The unwelcome “Christmas gift” for the Trump administration came not from North Korea, but Russia. Officials in Moscow announced late last month that the country’s military had deployed in the Ural region the first regiment of Avangard “hypersonic” glide vehicles.
The Kremlin announced the deployment just days after the chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, revealed that the Kinzhal hypersonic missile had been fired “at training grounds located in various climatic conditions, including in the Arctic.” He said a network of airports was being developed across the country to expand the geographical scope of this missile complex.
The progress of Russian and Chinese hypersonic weapons — superfast, long-range, maneuverable projectiles designed to overcome even the most sophisticated U.S. missile defense systems — has inspired much hand-wringing among Western military analysts, but some influential voices in both Moscow and Washington question whether Kinzhal and Avangard projectiles will seriously affect the military balance between the United States and Russia in the near future.
Alexander Savelyev, a missile analyst and chief research fellow at the Moscow-based Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations, said the strategic impact of Russia’s hypersonic weapons, repeatedly touted by President Vladimir Putin, is overestimated.
Hypersonic systems can fly at more than Mach 5 — five times the speed of sound. Avangard is an intercontinental ballistic missile system with a gliding hypersonic maneuvering warhead. Outside analysts estimate it to have a maximum range of 3,600 miles.
Kinzhal is basically a ground-based Iskander ballistic missile with a range of 300 miles carried on a MiG-31K fighter jet or a Tu-22M3 medium-range bomber. It reportedly can reach a range of up to 1,200 miles if hitched to a MiG-31 aircraft and 1,800 miles by a Tu-22M3 bomber.
Russian military officials say no existing or prospective air and missile defense platform can intercept them. Enemy carrier strike groups, tank divisions and bases could be leveled before they knew what hit them. In their view, hypersonic weaponry is a game changer and will make it impossible for the U.S. to win a war with Russia conventionally.
Hard to assess
Despite the hype, Moscow’s new exotic weapons are unproven in combat, making it difficult to assess their real capabilities. At a first sight, Avangard and Kinzhal will not allow Russian military strategists to achieve anything they cannot already do. After all, a volley of Russian nuclear or conventional missiles already in the Kremlin’s strategic arsenal probably can pierce U.S. and NATO defenses.
“Russia overestimates the efficiency of these systems, but its leadership is confident that the U.S. [ballistic missile defense] programs will continue and their ‘defensive effect’ will grow dramatically in the future,” Mr. Savelyev told The Washington Times. This fear of growing American capability is the main reason why Russia has developed Avangard and other hypersonic arms, he said.
Ivan Oelrich, a nonresident scholar at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Relations, noted in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists last month a “glaring lack of normal journalistic skepticism” and “downright fawning” in mainstream news coverage of hypersonic weapons.
Journalists “readily accept advocates’ claims that hypersonic weapons will move at blinding speeds, have extended range, be easily maneuverable, and strike targets with high precision without considering the engineering challenges or inherent physical limitations that will make this combination of capabilities difficult — if not impossible,” he wrote.
Supporters of hypersonic weapons, he said, tend to be military officials who want them or defense firms that want to build them, with few outside experts of the cutting-edge technology.
Mr. Savelyev, who was an adviser in the START-1 negotiations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union from 1989 to 1991, said he does not think Avangard can be treated as a first-strike weapon because the missile’s low accuracy is likely to limit its counterforce potential.
He also questions whether the hypersonic complex will effectively help implement an “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine, just because the yield of Avangard’s warhead is too powerful — from 800,000 to 2 million tons — to serve as a plausible deterrent to escalation.
“Even a single blast of such a powerful warhead can result in huge collateral damage, and if this happened, an overall retaliation would be inevitable,” he said.
With the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, after accusing Moscow of violating the pact, and the renewal of the 2010 New START treaty up in the air, Mr. Putin said in October that a new arms race with the U.S. was already underway.
Avangard’s deployment is regulated by the New START treaty. It caps the number of deployed strategic warheads and bombs for the U.S. and Russia at 1,550 units and limits the two signatories to 700 delivery vehicles. The New START treaty expires in February 2021, and Mr. Trump apparently has made no decision on its future.
Russia and China say they have opened a sizable lead on the U.S. in hypersonic weaponry. The Chinese showcased their DF-17 hypersonic missile at the National Day military parade on Oct. 1. However, the U.S. government seems in no hurry to try to catch up or counter new Russian and Chinese hypersonic projectiles.
Organizing a defense
As far as shooting capabilities are concerned, the U.S. Army is expected to field the first experimental long-range hypersonic missiles by 2023 and is working with the Navy, the Air Force and the Missile Defense Agency to use a common hypersonic glide vehicle. On the defensive front, the National Defense Authorization Act just passed by Congress requires the Missile Defense Agency to develop space-based sensors for tracking hypersonic and ballistic missiles, but it does not set a date for the start of in-space testing.
Having in mind that cruise missiles are not counted in the New START arrangement, the U.S. is still “satisfied” with its numbers, which are in line with the Pentagon’s plans and ensure that all of the targets are covered, said Mr. Savelyev, adding that the uploading potential of the U.S. strategic forces is high.
The Russian analyst argues that, despite the alarmist talk in American circles, the U.S. military is not in dire need of hypersonic arms.
If anything, they could be intended for use under the Prompt Global Strike program, which seeks to develop conventional missiles capable of hitting any part of the world within about an hour, given that Russia is far behind in missile defense technologies.
“So, I think U.S. leaders will wait for more information about Russian plans and programs, and only after that will decide how to respond,” he said.