The leaking of the Status-6 (‘KANYON’) strategic nuclear torpedo on Russian TV on 9th November 2015 was met by many in the West with incredulity. However the fact remains that the weapon was not unexpected among the few observers watching the development of certain large submarines by Russia. We knew that Russia was developing an over-sized forward firing weapon because of the Sarov submarine (see old COVERT SHORES article). And the project 09851 Khabarovsk and Project 09852 Belgorod were being followed and talked of as probable launch platforms for a new weapon. And the KANYON system had been revealed in Western Media two month earlier, citing Pentagon sources. Most recently the same media source has claimed that the weapon has been test fired from Sarov.
Project 09851 Khabarovsk launching the first of six KANYON:
There are many details of the system which remain unanswered, and the rationale behind the weapon can be debated ad-infinitum. But is it a real project? Yes it is. These submarines are real and they are far too expensive to play such a ruse.
KANYON: Status-6 torpedo
The Status-6 (Статус-6), aka KANYON, has been described as an unmanned midget submarine, but it is better thought of as a massively-large nuclear powered and nuclear armed torpedo. It is enormous: 1.6m (5.5ft) in diameter and about 24m (79ft) long. To put that into perspective, it is about 27 times the volume of a regular 533mm (21”) heavyweight torpedo.
KANYON is approximately twice the size of a ballistic missile and twenty seven times the size of a heavyweight torpedo.
An early artist’s impression of the KANYON concept dating from before the Russian leak. This 'underwater drone' appears to be quite different from the torpedo-like design actually shown by Russia:
The weapon is designed to strike coastal cities and strategic targets, e.g. New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and bases like Groton CT and San Diego. The warhead is reported as a 100 megatons (which is credible) nuclear device with a ‘dirty’ shell (reportedly Cobalt, but likely Uranium) to maximize the radioactive fallout. The payload is similar to the warheads used in ICBMs (Inter-continental Ballistic Missile) but only one is carried on the torpedo. It could therefore be compared to a city being hit by a single MIRV (Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle) except that it explodes under or on the surface of the water. The effect is likely to be much more localized than an air-burst, but with greater local contamination spread by a radioactive ‘rain’. The explosion itself may be some way out of the target city due to geography and obstacle defenses but a shoreline city like New York would wiped out by a single hit. Performance variables:
Depth: The stated running depth of 1,000m is credible and places it below current countermeasures. The problem of building torpedoes and/or depth charges to hit it are not insurmountable but will take investment and renewed focus.
Speed: The claimed speed of 100 knots (185 kph) is incredibly fast for a torpedo. The leaked cutaway drawing shows that there is a nuclear reactor coupled with a steam turbine driving a propeller shaft so we know that it is not a rocket type weapon. At these speeds there would be vibration and stability problems for the designers to overcome. For the moment 100kt seems too fast but we will have to wait and see if the specifications become more realistic.
Range: The leaked document claims that the weapon can be launched from as far as 10,000 km (5,400 nm) away. Given its nuclear powerplant this seems credible. Even at an incredible 100kt, it would take 4 days to reach its target at maximum reach. Operationally we would expect ranges to be far shorter, but still undoubtedly an extremely long ranged weapon. It also seems likely that some of the distance would be accomplished under ice adding additional complexity both to navigation and to NATO countermeasures.
Health warning: The speed parameter seems unrealistic and the range is not operationally necessary. To put it nicely, most people exaggerate their projects to their bosses. I’d wager that they are lying to Putin and themselves as much as to the West. This does not mean that the project is not (at his stage) real.
Length: 24m (79ft) (estimate)
Diameter: 1.6m (5.5ft)
Weight: TBC - heavy and negatively buoyant
Speed: Stated as 185 kph (100kt)
Endurance: 10,000 km (5200 nm) and ~100 hrs
Maximum Operating depth: 1,000m (3,000ft)
Warhead: Nuclear with shell (reportedly Cobalt but likely Uranium). Payload to be confirmed but speculated to be as high as 100 megatons.
Powerplant: 1 x nuclear reactor driving a pumpjet.
Sensors: Long range internal guidance, possibly with external update/abort. Obstacle avoidance sonar.
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It is not the first time that Russia have begun development of massive nuclear armed torpedoes. The T-15 design was developed in the early 1953s and had essentially the same dimensions as KANYON. The torpedo was also to be armed with a 100MT warhead similar to the Tsar Bomb which was the largest nuclear test in history (limited to 58MT yield for testing purposes but conceptually100MT):
The T-15 was to be fitted to Russia’s first nuclear powered submarine, the Project 627 NOVEMBER class. A single tube was to be mounted in the nose. In the event the project was abandoned in favor of fitting conventional torpedo tubes so that the submarine could be used as an attack submarine. The nuclear deterrent switched to ballistic missile submarines introduced from the late 1950s.
Trail of radioactive contamination
It is not feasible that the structure of the torpedo contains shielding for the reactor so the device must leave a trail of radioactive contamination behind it as it runs. This is true even in test runs.
The lack of shielding also means that the reactors cannot be test-run while inside the launch tube. Maintenance is thus much harder than on the ICBMs carried in other strategic submarines, and the weapons are essentially sealed containers.
Project 09851 Khabarovsk. Dedicated launch platform capable of carrying six KANYON rounds. Expected to be completed c2020 or later
Project 09852 Belgorod. Large Special Mission spy submarine based on OSCAR-II SSGN, capable of carrying six KANYON rounds, possibly as seondary capability. Still unde construction.
Project 20120 Sarov. One-off test submarine capable of carrying a single KANYON round.
Project 09851 Khabarovsk submarine
The main launching platform of KANYON is likely to be the new Project 09851 'Khabarovsk' (пр.09851 "Калитка-СМП" "Хабаровск") submarine. This boat is similar to but smaller than the Project 955 'BOREI' (пр.955 "Борей" - BOREI) SSBN with was as designed by the famous Rubin design bureau. Certain design features allow us to estimate the dimensions of the boat (see specs below). Working off a similar hull diameter to the BOERI we can estimate the submarine's length as 120m versus 160m for the BOREI. This makes sense as the Khabarovsk does not require the missile section behind the sail. And it is even possible that it shares many components and even hull sections with the SSBN. The stated displacement of 10,000 tons makes it massive, but is much lighter than the 13,000 ton BOREI.
The leaked graphic strongly hints toward the Khabarovsk having two side-by-side hulls in the bow. This is a highly unusual arrangement but is actually not dissimilar to the Project 20120 SAROV submarine used to test the Status-6. The basic reason behind this arrangement is that the torpedoes have to fire forward, and are carried externally to the occupied pressure hulls. Therefore a stack of six massive torpedo tubes occupied the space where the forward pressure hull would ordinarily be, thus shifting occupied space into smaller hulls either side.
The regular 533mm (21”) and/or 650mm (25.5”) torpedo are most likely carried in the flank hulls although the question remains as to how they are reloaded. Alternatively they may be carried further aft in flank tubes angled outward to avoid the bulbous bow.
Original artwork - CLICK for HIGH-RESOLUTION (2000px) image.
Project 09851 submarine specification
Displacement: 10,000 tons surfaced
Length: 120m (estimate, see analysis)
Diameter: 13m main hull, 16m across forward section (estimates, see analysis)
Speed: TBC but almost certainly over 20kt
Endurance: Unlimited. At least 60 days supplies
Maximum Operating depth: TBC - likely 400-500m
Powerplant: 1 x nuclear reactor (probably ОК-650В) driving a single pumpjet.
Armament: 6 x Status-6 nuclear torpedoes. Unspecified capability to launch regular torpedoes and decoys.
Project 09852 Belgorod Special Mission submarine (spy sub)
Russian Sarov experimental sub
SIERRA Class SSN
Stalin's Super Sub, Project P-2
Russian Losharik spy sub
Russian Typhoon Class SSBN
INS Arihant, Indian SSBN and .2
North Korean SSBN program - Sinpo Class
Russian unbuilt spy submarine MPS