- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 7, 2020

The Russian military on Wednesday delivered a birthday present to President Vladimir Putin: a cutting-edge hypersonic missile that the Kremlin claims can travel at nine times the speed of sound and strike enemies more than 600 miles away.

The test of Russia’s widely hyped Zircon system saw a Russian frigate in the White Sea fire a missile and hit a target in the Barents Sea. It’s unclear exactly how far away the two vessels were at the time of the demonstration.

Dramatic footage posted to social media Wednesday seems to show the weapon being launched from a Russian vessel, earning praise from Mr. Putin, who turned 68 on Wednesday.

“Equipping our armed forces, the army and the navy, with the latest, truly unparalleled weapon systems will certainly ensure the defense capability of our country in the long term,” the Russian leader said.

Hypersonic weapons, which can travel at five times the speed of sound to targeted destinations, pose a massive challenge for U.S. missile defense systems and have emerged as a top priority for the Russian military and for Mr. Putin. Russia, China and the U.S. all are racing to lead the world in hypersonic technology, and each nation also is investing in defense systems capable of defeating the lightning-fast weapons.



For a Russian military that’s no match for the U.S. armed forces as a whole, hypersonic weapons could offer Moscow something of an advantage in a potential future conflict. American military analysts and weapons analysts have warned for years that the Pentagon was in danger of falling behind Russia — and perhaps China — in the race to develop the super-fast weapons.

In addition to the Zircon system, Russia also claims to have in its arsenal a hypersonic nuclear missile known as Avangard. Mr. Putin boasts Avangard is capable of evading any missile defense system on earth, though some analysts caution his claims may not match reality.

Pentagon officials say the U.S. has taken concrete action to close the gap with Russia.

“We’ve kind of got the ship moving in the right direction,” Mike White, the Defense Department’s assistant director for hypersonics, said last week during an online forum hosted by the media outlet Defense One.

“I couldn’t be happier with the energy and importance the department is placing on hypersonics,” he said. “I think the budgets currently and in the future will reflect that.”

Mr. White added that over the past four years, the Pentagon’s budget allocations for hypersonics research and development has jumped from about $350 million to $3.5 billion.

The rapid change inside the Pentagon came as military leaders increasingly spoke out about the dire situation facing the U.S. and its industry partners.

“We have adversaries growing extremely rapidly in this area. We have had fits and starts over the years in that hypersonic technology, which I believe is a mistake,” Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during his Senate confirmation hearings last summer.

“We should have been going after that technology consistently and rapidly over the years and we have not,” Gen. Hyten said.

While Mr. Putin’s birthday surely played a role, there may have been another underlying motive for the Russian military to schedule Wednesday’s test. U.S. and Russian officials met this week to discuss extensions or changes to the 10-year-old New START, the last remaining nuclear pact between Washington and Moscow. It is set to expire in February.

The Russians may have sought to display their most advanced weapons systems as a show of strength during those talks.

Mr. Putin also suggested that the Kremlin may welcome a Democratic administration in January, saying that presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden seems more open to dealing with Moscow than the Trump administration.

“Biden has publicly said that he is ready to extend New START or to sign a new treaty on limiting strategic offensive weapons,” Mr. Putin told Rossiya-1 television on Wednesday. “It is already a key element of our possible cooperation in the future.”

— Lauren Toms contributed to this report.

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