Drone usage in the United States is a hotly debated topic, but the recent question of whether to arm unmanned vehicles with nuclear weapons makes the issue even more provocative. Arming drones with nuclear weapons has great potential but also faces many challenges and controversies.
A lightweight nuclear weapon offers considerably more deployment opportunities. Drones are much smaller than the aircrafts that traditionally carry nuclear weapons. Therefore, nuclear armed drones would be much harder to detect by enemy air defenses. Additionally, arming drones with nuclear weapons avoids putting American pilots in danger.
Despite these advantages, nuclear armed drones pose significant dilemmas. For instance, drones can be hacked and forced to crash or can be redirected to another target, a danger that becomes significantly more dire if a drone is armed with a nuclear weapon. This type of threat has a historical precedent, such as the Iranian capture of an American RQ-170 drone through a combination of impeding its communications and feeding the UAV false coordinates. When such a lethal weapon is concerned, is it essential that there is total control over the weapon’s deployment, which is difficult for a drone’s remote operator to guarantee.
In terms of progress on nuclear armed drones, American scientists have recently created plans for nuclear powered drones that would be able to fly for months on end without refueling. As a part of the next generation of US Strategic Bombers, the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) will have both manned and unmanned systems which will carry out conventional duties and have nuclear and electronic strike abilities as well.
Despite America’s advanced technology, the US falls far behind Russian development’s in this field. In November 2016, Russia reportedly tested an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV). Known as the Ocean Multipurpose System Status-6 and codenamed Kanyon by the US intelligence community, this UUV can quite easily be termed a “doomsday weapon.” Status-6 has a range of up to 6,200 miles and can operate up to 3,300 feet underwater while avoiding all acoustic tracking devices and other traps. The self-propelled vehicle can also travel at a top speed of fifty-six knots, which exceeds what the current generation of American homing torpedoes are capable of reaching.
Most worrisome is that this underwater drone will be equipped with a cobalt bomb. Cobalt-60, essentially a massive dirty bomb, produces such high levels of radioactivity that it would prevent inhabitation of the attack zone for around one-hundred years after deployment. Therefore, the purpose of the bomb is to target enemy coastal areas for maximum effect, killing civilians with the massive blast and subsequent fallout. Mark Schneider, a former Pentagon official notes that, “The Status-6 nuclear powered, nuclear armed drone submarine is the most irresponsible nuclear weapons program that Putin’s Russia has come up with.” Not only does the nature of a Status-6 threaten American ports and bases, but the US currently has no comparable weapon. The US Navy is developing new underwater drones, but there are no plans to arm them.
The question that then arises as a result of Russia’s new “doomsday weapon” is whether or not the US should engage Russia in what could become a nuclear armed drone race. The suspicious origins of the leak about Status-6 indicate that the weapon is indeed being used as a political tool. Even though one day after the leak Russian Presidential Spokesman, Dmitri Peksov, maintained that the leak was classified information that had been accidentally disclosed, there is speculation among Western intelligence professionals that the leak, was in fact, intentional in order to demonstrate Russia’s displeasure over the US missile defense plans in Europe.
Regardless of whether Russia intended to leak the weapon’s existence, the fact remains that the US is no match for Russia in terms of nuclear armed drones. In a time when the US administration’s view on Russia is consistent only in its shifting nature, the threat of Status-6 and the question of nuclear armed drones cannot be ignored. US Policy makers must thoughtfully debate the risk of allowing Russia to develop such weapons without any competition or formal objection. Particularly careful consideration must be given to the alternative option, which would be engaging Russia in what could be an exceedingly precarious new type of nuclear arms race.