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Today the Trump administration released a report on America's nuclear weaponry. Most of the assessment was of the Pentagon's nukes and missiles, but buried in the plan was also mention of a mysterious Russian weapon called Status-6. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports that Status-6 appears to be some kind of a doomsday device if it's real.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Status-6 made its first public appearance two years ago. Edward Geist is with the RAND Corporation.
EDWARD GEIST: Putin was receiving a briefing from his generals when he was on a visit to Sochi.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Russian).
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Speaking Russian).
BRUMFIEL: Russia state television reported the visit. The camera showed Putin seated at a long table with his generals. And then it cuts to a shot over one of the general's shoulders. He's looking at a drawing of a weapon. Now, it seems like the camera just happened to catch the drawing, but Geist says this was no accident.
GEIST: Our general consensus is that this was very intentional. This is all very engineered by the Russians.
BRUMFIEL: The drawing appears to be a new nuclear weapon, a weapon far more powerful than anything in the U.S. or Russian arsenals. Its name?
GEIST: The Oceanic Multipurpose Systems Status-6 (ph).
BRUMFIEL: Status-6. It looks like a giant torpedo about a third the length of a big Russian submarine.
GEIST: The specification on the slide - this thing is faster than most or all of our torpedoes. It's supposed to operate at a depth greater than our submarines can go.
BRUMFIEL: It's nuclear-powered, so it can travel thousands of miles underwater without surfacing. If the slide is to be believed - and we'll talk more about that in a second - then Status-6 would launch from beneath a Russian submarine. It would shoot under the ocean at a depth too deep to be intercepted and then incinerate a U.S. coastal city.
GEIST: In terms of the sheer destructiveness of such a weapon, it's - I mean, it's a little - it's difficult to imagine in normal terms because the radius of total or near total destruction is the size of a pretty large metropolitan area, actually.
BRUMFIEL: Pavel Podvig, who runs a blog called "Russian Forces" (ph), says the size of the bomb might also cause radioactive fallout on a massive scale.
PAVEL PODVIG: This fallout would spread over - I think that we're talking about the kind of northeast corridor in the U.S.
BRUMFIEL: Washington to Boston bathed in radioactive soot. Status-6 would probably be used as a weapon of last resort. If Russia fell under attack from the U.S. and couldn't retaliate with its missiles it might trigger Status-6, a doomsday machine. Then again, the whole thing might be a fake.
PODVIG: The drawing of this drone looks more like a enlarged drawing of a smaller torpedo.
BRUMFIEL: A standard Russian torpedo. In other words, it looks like the Russians may have taken some torpedo clip art, blown it up to terrifying size, and then broadcast it on state television. Why?
GEIST: It's a way to get our attention.
BRUMFIEL: That's Edward Geist from RAND again. Geist says that Russia is worried about U.S. missile defenses. They fear that the U.S. might be able to shoot down their missiles in a nuclear war. That would upset the nuclear balance of power.
GEIST: So my read of the whole Status-6 slide leak was that the Russians were trying to send us a message.
BRUMFIEL: Keep building missile defenses, they're saying, and we'll find another way to hit you, one you can't shoot down because it's underwater. Podvig agrees the leak of Status-6 is probably just a warning shot. But the fact it appeared in the Pentagon's latest report on nuclear weapons showed that some war planners are taking the idea seriously. And Podvig and Geist also say they think the program isn't completely made up. Geist says a long-range underwater drone without a nuclear warhead would still be a useful weapon.
GEIST: You could use it for all sorts of things. You could use it for, like, tapping, say, our underwater communications cables. Or simpler in a war is just going out and, like, finding them and cutting them.
BRUMFIEL: Russia's been working on deep water drones for decades, and Status-6 may be a significant new program if it exists. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News, Washington.
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