If you are wondering how things are going with Russia’s new weapon projects, Julian Cooper has a nice overview in his new paper for CCW titled Russia’s ‘Invincible’ Weapons: An Update. The whole thing is 16 pages, but as a quick reference I have made a summary below.
The very quick conclusion is that Russia has many weapon development programs, but that many of them suffer from delays, technical difficulties, high costs, or questionable practical value in combat.
Weapons that Putin presented in March 2018
In his March 1st 2018 speech to the Federal Assembly, president Putin presented a range of spectacular new weapons.
Kinzhal missile: The air launched version of Iskander is a real weapon in the final phases of testing. So far it only works from a MiG-31, but in the future there may also be variants for Su-57 and Tu-22M3.
Avangard hypersonic glide-boost vehicle: Vladimir Putin has announced that serial production has begun of this advanced re-entry vehicle for a nuclear missile. If that is true, then this weapon is already operational. The defining feature of Avangard is its ability to beat any missile defense system. This comes as a result of the weapon’s speed, range, and unpredictable movements. Observers have questioned, though, Russia’s need for Avangard. Some have described it as an expensive solution to a nonexistent problem (see for example Kofman’s argument here).
Sarmat heavy multi-warhead ICBM: This enormous missile seems on track for deployment within the coming years. The first flight test is expected later in 2019. It will replace the aptly named SS-18 Satan missile.
Peresvet laser weapon: A developmental version of this weapon appears to be working, but it is apparently really large. Essentially, the laser gun needs its own small nuclear power plant, so it takes two wheeled platforms to move the weapon around. That is impractical, so the Russians are working hard to build a more compact version.
On the one hand, expert opinion is that Peresvet may have enough power to destroy electrical systems of aircraft, UAVs, and satellites in low orbit. On the other hand, miniaturization is the problem that everyone is struggling with for laser weapons. So even if Peresvet is working reasonably well in its present condition, the hard part of development may still be ahead.
Poseidon autonomous underwater nuclear torpedo: Officially, development of Russia’s new nuclear torpedo is progressing on schedule. According to press reports, the weapon has demonstrated its potential in factory tests. Russia is also preparing two submarines to carry the torpedo, namely the Khabarovsk and the Belgorod. Both are currently under construction at the Sevmach shipyard.
The weapon itself is a nuclear powered torpedo which can carry either a nuclear or a conventional warhead. This makes it an underwater nuclear bomb with unlimited range. The idea is that Poseidon can be released at pretty much any geographical location, after which it independently sails to enemy shores and detonates. Obviously, a nuclear explosion is bad in itself, but the accompanying tsunami will also be enormous.
There is, however, also reason for skepticism. Some claims about the performance of Poseidon make it sound like the torpedo is still mostly a dream project. Certain of the alleged qualities of the weapon are usually mutually exclusive, and it seems unrealistic that Russia has been able to merge them without compromises. To that comes that some prominent observers are critical of Poseidon, calling the project both unnecessary and a money drain.
Burevestnik nuclear powered cruise missile: The nuclear powered missile has run into some problems. Tests have been confirmed, but it is unclear that they have been particularly successful. Also, it is difficult to see what this humongous subsonic missile actually contributes with in terms of combat power. It seems possibile that Russia will abandon Burevestnik at some point and spend the money elsewhere.
Anti-satellite weapons that Putin has not presented
Putin has not presented anti-satellite weapons, and the reason is probably that Russia is a signatory of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty which prohibits the militarization of space. While counter-space weapons are not directly illegal under this treaty, state leaders prefer to keep a low profile in this arena.
Nudol PL-19 anti-satellite missile: This anti-satellite missile has been in development since around 2010, and it seems to be at an advanced stage. It is a further development of the A-135 missile defense system which is placed around Moscow.
Tirada electronic anti-satellite system: Tirada-2.3 is an electronic warfare system designed to neutralize communications satellites. The system seems close to operational deployment.
Air-launched anti-satellite system: There seems to be development of a missile called Kornet, which is carried by a MiG-31. It can supposedly target satellites. Another possible anti-satellite weapon is a smaller missile system called Kosmos-2519, designed to be launched from space.
New weapons as response to INF Treaty collapse
Land-based Kalibr cruise missile: A land-based version of the proven high-precision Kalibr missile. It has a range up to 2,500 kilometers, so it is still illegal to make a ground-based launcher. But if the INF-treaty breaks down, Russia has stated intentions of making a ground-launched version really quickly.
Land-based Tsirkon hypersonic missile: A ground-launched version of the – not yet operational – naval cruise missile Tsirkon. This hypersonic missile apparently reaches a speed of Mach 9. The naval version is expected to be operational in the early 2020s, and a ground-launched version somewhat later. Tsirkon will probably use the same launcher as Kalibr, which makes development easier.
Random new weapon programs
Okhotnik strike UAV: A heavy long-range strike UAV. This is a top priority project which will fill a gap in Russia’s arsenal. Pictures of the Okhotnik appeared in January, and it does look like an impressive machine. The first flight tests are expected in the near future.
Altair medium sized strike UAV: This project has been delayed because the producer lost their chief designer and had to transfer responsibility to a different company. But now it appears that things are moving ahead again, and that the first flight tests of Altair in its new form will take place later this year.
Su-57 Fifth generation fighter: The project is at a late stage of development with nine prototypes flying. Serial production will begin this year, and an upgraded version with a better engine is expected in 2023. This will allow supersonic cruising speed, which will make the Su-57 a true fifth generation fighter. However, production numbers will likely be very small because the plane is so expensive.
T-14 Armata tank: A prototype of this modern tank is in trial use in the army, and the first 12 of the serial production will arrive this year. Mass production is seriously challenged by high unit costs. It is much cheaper to upgrade T-72, T-80, and T-90 tanks, and the added combat benefits of the Armata are not worth the higher price. Production costs could be reduced if Russia were to open the market for export orders, but usually they don’t like to do that before a product is in wide use domestically. So it remains to be seen whether Russia will eventually implement the Armata, begin exports, or it will become a stepping stone to a future tank at a more affordable price.
S-500 Prometei air-space defense system: S-500 is the successor to the much famed S-400. It has been reported that the system is ready for serial production, but at the same time it does not appear to be going very quickly. The most likely explanation is that there are technical problems with the 40N6M missile, which is to provide the long range of up to 600 kilometers. This is an improved version of the 40N6 missile, which was supposed to give the often quoted range of 400 kilometers for the S-400 system. The problem is that the missile for S-400 has been delayed so far, and it seems a fair guess that the extended version for S-500 is even more delayed.
S-350 Vityaz air defense system: This medium-range air defense system has been delayed many times, but now it appears close to delivery. It uses the same missiles as the naval air defense system Poliment-Redut. It was originally planned to replace the aging S-300 system, but with all the delays it is unclear what will come of it.
PAK DA strategic bomber: Russia’s future stealth aircraft that will replace the Tu-160 long-range strategic bomber. This project is seriously delayed, and it now seems unlikely that the PAK DA will fly operationally before the 2030s or even 2040s. The main reason for the delays appears to be high costs.
Lider-class destroyer: Russia’s largest warships are getting old, and the project 23560 Lider-class was intended as a successor. Originally it was conceptualized as a diesel-powered ship around 14,000 tons, but now it appears to have grown into a nuclear-powered 20,000 tons version instead. The reason for this is at least partly that foreign sanctions prevent Russia from providing reliable gas turbines. The number of expected hulls has also been reduced over the years from originally 12 to now just two.
Things may still change, though. The Lider-class is in very early development, and serious R&D is not planned to begin before 2021. It is unlikely that such a ship can be in service before the 2030s. If implemented, it will be a really large warship with more than a hundred Tsirkon, Kalibr, or Oniks missiles.