Russia Tests Yet Another Hypersonic Weapon

And it's designed to fly under U.S. ballistic missile defenses.

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Russian Ministry of Defense

Russia a new hypersonic weapons program on Wednesday, December 26th, designed to sneak under U.S. ballistic missile defenses. Avangard is a winged glider weapon boosted high into the atmosphere by a ballistic missile, which then descends on its target at speeds in excess of 15,000 miles an hour. Avangard will reportedly enter Russian service in 2019.

Avangard is one of several new nuclear weapons programs announced in 2018 in a grim speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The weapons, which include the “Poseidon” nuclear apocalypse torpedo and the Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile, also included the Avangard hypersonic weapon. Russia's Ministry of Defense posted footage of the test launch on YouTube.

Avangard is so-called “boost glide” hypersonic weapon. Some sources claim three Avangard unmanned wing gliders are placed on a single older intercontinental ballistic missile or newer Sarmat ICBM. Once launched, the rocket boosts Avangard gliders very high into the atmosphere. Unlike regular ICBM warheads, Avangard doesn’t go all the way up into space.

At a preset altitude the warhead nose cone fairing comes off and Avangard is released, whereupon it glides to its target at hypersonic speeds. According to a statement by President Putin, Avangard reaches speeds of up to Mach 20, or 15,340 miles an hour. Yesterday’s test involved an Avangard missile launched from Dombarovsky in southwest Russia and traveling more than 3,800 miles east to successfully land at the on the Kamchatka Peninsula.

President Putin visits National Defense Management Center
President Vladimir Putin oversees the Avangard hypersonic system test from Russia’s National Defense Management Center, with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to his right.
Mikhail KlimentyevGetty Images

According to Russian state media the test was by Putin himself, giving the order from the National Center for Defense Management to the Strategic Missile Troops in charge.

The development of these new weapons highlights Russian insecurity about American ballistic missile defenses. The U.S. has developed a number of anti-missile systems, including the system based in Alaska and California, the SM-3 missile interceptor in and, the , and the .

Although these systems were built to counter incoming missiles from rogue countries such as Iran and North Korea, Russia remains concerned that the modest number of U.S. defensive missiles could be scaled upward to render its ballistic missile force obsolete.

Russian Defence Ministry testing new strategic weapon systems
Avangard’s nose fairing falling away, ready to release the hypersonic glide vehicles.
TASSGetty Images

In the nightmare Russian scenario, the U.S. could launch a surprise nuclear strike against Moscow, confident that whatever missiles it didn’t destroy could be shot down. The math in this scenario doesn’t quite work. Washington would need at least 8,000 interceptors to blunt Russia’s nuclear force, an unaffordable number, but the situation still makes Moscow uneasy.

In response, Russia is drumming up a whole host of new nuclear weapons to get around a missile shield. “Poseidon” would travel to U.S. territory underwater, whereupon it would deliver a devastating thermonuclear strike. The nuclear powered Buresvestnik cruise missile would have the range to literally fly for days or even weeks, flying around entire continents to slip into U.S. airspace.

Avangard is important because it is an extremely fast weapon system that travels below the engagement envelopes of GBI or THAAD, both of which are designed to down warheads descending from space. Avangard could be used to attack American ballistic missile defenses, delivering a knockout blow that then opens the door for a larger nuclear strike involving more conventional (but still nuclear-armed) ICBMs.

Russian Defence Ministry testing new strategic weapon systems
Avangard in glide mode.
TASSGetty Images

Whether Moscow believes such an attack from the U.S. is possible, Avangard is set to enter service with the Strategic Missile Troops in 2019. Russia may have eventually developed such a system anyway, but count this—and the apocalypse torpedo, and the nuclear-powered cruise missile—as yet another unanticipated outcome of the U.S. anti-missile effort.

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