NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
Russia carried out the latest test of a new high-speed cruise missile last week as part of a program that is raising concerns in the Pentagon about the threat the missile poses to American warships.
The test of the Zircon hypersonic missile was tracked by U.S. intelligence agencies, according to a senior defense official familiar with reports of the test. No other details of the test were available.
However, state-run Russian news reports say the Zircon can reach speeds of between Mach 6 and Mach 8, or between 4,600 and 6,100 miles per hour — enough to outpace any current missile defense interceptors.
Such high speeds pose dangers for Navy destroyers, cruisers and aircraft carriers currently outfitted with anti-missile defenses but that are not capable of countering the missile.
Defense analysts said the test was probably carried out from a ground-based launcher near an area of the White Sea in northern Russia around May 30 — the date that Russian authorities issued an air closure notification for the region.
The Zircon has been billed by the Russians as an anti-ship cruise missile that media have said will be deployed on Moscow’s nuclear-powered missile cruisers. Production is expected to begin this year.
Vladimir Tuchkov, a military analyst, told the state-run Sputnik website that Zircon missiles will be deployed between 2018 and 2020.
“The Russian development of hypersonic weapons is clearly a very serious threat,” said Mark B. Schneider, a senior analyst at the National Institute for Public Policy and a former senior Pentagon official. The missile’s estimated range of up to 620 miles “would give it very great capability against defenses,” he added.
Mr. Schneider said the Pentagon is “clearly well behind” in the race for developing hypersonic weapons, and that the problem is not technology but a lack of funding. China also is developing a hypersonic missile called the DF-ZF.
The Pentagon is planning a test this year of a missile called the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon as part of its Conventional Prompt Strike program. That program until recently was dubbed the Conventional Prompt Global Strike and is seeking weapons capable of striking any location on Earth within minutes.
Pentagon confirmation of the new high-speed missile test comes amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and Russia over reports of Russian intelligence operations directed at the 2016 elections. A leaked National Security Agency report produced last month revealed that the Russian GRU military intelligence service conducted cyberespionage operations against Americans in a bid to obtain elections-related software and hardware secrets.
The GRU “likely used data obtained from that operation to create a new email account and launch a voter registration-themed spear-phishing campaign targeting U.S. local government organizations,” the report said.
The report suggests that Russians attempted to skew vote tallies in voting machines or tamper with absentee ballots.
North Korean EMP threat
Contrary to some arms control analysts, the danger posed by North Korea detonating a nuclear warhead over the United States and creating a destructive electronic pulse is real.
William R. Graham, a defense expert and physicist, warned in a recent article that a congressional commission that studied the danger posed by electromagnetic pulse, known as EMP, could inflict devastating damage on the United States.
The commission, headed by Mr. Graham, concluded that “even primitive, low-yield nuclear weapons are such a significant EMP threat that rogue states, like North Korea, or terrorists may well prefer using a nuclear weapon for EMP attack instead of destroying a city,” Mr. Graham wrote in the online newsletter 38 North.
High-altitude EMP involves the detonation of a nuclear weapon at an altitude of about 20 miles or higher. The blast creates an electronic pulse that can disrupt or destroy all electronics over large areas.
Mr. Graham, in his rejoinder, sought to counter the arguments of two arms control analysts who have dismissed the North Korean EMP threat as not credible.
Jack Liu, a Pentagon and intelligence contractor, has argued that a North Korean EMP attack is unlikely because Pyongyang lacks the large-size nuclear weapons needed for such a strike, and also does not have the needed missile delivery system. Jeffrey Lewis, a liberal arms control activist, has also dismissed a North Korean EMP attack as science fiction.
“This is the favorite nightmare scenario of a small group of very dedicated people,” he told NPR.
But Mr. Graham argues that a North Korean EMP attack poses an existential threat to the United States.
He points out that the commission of scientists and experts that studied the problem concluded in a 2004 report that “certain types of relatively low-yield nuclear weapons can be employed to generate potentially catastrophic EMP effects over wide geographic areas.”
Also, Mr. Graham said designs for variants of such weapons may have been illicitly trafficked for more than two decades. Furthermore, an intercontinental missile is not required for such an attack.
“An EMP attack does not require an accurate guidance system because the area of effect, having a radius of hundreds or thousands of kilometers, is so large,” Mr. Graham wrote. “No re-entry vehicle is needed because the warhead is detonated at high altitude, above the atmosphere. Missile reliability matters little because only one missile has to work to make an EMP attack.”
North Korea also could covertly fire one of its many short-range Scud ballistic missiles from the deck of a freighter off the U.S. coast.
North Korea also could set off an EMP blast from an orbiting satellite by deploying a nuclear-armed version of Pyongyang’s KMS-3 or KMS-4 satellites currently in orbit.
Mr. Graham said real-world failures of the U.S. electric grid bolster the arguments of the Pentagon, Department of Homeland Security and the congressional EMP commission, all of whom have concluded that “a nuclear EMP attack would have catastrophic consequences.”
A recent U.S. intelligence estimate concluded that North Korea is moving ahead with development of a missile capable of reaching the United States within the next four years. North Korea also is estimated to have between 10 and 20 nuclear weapons.
Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood
The Saudi Arabian-led effort to isolate the Persian Gulf state of Qatar highlights the ongoing debate within the Trump administration over whether to designate the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic supremacist organization, as a terrorist group.
A White House official said plans to designate the Brotherhood as a terror organization were put on hold earlier this year. The decision was based on opposition from government bureaucrats who argued the designation would upset diplomatic, defense and law enforcement relations in the region.
On Monday Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain severed diplomatic relations with Qatar for what they said was the Gulf state’s ties to terrorism.
Qatar has been linked to international funding and support for the Muslim Brotherhood, an anti-democratic group that seeks to impose political Islam under strict Shariah law, while also preserving ties with Iran.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s operating motto is “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. Quran is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.”
One reason for the Pentagon’s opposition to designating the Muslim Brotherhood was the concern that Qatar might expel the 8,000 U.S. troops based in the small nation. Qatar’s Al Udeid air base is a central hub for U.S. airstrikes against Syria and Afghanistan.
Proponents of declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terror group say the designation is urgently needed to assist the FBI and law enforcement in identifying Brotherhood networks operating inside the United States. Currently, the group operates covertly through a number of front organizations.
— Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.