A stray camera at a meeting of top Russian military leaders has allegedly captured a glimpse of the Kremlin’s possible plan for a bewildering and frightening new weapon—a radiation-scattering “dirty bomb.” One delivered by a drone submarine, which itself rides piggyback on another submarine.
The problem is: We have no way of knowing for sure if this is in fact an existing weapon or simply a media provocation designed to make us think that Russian President Vladimir Putin has got a dangerous new toy in his arsenal. If it’s real, then Russia is the first country we know about to come into possession of a weapon that, while not nearly as destructive as an atomic bomb, could spread lethal radiation over a wide area, rendering it uninhabitable. If the segment is a fake, it’s the latest in a long list of Kremlin media hoaxes.
“It’s true some secret data got into the shot, and it was subsequently deleted,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday about the mysterious footage. “We hope that this won’t repeat.”
The technical aspects of such a device aren’t all that complicated. A dirty bomb is simply any munition containing conventional explosives wrapped in radioactive material. It explodes like any normal munition, but the fragments it scatters are irradiated and thus more dangerous for far longer periods of time than the debris from any standard bomb.
Compared to nuclear weapons, dirty bombs are easy to make—and their use, while highly provocative, is less likely to spark global Armageddon. But they’re still nasty enough that, back in the 1970s, the United States and Russia came pretty close to banning them.
This week Putin was in the Black Sea city of Sochi for a meeting with senior military officers and officials from Russia’s arms industry. A camera from government-owned Channel One news was in the room and, apparently by accident, looked over the shoulder of an officer as he flipped open a page on a briefing book.
Channel One broadcast the footage at least once before editing the shots to remove the briefing, perhaps at the urging of government censors. But attentive viewers had already posted the original clip to YouTube—and got busy circulating screenshots on social media.
The fleeting glance at the book, visible at the 1:46 mark in the video, features twin headers. “Ocean Multipurpose System Status-6” and “Developer—Rubin Design Bureau.” And, below that, some explanatory text and illustrations.
“Purpose—the defeat of the important economic facilities in the area of the enemy coast,” the text reads, “and causing unacceptable damage to… the country through the establishment of extensive zones of radioactive contamination, unsuitable for implementation in these areas of military, economic, business or other activity for a long time.”
The illustrations on the Sochi brief depict a torpedo-like robotic vehicle as well as two larger subs—the nuclear-powered “Project 09852” and “Project 09851” vessels that are under construction for the Russian navy, and which are both reportedly optimized for rescue, reconnaissance and other undersea special operations.
“Today in Sochi Putin is shown proposal for Status-6—a massive ‘dirty bomb’ weapon system developed by Rubin,” tweeted Pavel Podvig, an independent military analyst based in Geneva. “Appears to be an underwater drone launched from a mini-submarine,” Podvig added.
All of which sounds very scary and Cold War 2.0. But might that not be the point? For one thing, there’s nothing on these slides that says “Top Secret” or “Confidential,” which one would expect of Russian Defense Ministry documents outlining a new nuclear capability. Second, there’s always a chance that this “accidental” giveaway of state secrets was anything but.
Soviet intelligence, which Putin once served, mastered the art of dezinformatsiya, or disinformation, the purposeful spreading of falsehoods in order to hoodwink the West. This often involved not just spreading defamatory fake news items about the U.S and its allies and getting them planted in Western newspapers but also concocting fake stories or bits of intelligence out of Moscow, the better to manipulate the American response. One of the more famous examples of dezinformatsiya was the bogus “doomsday report,” which Yury Andropov’s KGB cooked up in the late ’70s in order to get Washington to abandon its plans to deploy Pershing II nuclear missiles in Western Europe. The Soviet Academy of Sciences fabricated a whole study about the nightmarish ecological effects of nuclear winter just so it could be distributed to environmental and peace groups on the other side of the Iron Curtain, thereby creating democratic grassroots pressure to nix the Pershings.
So while it’s certainly plausible than sloppy Channel One editing gave keen viewers a chance to glimpse perfectly intelligible specs for a new Russian weapon system, it’s just as plausible that viewers were shown exactly what the Kremlin wanted them to see—plans for something that doesn’t exist.
American arms control analyst Jeffrey Lewis, for one, was incredulous. “It sounds insane,” he told The Daily Beast by email. Lewis said he struggled to understand the appeal of a dirty bomb. “I guess it’s that you render areas unusable—like air bases or, more grimly, farms and sources of food.”
In a 2014 article in Foreign Policy, Lewis recalled the history of dirty bombs. How Russia tinkered with the radiological weapons during the 1950s. And how, during the darkest days of the Korean War, with Chinese and North Korean troops threatening to overrun American forces, U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur proposed “sowing a band of radioactive cesium across Manchuria as a kind of ‘cordon sanitaire’ against the Chinese advance.”
The Army tested prototype dirty bombs in 1952 but found them to be unreliable. Instead, the Pentagon directed its attention to developing lower-yield nukes.
Still, the prospect of radiological warfare spooked U.S. and Russians leaders so much that, as part of the drafting of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks in the 1970s, Moscow and Washington tentatively agreed never to deploy dirty bombs—an accord that collapsed in the early 1990s and “seems to have been all but forgotten by the arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation community,” Lewis wrote.
More recently, analysts worried that rogue regimes such as North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq might deploy dirty bombs. But until now, no one seemed overly concerned that Russia might return to its deep Soviet roots… and revive radiological weaponry that it once sought to ban.
—with additional reporting by Katie Zavadski and Michael Weiss