese sneak attack the Navy. Just ask Lt. Phil Rasmussen, who was one of four pilots who managed to get off the ground to fight the Japanese in the air.

Rasmussen, like many other American GIs in Hawaii that day, was still asleep when the Japanese launched the attack at 0755. The Army Air Forces 2nd Lieutenant was still groggy and in his pajamas when the attacking wave of enemy fighters swarmed Wheeler Field and destroyed many of the Army's aircraft on the ground.

Damaged aircraft on Hickam Field, Hawaii, after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

There were still a number of outdated Curtiss P-36A Hawk fighters that were relatively untouched by the attack. Lieutenant Rasmussen strapped on a .45 pistol and ran out to the flightline, still in his pajamas, determined to meet the sucker-punching Japanese onslaught.

By the time the attack ended, Wheeler and Hickam Fields were both devastated. Bellows Field also took a lot of damage, its living quarters, mess halls, and chapels strafed by Japanese Zeros. American troops threw back everything they could muster – from anti-aircraft guns to their sidearms. But Rasmussen and a handful of other daring American pilots managed to get in the air, ready to take the fight right back to Japan in the Hawks if they had to. They took off under fire, but were still airborne.

Pearl Harbor pilots Harry Brown, Phil Rasmussen, Ken Taylor, George Welch, and Lewis Sanders.

They made it as far as Kaneohe Bay.

The four brave pilots were led by radio to Kaneohe, where they engaged 11 enemy fighters in a vicious dogfight. Even in his obsolete old fighter, Rasmussen proved that technology is no match for good ol' martial skills and courage under fire. He managed to shoot down one of the 11, but was double-teamed by two attacking Zeros.

Gunfire and 20mm shells shattered his canopy, destroyed his radio, and took out his hydraulic lines and rudder cables. He was forced out of the fighting, escaping into nearby clouds and making his way back to Wheeler Field. When he landed, he did it without brakes, a rudder, or a tailwheel.

There were 500 bullet holes in the P-36A's fuselage.

Skillz.

Lieutenant Rasmussen earned the Silver Star for his boldness and would survive the war, getting his second kill in 1943. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1965, but will live on in the Museum of the United States Air Force, forever immortalized as he hops into an outdated aircraft in his pajamas.

(U.S. Air Force photo)

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