Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Tuesday that Russia has officially taken the lead in the global hypersonic arms race, saying that his is the only nation in the world to have already deployed hypersonic weapons. He went on to say that Russia is leading the world in developing this new class of weapons: this marks a notable difference from previous arms races, in which Russia was trying to catch-up to the United States.
“Now we have a situation that is unique in modern history when they are trying to catch up to us,” he said. “Not a single country has hypersonic weapons, let alone hypersonic weapons of intercontinental range.”
While the U.S. is still the clear leader in a number of important defense enterprises, China and Russia have been watching American forces operate all over the world in recent years: They have been developing weapons systems, for example hypersonic missile technologies, specifically intended to counter America’s traditional ways of conducting business.
These missile platforms travel at consistent speeds in excess of Mach 5, making them virtually impossible to intercept using the modern missile defense systems employed by U.S. forces.
Russia’s Kinzhal, which translates to “dagger,” is a hypersonic missile, capable of achieving speeds in excess of Mach 5. It’s based on a land-based variant, the Iskander-M missile, that was developed with one very specific goal in mind: to defeat the American missile defense apparatus and successfully deliver a strategic nuclear payload.
Then there’s also Russia’s “Avangard” missile, which is a boost-glide vehicle that is deployed from the tip of an ICBM before gliding back to earth in a controlled descent at speeds in excess of Mach 5 — and if Moscow is to be believed, as fast as Mach 20. This combination of hypersonic technologies and a nuclear-laden ICBM is likely what Putin was referring to when he said that no other nation possesses “intercontinental” hypersonic capabilities. And as luck would have it, Russia released footage of an Avangard test almost a year ago today.
The video does indeed show a missile being launched from an underground silo… but notably, that’s all it shows. Although the Kremlin announced that the missile covered some 3,700 miles before successfully destroying its intended target, there’s no evidence to suggest that this actually occurred.
As North Korea demonstrated time and time again, getting airborne is just the first problem a new missile has to contend with before it enters operational service. Surviving re-entry and effectively hitting a target is another bag of questions entirely.
Russia does have a great deal of experience with ICBMs and survivable reentry vehicles. But none have been as nearly as fast as the Kremlin claims that the Avangard missile is. Whether or not this platform can hit Mach 20 is yet to be proven; but even if it can, all that speed won’t do much good if the warhead breaks apart before it finds its target.
Of course, although Putin claims that the Russian military already has these weapons in service this doesn’t necessarily mean that they work. Russia has a long history of making claims its military can’t back up, often as a part of its effort to garner media attention in order to bolster weapons sales to foreign nations.
The United States has invested billions into the growing field in the last few years in hopes of closing the capability gap presented by Russia and China fielding these weapons first.