An Italian news agency claimed NATO had warned of an imminent test. Here’s why that’s unlikely (for now).BY KYLE MIZOKAMIPUBLISHED: OCT 20, 2022
- A report in Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper says Russia may be close to a live test of its Poseidon nuclear-powered torpedo.
- Poseidon is a giant underwater torpedo armed with a two-megaton thermonuclear warhead. Experts believe the submarine Belgorod, currently in the Barents Sea, could be the test vehicle.
- However, reports from Naval News and Reuters could not confirm the La Repubblica story. A full-fledged Poseidon test—at least in the near future—is unlikely.
Russia could be gearing up to test a new nuclear-powered torpedo, called Poseidon. An Italian newspaper, citing an unnamed NATO intelligence report, says the test is tied to movements of the new Belgorod submarine. The Poseidon torpedo is one of a slew of new weapons introduced by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
La Repubblica claims that NATO suspects Belgorod is about to test Poseidon in the Kara Sea. The intel is supposedly from a NATO intelligence report “sent to the most important allied commands,” according to the newspaper. Belgorod is one of two submarines, along with the Russian Navy’s Sarov, that can launch the Poseidon torpedo.
However, Naval News has cast some doubt on the La Repubblica story. Photographs obtained by the website show Belgorod in the Barents Sea, not the Kara Sea, about 500 miles away. Analyst H.I. Sutton believes a test is possible, but it may also be possible Moscow has sortied Belgorod as a message to Washington and the West, particularly those countries helping Ukraine beat back a Russian invasion.
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Reuters also couldn’t confirm the intel cited by La Repubblica, reporting that both a Western diplomat and a NATO official denied such a warning was sent out.
A diagram of the Russian Belgorod special mission submarine.H.I. Sutton/Covert Shores
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The U.S. Navy describes Poseidon as an Intercontinental Nuclear-Powered Nuclear-Armed Autonomous Torpedo, or INPNATP. It’s just as well to call it by its nickname, the Apocalypse Torpedo. Poseidon is a large, 100-ton, nuclear-powered torpedo. It is an autonomous weapon system, meaning it is uncrewed and can navigate to its target on its own, without outside control. It travels at depths of up to 3,280 feet, farther than NATO submarines and their torpedoes can dive, at a speed of 70 knots (80 miles per hour on land.) A nuclear propulsion system gives it virtually unlimited range.
Poseidon is armed with a two-megaton thermonuclear warhead. Two megatons is 2,000 kilotons—far more catastrophic than the 16-kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in World War II. Poseidon is designed to attack coastal areas, like naval bases, ports, oil refineries, and cities. While it is relatively slow for a nuclear weapon, its speed and operating depth will make it difficult, if not impossible, to intercept. Poseidon is not a first-strike weapon, but rather one meant to ensure the destruction of enemy targets after a nuclear conflict has already begun.
The Poseidon torpedo has unlimited range, a top speed of 70 knots, and a two megaton nuclear warhead.HI Sutton/Covert Shores
A Poseidon test would not involve detonating an actual 2-megaton warhead, as Russia is a party to the Partial Test Ban Treaty that prohibits underwater explosions. Putin could decide to abrogate the treaty and test regardless, but that seems unlikely. While it is in his interests for the outside world to see him as irrational for now, keeping the U.S. and NATO guessing his next moves, ripping up the treaty would create long term diplomatic problems for Russia that aren’t easily fixed.
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Belgorod is one of the largest submarines in the world. It measures 604 feet long by 60 feet wide, and displaces 30,000 tons submerged—three times that of a U.S. Virginia-class attack sub. The submarine, originally an unfinished Oscar-class guided missile sub, was finished as a special mission submarine capable of acting as a mothership to smaller submarines, remotely operated vehicles, and the Poseidon torpedo. Belgorod can carry up to six Poseidon torpedoes, launching them from far off at sea.
Russia will test Poseidon sooner or later. Such a test might come in a matter of days or years, but it is inevitable. But at the same time, Western sanctions have hit Moscow’s economy hard, and some form of belt tightening is inevitable. Even if Russia tests Poseidon, it might be as a one-hit wonder and never a fully operational weapon system.