Russian TV 'accidentally leaked design of drone nuclear sub'

Clip of document subsequently deleted but observers say leak to the West was deliberate

MOSCOW • The Kremlin's chief spokesman has confirmed that a report broadcast on Russian television this week revealed the design of a secret nuclear weapon delivery system: a drone submarine that could attack coastlines.

Russian officials said the revelation of the submarine, which has not yet been produced, was accidental. But it came to light in the Russian news media in a way that suggested that the Kremlin wanted the West to know.

Such a submarine design had been conceived decades ago, independent Russian military commentators said, but it had not been revealed until now. It would function as a long-range torpedo and would avoid missile defences by travelling under the ocean's surface.

News of the design was reported on state and NTV television on Monday as though merely in passing during a meeting between President Vladimir Putin and military industry officials and generals. The broadcast began with a public portion. At one point, the camera zoomed in on something one of the military officers was reading: a binder opened to a page showing the weapon design.

"Maritime Multifunctional System Status-6," a headline said, in block Cyrillic letters, above an illustration showing the submarine and a text in easily decipherable large letters explaining the weapon's effects.

The submarine would "defeat important economic objects of an enemy in coastal zones, bringing guaranteed and unacceptable losses on the country's territory by forming a wide area of radioactive contamination incompatible with conducting military, economic or any other activities there for a long period of time", it said.

On Wednesday, Putin spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov told Russian news agencies that the cameras had accidentally filmed a secret document. "Indeed, some secret data fell into the field of view of these cameras," he was quoted as saying by the news agency Interfax.

Because the document was a genuine secret, he said, the video was subsequently removed from the channels' websites. "We hope such a thing will never be repeated."

Yet commentators on the Echo of Moscow radio station suggested on Thursday that the broadcast was hardly an accident, given the tight control over the state news media here. Rather, they said, the broadcast was the latest instance of nuclear sabre-rattling at a time of rising tensions with the West.

Instead of a formal announcement, in this interpretation, the revelation of the submarine was couched as accidental to amplify its intimidating effects - a military officer had been casually perusing the design on a piece of paper while in a meeting with Mr Putin.

At the height of the crisis in Ukraine last year, a Kremlin-linked commentator, Mr Dmitry Kiselyov, spoke of Russia's ability to reduce the US to "nuclear ash". Later, a Russian ambassador to Denmark warned that the country faced nuclear destruction for having backed the US' missile defence plans.

RBK, a Russian newspaper, cited an unidentified weapons expert as saying that Soviet designers first conceived of the pilotless submarine in the 1960s as a vehicle for transporting a large nuclear device into shallow coastal waters to create a radioactive tsunami. The submarine, the newspaper said, had been called "Sakharov's Torpedo" after the Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov, but had never been built.

Latvia-based news portal Meduza cited blogs of Russian military history enthusiasts asserting that the design resurfaced in the 1980s under the code name "Skif", but it was again shelved. Dusted off today, the design is apparently something Mr Putin is considering, based on the sequence of the leak and Mr Peskov's confirmation.

Mr Putin has sharply objected to the US' missile defence plans that US officials say target states such as Iran. The Russians say the plans could undermine Moscow's second-strike capability, disrupting the nuclear balance between Russia and the US.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2015, with the headline 'Russian TV 'accidentally leaked design of drone nuclear sub''. Print Edition | Subscribe