In early July, the Russian Navy took delivery of the Belgorod submarine, the world's largest submersible. At more than 184 metres long, the Belgorod is designed to house the Poseidon nuclear torpedoes, capable of travelling at 130 kilometres per hour underwater. It can also serve as an espionage platform.
The torpedoes it carries, Poseidon, are particularly damaging. In addition to causing immediate damage and contaminating the target area with radiation, they are capable of causing 'radioactive tsunamis' due to their 100 megaton power. It is worth noting that the largest nuclear detonation in history was 50 megatons - carried out by the Soviet Union with the Tsar Bomba - while the devastating US bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were 15 and 20 respectively.
"This nuclear 'mega-pedo' is unique in world history," writes H. I. Sutton, a submarine expert in Naval News. "Poseidon is a completely new category of weapon. It will reshape naval planning in both Russia and the West, leading to new requirements and new counter-weapons," he adds.
On the other hand, the Belgorod - as well as its nuclear weapons - has been created as a "retaliatory weapon" for a full-scale nuclear war, according to Russian military expert Alexei Leonkov in an interview with the Russian broadcaster Radio 1. When they are launched, they produce a devastating first strike. But behind them, two types of 'retaliatory weapons' come into play: the Burevestnik unlimited-range cruise missiles and the Poseidon torpedo," Leonkov explained.
Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, notes - quoted by CNN - that the Belgorod is really "a test vessel for the next class of Khabarovsk nuclear-powered submarines, the first of which could be launched this year".
However, according to the builder, Sevmash, the submarine is designed to carry out "various research tasks, research and rescue operations", according to the Russian news agency TASS. The company also says it can carry unmanned submersible vehicles and perform deep-water rescue tasks.
"The Belgorod submarine opens up new opportunities for Russia in conducting various research and helps to carry out various scientific expeditions and rescue operations in remote areas of the World Ocean," Russian Navy commander-in-chief Nikolay Yevmenov said at the submarine's inauguration.
Major new info on #Russia submarine Belgorod. Updated cutaway. Note the Poseidon Intercontinental Nuclear Powered Nuclear Armed Autonomous Torpedo tubes in the bow. #OSINT more info at https://t.co/Niienq0adX pic.twitter.com/9IZ8A1bg9J— H I Sutton (@CovertShores) May 29, 2019
Despite Russian statements, numerous experts and analysts have already warned about the capabilities of Belgorod and its Poseidon torpedoes, as well as their possible purposes. One such purpose is deterrence against the West in the midst of the war in Ukraine.
As The War Zone's Howard Atlman points out, the Poseidon torpedoes "is a nuclear system designed directly to mitigate any US missile defence capability". In this sense, the Russian fleet's new capabilities could set the stage for a new Cold War between the Russians and Americans over the oceans, as CNN's Brad Lendon points out.
This is echoed by H. I. Sutton in Covert Shores, who notes that "a new Cold War could be brewing in the Arctic, North Atlantic and North Pacific". "The underwater cat-and-mouse game in which US Navy and Royal Navy submarine hunter-killers stalk the Russians could be reinvigorated," he explains.
Indeed, Washington has closely followed the development of Belgorod and its weapons. In November 2020, Christopher A. Ford, then Washington's undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, warned that the Poseidon was designed to "inundate US coastal cities with radioactive tsunamis".
Similarly, in April, a US Congressional Research Service (CRS) report indicated the Poseidon were produced as retaliatory weapons, designed to strike back at an enemy after a nuclear attack in Russia, reports CNN. According to the CRS, the Belgorod submarine would be capable of carrying up to eight Poseidon, although some weapons experts say its payload is more likely to be six. However, according to the report, the Poseidons are not expected to be deployed until 2027.
Increased tensions between Washington and Moscow in recent years, coupled with the ongoing war in Ukraine, have prompted Russia to beef up its weaponry. Similarly, European countries have begun a process of rearmament, investing more in the military and defence sector.