Last week, reports began surfacing that a Russian hypersonic glide vehicle, one that skips along the upper atmosphere to deliver a potentially nuclear payload, may be ready for deployment in the theatre of war by 2020. So what is it, exactly?
Known as Avangard, it’s claimed – perhaps ambitiously – that it can travel at speeds of 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) per hour. It’s apparently been tested at least three times, with two being successful, according to CNBC. A fourth test is due this summer.
This is just one property of something defined as a “hypersonic weapon”, which is defined as anything that can travel at more than five times the speed of sound, that can move around quite sharply mid-flight, and travel at a fairly low altitude, according to The Verge.
They also explain that the delivery of the warhead is fairly unconventional. Sitting atop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), they catch a ride upward, before detaching at a certain height and – thanks to its bespoke design – aerodynamically re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, allowing it to achieve hypersonic speeds.
Even without an explosive warhead, then, the momentum behind them would cause considerable damage on the ground upon impact.
According to LiveScience, many of the claims made by Russia about these missiles’ aerodynamic capabilities are likely true. After all, the US has already tested its own versions since 2010, as has China. All three countries have witnessed a litany of test failures, but the tech clearly exists – and France and India want in too.
At the same time, these cruise missile-like projectiles can probably evade US missile defense systems. Apart from their speed and their inherent maneuverability, they also head towards their target in such a novel way that conventional missile interception technology would find achieving their goal rather more difficult.
LiveScience also noted that, even though the US will eventually develop a way to close this technological gap one way or the other in due course, the greatest risk at present is the uncertainty and anxiety these new weapons could engender. After all, they aren’t limited by nuclear arms-control treaties like conventional ICBMs.
It’s worth emphasizing that it’s not unusual for Russia to show off their new destructive toys. It’s as much a way to demonstrate their capabilities as it is a PR event, one aimed at influencing opinion both abroad and at home.
Indeed, back at the time of Putin’s March annual state of the nation speech, Vox points out that its bellicose nature was well-timed: the (ultimately rigged) Russian presidential elections were about to take place. At the same time, he wanted to both sabre-rattle with the US and NATO, as well as continue to convince the Russian people they’re under threat.
As it so happens, the US Navy, back in November 2017, announced that they had successfully tested a prototype hypersonic missile too. The Russian President, seeking a chance to appear to step ahead of China and the US, and to showcase Russia’s military muscle, has now done just that.
This doesn’t just include talking about Avangard, by the way. Back in March, as reported by BBC News, Russia announced that it had successfully test-launched a hypersonic missile, one that’s capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
Launched from a MiG-31 fighter jet, the Kinzhal (meaning “dagger”) missile was said to travel 10 times the speed of sound, and have a range of 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles).