According to recent reports out of Russia, security personnel from the nation’s space agency Roscosmos have been cooperating with an FSB investigation into an apparent leak of information pertaining to their advanced hypersonic missile platforms to Western spies.
Russia and China are currently the only national militaries with hypersonic weapons in their arsenals. Hypersonic missiles travel at speeds in excess of Mach 5, making them extremely difficult to detect and intercept with existing missile defense technologies, and were developed by both nations with an eye toward countering America’s military supremacy specifically. After nearly two decades of counter-insurgency warfare, the U.S. military now finds itself lagging behind its competitors in this emerging technology — according to the Air Force, America is still two years away from even testing a hypersonic platform of their own.
However, the American effort may have received a boost from intelligence sourced from leaks originating within Russian defense contractor TsNIIMash, which develops both missile and rocket technologies for Russian defense and space endeavors.
“It was established that the leak came from TsNIIMash employees,” an unnamed source told Russia’s Kommersant daily newspaper. “A lot of heads will roll, and for sure this case won’t end just with a few dismissals.”
According to the Russian report, ten staff members are currently under investigation, and the director’s office has already been searched.
However, although the United States may gain some insight into how Russia’s missiles function, it’s unlikely any intelligence gathered about Russia’s two hypersonic platforms, the Kinzhal and Avangard, would actually manifest in any appreciable way through America’s own missile programs. Russia’s hypersonic missiles are both nuclear capable platforms that achieve their immense velocities through conventional means and brute force. In effect, Russia has simply taken legacy missile platforms (the Kinzhal, for instance, is an Iskander [short-range] missile converted to be launched from aircraft) and provided them with enough power to break into hypersonic territory. From start to finish, then, Russia’s approach to hypersonic technology mirrors their traditional approach to weapons program development: achieving questionable levels of capability for the lowest cost possible and then compensating for the program’s shortcomings with rhetoric.
America’s hypersonic efforts, on the other hand, emphasize the value of conventionally armed platforms. The fallout following the use of a nuclear weapon is not only radioactive, but it’s also diplomatic, and America is aware that the value of a nuclear weapon is in never using it, whereas a nearly indefensible conventional weapon can serve a far broader purpose. It’s with that in mind that America’s hypersonic programs aim to incorporate scramjet technology, which is, in effect, a rocket that sources the oxygen for combustion from the atmosphere rather than the traditional method of liquid oxygen carried in tanks. This marrying of rocket and jet propulsion results in a more efficient engine that’s capable of achieving incredible velocities.
America’s goal is to develop a hypersonic missile that can be armed with conventional warheads, defeat missile defense systems, and impact targets within just feet — whereas nuclear weapons like those employed by Russia don’t need to attain such high levels of accuracy. In effect, Russia’s hypersonic platforms are like a high powered muscle car — an arguably impressive use of dated technology –, but America’s program could be more readily compared to developing a hybrid supercar. The metrics for success are similar, but the approach is entirely different.
Of course, if Russia’s hypersonic missile plans were leaked to American spies, there could still be a great deal of value to be gleaned from their work. Aside from research regarding material survivability and target acquisition at such high velocities, the data could prove invaluable from a missile defense standpoint. Knowing exactly what the Kinzhal and Avangard are capable of would certainly make it easier to develop a suitable means of defense against them.
Featured image: A Russian Air Force MiG-31K jet carries a high-precision hypersonic aero-ballistic missile Kh-47M2 Kinzhal during the Victory Day military parade to celebrate 73 years since the end of WWII and the defeat of Nazi Germany, in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, May 9, 2018. | AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko