Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin made headlines with his claim that the Russian military is the only force on the planet with fully operational hypersonic weapons.
Russia’s growing hypersonic arsenal already includes the Kinzhal (Dagger), which has a range of around 1,250 miles and can travel 10 times faster than the speed of sound (according to Russian claims). And as of last week, another Russian missile has entered service that, according to state officials, has a far greater range, can achieve far greater speeds and comes equipped with a nuclear warhead.
“The Avangard is invulnerable to intercept[ion] by any existing and prospective missile defense means of the potential adversary,” Putin was quoted saying about the Avangard system. According to Russian officials, this new missile travels at 27 times the speed of sound (greater than 15,000 miles per hour) and has intercontinental range. Last December, the Avangard missile reportedly hit a target some 3,700 miles away during testing.
The platform is launched like a traditional missile, but instead of following a conventional flight path, it enters the atmosphere at a far steeper angle, achieving incredible speeds before gliding, un-powered, into its target. At that speed, it wouldn’t be necessary to have a warhead to do massive amounts of damage — but the addition of a nuclear warhead makes the Avangard a truly dangerous weapon.
The Avangard utilizes a “glide” system that allows its reentry vehicle to not only fly at extraordinary speeds, but also execute evasive maneuvers throughout its flight path. This combination of speed and agility makes defending against the platform completely hopeless — at least according to Russia. Assuming that the platform performs as advertised, most American experts would be inclined to agree.
Unlike Russia’s massive RS-28 Sarmat — the most powerful nuclear ICBM in any nation’s service by a wide margin — the Avangard nuclear missile carries a far smaller nuclear warhead of up to two megatons.
In order to qualify as hypersonic, a platform must be able to sustain speeds in excess of Mach 5, or 3,836 miles per hour. To provide you a frame of reference regarding just how fast that is, America’s workhorse Tomahawk cruise missiles, on which we so regularly rely for “missile diplomacy,” fly at only around 550 miles per hour. Even the AIM-120 AMRAAM advanced medium range air-to-air missile, used to close with and destroy supersonic fighter jets, tops out at around 3,045 miles per hour or Mach 4. Currently, the United States has a number of hypersonic weapons in development, but experts say it will be years before they reach operational status.
China’s DF-17 and Xingkong-2 hypersonic missiles are both currently in testing, but according to Chinese People’s Liberation Army officials, the “carrier-killer” DF-17 is already in service. That may be the case, but China’s development of a supersonic drone, with the specific purpose of aiding the DF-17’s targeting apparatus, suggests that the missile may fly, but it’s not yet capable of engaging targets at great distances.
Perhaps because of this limitation of the DF-17, China has not publicly rebuked Putin’s claims that Russia possesses the only fully operational hypersonic weapons in the world.