Analysis: The Russian Avangard Hypersonic Missile. A Game Changer…

A computer simulation grab, shows the Avangard hypersonic vehicle being released from booster rockets. Source: RU-RTR Russian Television via AP.

“The Avangard is absolutely invulnerable to any air or missile defense system.” – Vladimir Putin

Recently, the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu informed President Vladimir Putin that the first Russian missile unit equipped with the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle entered combat duty. The announcement of the Avangard’s operational rollout came days after the US Congress voted for the much-touted Space Force by President Trump. The meaning of this? In terms of defense and deterrence strategies “everything” changes for the U.S. and its allies, including its Five Eyes partners (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom) and naturally, NATO.

A whole new ball game

The Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle can travel 27 times the speed of sound and maneuver through the atmosphere en route to its target, making it (practically) impossible to intercept since it remains invisible to defense systems until the last moment; it can carry a conventional charge or, and here’s the catch: It can be armed with a nuclear weapon of up to 2 megatons.

Originally, hypersonic gliders were developed by the United States (HGV1) and were tested in 2011, however the research program was subsequently discontinued due to a lack of strategic interest. At the same time, Russia took advantage of this interruption to catch up in the area of cruise and ballistic missiles of hyper speed; e.g. The 3M22 Zircon anti-ship missile did thus reach the speed of Mach 8 and will equip the Russian corvettes and frigates by 2027. The Kh-47M2 Kinjal air-to-ground missile, operational since 2017, reaches the speed of Mach 10. It was so far, the only aero-balistic missile in service.1

When Russia announced the operational implementation of the Avangard system, in November 2019, American inspectors were able to see the new Russian missiles as part of the new START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). The Russian Minister of Defense said in this regard that this inspection made START a “viable and effective” treaty; this act signals out “deterrence” for the West.1

As I write, Russia and China are the only countries armed with hypersonic weapons (China also unveiled in late 2019 its own hypersonic cruise missile: the DF-100 (Dongfeng-100), range 15,000 km.2), which not only means that the defense and deterrence strategies of the West are being disrupted, but that unlike the past, Russia (for the first time) is leading the world in developing this new class of strategic, nuclear capable weapons.

The Avangard evolves at high altitude in the atmosphere, then descends towards its target with such a high speed that it is able to pierce enemy anti-missile systems. To Moscow, it means the answer to the ballistic missile defense that the Americans have developed to neutralize the Russian nuclear deterrent.

In December 2018, the Avangard had its first test; as it was launched from Dombarovskiy (a missile base in the southern Ural Mountains); it successfully hit a practice target on the Kura shooting range on Kamchatka, 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) away. “Russian media reports indicated that the Avangard will first be mounted on Soviet-built RS-18B intercontinental ballistic missiles, code-named SS-19 by NATO. It is expected to be fitted to the prospective Sarmat heavy intercontinental ballistic missile after it becomes operational.”1

The West’s Reaction

On March 6th, 2018, Robert Ashley, Lieutenant General, U.S. Army, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency declared:

“The military environment has shifted from the existence of the United States as the single power able to dominate challengers and to deter aggression through conventional means to one in which foreign militaries are emerging with near-peer and, in some areas, peer capabilities. Adversaries have studied the American way of conflict and have developed, and will continue to develop, capabilities to mitigate or upend longstanding U.S. military dominance in all war-fighting domains[…]. Many states will continue to view nuclear weapons as both the guarantor of regime survival and a critical capability in a conflict with a conventionally superior adversary.  This threat environment highlights the need for us to operate in close collaboration with our Five Eyes partners, NATO, and other allies across the globe.”3

Naturally, Western countries are (very) concerned. In the U.S. the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has already started the development for a new system intended to countermeasure hypersonic missiles: the Glide Breaker. Simultaneously, the U.S. Navy is working on the development of hypersonic missiles; to note that on its side, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper declared in August 2019: “it’s probably a matter of a couple of years” before the US has one. According to him, it is of the utmost importance that the military works to develop new long-range fire capabilities.

An intercontinental ballistic missile lifts off from a truck-mounted launcher somewhere in Russia. Source: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP.

As if this were not disruptive enough, the Russian Defense Ministry also unveiled a new ballistic missile defense space system on December, 2019. The “Dome”, which is capable of detecting from space the trajectory and striking area of enemy ballistic missiles. This systems represents the completion of the called “Tundra alert satellites defense system” (launched in 2015, 2017 and 2019).

A titanic task ahead for Russia

Even though Russia’s achievement is impressive, the complete operationalization of the Avangard is far from simple, e.g. the production of the RS-28 Sarmat, a Russian liquid-fueled, MIRV-equipped ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) under development since 2009 (intended to replace the R-36M ICBM (SS-18 ‘Satan’), has lagged behind, which has provoked the adaptation by the Russian military of the UR-100N missile for the launch of the Avangard; an “adaptation” of a non-intended technology is not necessarily an ideal scenario. Also, in economic terms this is far from perfect, for this system is expensive. Russia will have to spend up to 5% of its defense budget on the production of ICBMs as well as ballistic missiles launched from submarines by 2027.

What happened?

By recently unveiling the operation of the Avangard Hypersonic Missile, Russia has disrupted in a significant degree, the nuclear deterrence and defense strategies of the West, remarkably those of the U.S., the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance (U.S., Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom), and OTAN’s.

Why does it matter?

The development and adoption of hypersonic weapons represent the need of a thorough review from the part of the U.S. and its allies of their deterrence and defense strategies (as they risk becoming obsolete in the face of these new strategic technologies), as well as the urgent need to develop new countermeasure systems and to catch up with nations such as Russia and China in the development of hypersonic, nuclear and conventional weapons.

References:

  1. Areion24News. 2020. Russie : le nouveau programme d’armes de rupture. https://www.areion24.news/2020/06/15/russie-le-nouveau-programme-darmes-de-rupture/
  2. Army Technology. 2020. Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW). https://www.army-technology.com/projects/advanced-hypersonic-weapon-ahw/
  3. Ashley, Lt. Gen. Robert, “Statement for the Record: Worldwide Threat Assessment,” (March 6, 2018), http://www.dia.mil/News/Speeches-and-Testimonies/Article-View/Article/1457815/statement-for-the-record-worldwide-threat-assessment.
  4. Cone, P. Paige. Assessing the Influence of Hypersonic Weapons on Deterrence. The Counterproliferation Papers, Future Warfare Series No. 59, June 2019. USAF Center for Strategic Deterrence Studies, Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.
  5. Venable, Heather and Abercrombie, Clarence. “Muting the Hype over Hypersonics: The Offense-Defense Balance in Historical Perspective,” (May 28, 2019),warontherocks.com/2019/05/muting-the-hype-over-hypersonics-the-offense-defense-balance-inhistorical-perspective.
  6. Military Watch. 2019. https://militarywatchmagazine.com/article/s-500-or-a-235-russia-tests-advanced-new-missile-defence-system-with-extreme-range
  7. Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance. 2020. “Missile Threat and Proliferation”. https://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/hypersonic-weapons-everything-you-need-know-about-the-21637
  8. MIT Technology Review. 2019. “The Limits of Chinese Military Power”.https://www.technologyreview.com/2019/10/24/290/the-limits-of-chinese-military-power/
  9. The National Interest. 2017. “Hypersonic Weapons: Everything You Need to Know About the Ultimate Weapon”.https://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/hypersonic-weapons-everything-you-need-know-about-the-21637
  10. The National Interest. 2017. “Coming to a War Near You: Hypersonic Weapons”. https://nationalinterest.org/feature/coming-war-near-you-hypersonic-weapons-13649?page=2

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