This article provides an overview of hypersonic missile technology and where Russia stands in this regard in order to build a reference point to see a global picture. After a description of six “next generation” missiles of Russia, the reader is introduced into U.S. hypersonic program. Suffice it to say that the article uses open-source information and, as such, lacks classified technical information. However, it creates a base to build understanding on the capabilities of the respective systems, results of their testing, and above all, repercussions for the Western Security Community. The result of this study demonstrates Russia has obtained a superiority over hypersonic missiles so far and, if there is no change in U.S. strategy, Russia will gain a monopoly on nuclear-capable weapons in the foreseeable future.

1. Background

In the past 50 years, except for the current one, every U.S. president offered and continued negotiations with Russia in order to regulate the destabilizing competition for superiority in nuclear weapons and to reduce the risk of collapse of itself and its allies in a nuclear war. In order to make the world a safer place, each US administration got involved in negotiations and concluded a series of agreements. (Countryman, 2019) Contrary to this tradition, President Trump let the Mid-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty (1987) end on 2 August 2019. The U.S. appears to be ready to allow the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) to expire in 2021 in the same manner.

Trump administration’s rhetoric to sell this change of behavior is that it wants to include China also in talks in trilateral settings together with Russia (Countryman, 2019) on a new treaty to limit the nuclear weapons not covered by the New START. However, this is easier said than made. Negotiations in this direction will likely be lengthy, thorny, and above all complex to come to fruition. Realistically, there is no chance of concluding a new agreement along these lines before the expiry date of the New START.

2. Recent Developments

In March 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a quick rundown on the developmental status of several “next generation” strategic weapon systems designed especially to evade U.S. missile defenses. As can be understood, Putin has given priority to the development of its strategic deterrence by building these new strategic missile systems.

According to open-sources, Russia has tested many hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV), and hypersonic cruise missiles in the recent past, and it is expected to field an operational capability in the near future. Some of these missile systems are about to become operational, whereas some others face important challenges. (Stratfor, 2019) Below follows an overview of those Russian systems:

a. Avangard

Avangard is a strategic intercontinental ballistic missile which is composed of a high-performance ballistic missile and an HGV to maneuver and engage with ground targets at hypersonic speed. After entering the atmosphere, it can fly on an unpredictable trajectory and engage a target at a maximum speed of Mach 20. It constantly changes its course and altitude as it flies throughout the atmosphere, attempting to defeat any missile defense system. (Erdogan, 2019a)

The HGV can reportedly be integrated as a multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) with the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces’ RS-18B/UR-100UTTKh (Erdogan, 2019a) (NATO Name: SS-19 Stiletto Mod 3). When Sarmat is ready for operations then it will be the carrier of the intercontinental ballistic missile.

Even though Russian Ministry of Defense announced that the missile system would to be operational in December 2019, (TASS, 2019a) it could not surpass the development phase. The system was developed by the Research and Production Association of Machine Construction, according to open sources, and has been in test since 2004. (TASS, 2019a) Avangard was successfully tested twice in 2016 (Congressional Research Service, 2019a) and once in December 2018. After test-launched in December 2018, Putin announced the success of the flight tests and further stated that “The Avangard has fully passed through its test program and will become operational on schedule. The weapon has fully confirmed its specifications”(Novichkov, 2019). But the previous test in October 2017 (Gady, 2019a) had yielded in failure. It is highly likely that there is no other test launches have been conducted other than the 2017 and 2018 tests. (Gady, 2019b)

Russia’s Defense Ministry underlined that a U.S. team had had an opportunity to inspect one of its new silo-launched Avangard hypersonic missiles (Trevithick, 2018a) under the terms of the New START. (Trevithick, 2019) The Russian Ministry of Defense reported in a statement on 26 November 2019 “Under the Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, a U.S. inspection group was shown the Avangard missile system with the hypersonic boost-glide vehicle on the territory of Russia on November 24-26, 2019”. (TASS, 2019b)

Incidentally or not, between 24-26 November 2019, Russia showed Avangard to U.S. inspectors as well. Whether or not to extend New START, Moscow and Washington are meeting and negotiating for the renewal of the agreement; if not, it will expire in February 2021.

b. Burevestnik

Putin outlined nuclear-powered cruise missile Burevestnik (Trevithick, 2018b) with unlimited range as one of six “next generation” strategic weapons Moscow was developing. Burevestnik is a supersonic cruise missile to escape any missile defense system. The missile’s range can be more than 10,000 kilometers and can be equipped with a nuclear warhead. Moscow drew attention to the unlimited range and its potential ability to penetrate U.S. missile defenses. The weapon can use a nuclear fuel source onboard to fly for a very long time. The speed of the missile is currently unknown; however, some researchers assume that it is in the range of Mach 8 to 9.

The missile is launched from a platform on the ground and flying at low altitude, following an unpredictable trajectory is headed towards its target, by escaping missile defenses. The missile has been tested four times, from November 2017 to February 2018, and the tests have given negative results. It was reported that the longest flight lasted just over two minutes, with a distance of about 22 miles before the missile crashed. The shortest one was four seconds, with a flight distance of five miles. It is important that in none of those four tests, the onboard nuclear generator was not activated. Following the explosion at a ground test on 08 August 2019 on the north coast of Russia, the Defense Ministry of Russia said at least two soldiers were killed and four wounded. It is probably one of the worst nuclear incidents, and it is highly likely that the explosion was a prototype of Burevestnik. If the missile has the capabilities that Putin has boasted about the limitless range, it will be the first transcontinental cruise missile in the world.

However, it was not indicated in March 2018 which missile or missiles would incorporate artificial intelligence. But there are two prominent candidates: the hypersonic vehicle “Avangard” and the cruise missile “Burevestnik”.

c. Kinzhal

Kinzhal is a hypersonic missile system capable of escaping any missile defense system. It is a nuclear-capable weapon that has an operating range of over 2,000 km (TASS, 2018a) and was testing phase since December 2017.

As an air-launched ballistic missile, Kinzhal essentially transports existing technologies. While many analysts have doubts about Kinzhal’s capabilities, the weapon appears to be a version of the Alexander-M short-range ballistic missile (Stratfor, 2019) flying at hypersonic speeds.

The missile can autonomously maneuver, hit targets at a distance of 2,000 km, and fly continuously at high speed to escape the air defense system. The missile is accelerated by the aircraft (MiG-31Ks or Tu-22M3 / Su-57) at its maximum speed then launched from the aircraft to activate its solid-propellant engine and reach a hypersonic speed of Mach 10. (TASS, 2018a)

The 2019 Aviadarts international competition for the 2019 International Army Games took place on 10 August 2019 at the Dubrovichi test range in the Ryazan region (South Front, 2019) of Russia. For the first time, Russian MIG-31K fighters armed with Kinzhal took part in an air exhibition. Specifically, Kinzhal hypersonic missile made its debut during the competition. (Erdogan, 2019b)

Russia has successfully tested an air-to-ground hypersonic missile with the MiG-31 fighter several times and is currently building a Tu-22M3 bomber in order to expand its range, taking into account the carrier’s battle radius and missile range. The smaller size of the missile will be transported with the Su-57. (Erdogan, 2019b)

d. Tsirkon

Russia is reportedly developing 3M22 Tsirkon, and a ship-based hypersonic cruise missile launched, which is capable of traveling at speeds up to Mach 8. It is compatible with specific aircraft, submarines, and some of the surface warships, and its effective range is about 500 km. (Episkopos, 2019) The development of Tsirkon has come to the fore since 2011, and Russia has conducted five tests of the hypersonic missile since 2015. Tsirkon tests with the Tu-22M3 bomber were conducted in the summer of 2012, at the State Flight and Research Center in Akhtubinsk. (Navy Recognition, 2016) Reports indicate that not all launches have been successful but work on the missile has continued. U.S. intelligence reports show that Russia conducted its most successful Tsirkon test on 10 December 2018. According to a source, the missile production is expected to begin in 2021, (Macias, 2018) join the Kremlin’s arsenal as early as 2022, and that the missile will be operational in 2023. (TASS, 2019c)

Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed in his February 2019 address to the Federal Parliament that Tsirkon is capable of producing a speed of Mach 9, (TASS, 2019c) its range capacity can exceed 1,000 km., and it could hit both ground and sea targets. President Putin announced that the hypersonic missile was proceeding as planned.

Tsirkon has a unique feature and is a specific missile. Russian experts said Tsirkon was very hard to intercept for both the current air defense capabilities and currently designed perspective interceptors. According to the annual report of NPO Mashinstroeniya, (Navy Recognition, 2016) it will have both a radar target seeker and an optical-electronic complex in order to track and detect targets even at hypersonic speed as well.

e. Poseidon

Status-6 “Poseidon” torpedo is “robotic mini-submarine” with a diameter of 1 meter, and is an essentially underwater ICBM. It has a range of up to 6,200 miles and is capable of operation in depths up to 3,300 feet.

The Poseidon program was made public in September 2015 (Gady, 2019c) for the first time, when the Russian state television “accidentally” shows a picture of Poseidon. Accidentally or not it was broadcast on state television, people has wondered why Russia is producing a weapon that would end (Lockie, 2019) the world. In March 2018, Russia has begun to publicly announce for the first time not only its nuclear activities but also six next generation missiles with President Vladimir Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly.

The nuclear-powered submarine drone “Poseidon”, also known as an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV). In particular, it is not clear whether Russia is capable of building a reliable miniaturized nuclear reactor for UUV (Gady, 2019c).

Poseidon can travel thousands of kilometers at speeds of up to 70 knots. Poseidon drone can allegedly be fitted with a thermonuclear warhead delivering around two megatons. (TASS, 2018b) The thermonuclear warhead of Poseidon is designed to destroy coastal sites such as ports, cities, and economic infrastructure (Mizokami, 2018).

Poseidon has been tested 11 times so far, in addition to that, the US intelligence assessment points out that the 11th and last known test of the Poseidon was conducted in November 2018. (Gady, 2019c)

Belgorod will be the first carrier of Poseidon nuclear-powered submarine drones, which will participate in sea trials in June 2020, and the act of acceptance must be signed in September 2020. (TASS, 2019d)

It is not clear whether the Poseidon will serve solely as a delivery platform for nuclear warheads or may also be deployed for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions (Gady, 2019e).

f. Sarmat

On 1 March 2018, President Vladimir Putin, in his speech to the Federal Parliament, stressed that the Russian Ministry of Defense had started an active phase in partnership with the space industry companies to test a new missile system with Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). (TASS, 2018c) The known missile is called RS-28 Sarmat, although NATO calls it the SS-X-30 Satan 2.

The RS-28 Sarmat is the Russian silo-based missile with the heavy liquid-propellant ICBM, which was designed as part of (Missile Defense Project, 2017) Russian nuclear modernization and is capable of transporting nuclear charges. Sarmat has been developing since at least 2009 (Mosher, 2018) in order to replace the R-36M2 Voyevoda (SS-18 Satan ICBM). (Missile Defense Project, 2016)

Reportedly (TASS, 2019e) missile’s firing tests are on schedule and will complete its testing phase by the end of 2020. Sarmat prototype was ready in autumn 2015, while the timeframe of the pop-up testing schedule has been postponed many times because of the lack of silo-based launcher. (TASS, 2018c) The missile started the first stage test in 2016. The Russian Army conducted a launch test in which some technical shortcomings of silo-based launchers are revealed in December 2017. (Missile Defense Project, 2017) Putin declared that Sarmat had been successfully tested in December 2017 and that it could reach the United States via the North or South Pole thanks to its range of more than 11,000 kilometers. (Rudischhauser, 2018) On 30 March 2018, Russia published video footage of a seemingly successful ejection test, which might have taken place at the end of March 2018. The third and last pop-up test of Sarmat was conducted in May 2018. (Gady, 2019d) Sarmat was originally scheduled to go into service in 2018, but this timeline has probably been delayed, and initial commissioning is now scheduled for the period 2020-2021. (Missile Defense Project, 2017)

If Russia succeed to finalize its testing phase, Sarmat’s serial production will be highly likely to start in 2021. (Gady, 2019) Russia’s plan is to replace gradually RS-36M2 Voyevoda with RS-28 Sarmat by the mid-2020s. (Gady, 2019d)

President Putin underlined in his March 2018 address to the Federal Parliament that Russia had developed a brand-new generation of unstoppable nuclear weapons. He claimed that RS-28 Sarmat was “invincible” to any missile defense systems with “practically unlimited” range. (Mosher, 2018) If RS-28 Sarmat ICBM achieves its specifications, as President Putin stated, “The weapon has fully confirmed its specifications”, (Novichkov, 2019) it will be the first intercontinental ballistic missile in the world of its kind.

The intercontinental missile, which would have a long-range and would be described as being able to transport between 10 and 24 warheads. The claim, along with multiple warheads, would allow it to penetrate any US missile defense system. (Rudischhauser, 2018) Sarmat will clearly be the main counter-force weapon of Russia. However, the claim that it could transport 24 of the Avangard hypersonic gliders is clearly false; Sarmat only has about two and a half times the launch weight of the SS-19, which is around 4,300 kg. So that, Sarmat can carry three to five Avangard (Wortzel, 2019) gliders seems much more reliable.

Claims regarding the potential capabilities of Sarmat are numerous, and it seems quite ambitious. Therefore, it makes sense to assume that Russia would realize the schedule and obey the realization of the timeline. If not, it will be perfect on the paper. As the lifespan of RS-36M2 Voyevoda is limited (until 2027), and an unlimited development schedule for Sarmat is unrealistic.

3. Where is the U.S. in this equation?

Following the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) in 2002, the heading of the armament race in terms of missiles between China, Russia, and the U.S. raises concerns. All three had earlier announced Research and Development (R&D) projects for developing new generation nuclear-capable weapons. (Erdogan, 2019a) This is a result of crippled arms control regime and needs for newer systems with immediate response capability.

China and Russia, for deterrence purposes and to gain more foothold in the US dominant market, constantly inform about advance recorded in terms of development. Against this backdrop, Russia has accelerated the program it launched in the 2000s to build strategic new “next generation” weapons.

China is another critical actor in this endeavor. Both China and Russia have made progress and are currently in the phase of testing “hypersonic weapons”. The respective programs are considered the greatest threat to U.S. space supremacy.

The U.S., although not having renounced space superiority, lags behind these two states. General John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command on 18 November 2017, at the Halifax International Security Forum stressed this fact saying: “I watch what our adversaries do. I see them moving quickly into the space domain, they are moving very fast, and I see our country not moving fast, and that causes me concern.” (Erwin, 2017)

At the current status, the U.S. is completely lacking in deterrence and its posture in this race is crucial. This needs to be rectified. Or better put, the US needs to accelerate at a faster pace, while Russia and China add hypersonic weapons to their arsenals with.

To prevent misunderstanding, the development of new hypersonic systems progress in the U.S. too. But it does in a different manner. Below is a summary of developments in the U.S. that will give background to further enable making a comparison between Russian and the US programs.

a. Currents Programs in the U.S.

The U.S. has a different approach in this race from Russia and China. Since the early 2000s, (Congressional Research Service, 2019a) the U.S. has actively pursued the development of hypersonic weapons as part of its Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS) program. However, the U.S. has focused more on hypersonic glide vehicles and hypersonic cruise missiles in recent years. The growing interest of Russia and China in these technologies and numerous successful flight tests on hypersonic glide vehicles of both countries has forced the U.S. to increase focus on hypersonic weapons. Although funding for these programs had been relatively limited in the past, the Pentagon and the Congress (Congressional Research Service, 2019a) have shown growing interest in continuing the development of hypersonic weapons.

Initially, CPGS weapons were not intended to replace nuclear weapons, but would support US conventional capabilities. Officials argued that long-range systems would provide a “niche” capability, with a small number of weapons (Congressional Research Service, 2019b) aimed at selected critical targets.

Along the same lines, currently, Department of Defense (DoD) efforts to develop hypersonic weapons under Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike program aims to give the U.S. military the ability to shoot hardened or time-sensitive targets through conventional warheads, as well as with several Air Force, Army, and DARPA programs. (Congressional Research Service, 2019b)

The DoD recognizes the important role that hypersonic weapons have potential to play, especially in the face of advanced anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategies of Russia and China, and strategies for power projection, deterrence and reassurance. (Wortzel, 2019) In this regard, DoD supports the development of Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS), which has parts/programs tailored for use by the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The CPGS program aims to enable U.S. defense forces to hit targets with conventional weapons anywhere in the world within an hour.

As regards the U.S. Army, the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW) is designed as a long-range hovering vehicle capable of flying at hypersonic speed in the atmosphere. The AHW technology program is managed by the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defence Command (USASMDC) / Army Forces Strategic Command (ARSTRAT). (Army Technology, 2019) This capability will enable the U.S. to attack time-sensitive high-value targets at a conflict. In November 2011, AHW was launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, and successfully attained its target at 3,700 km distance from the launch site. (Army Technology, 2019)

As regards the U.S. Air Force, there are two ongoing projects on hypersonic weapons in development by DARPA, namely the Tactical Boost Glide (TBG) and the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC). The TBG is an air-launched rocket with speed more than Mach 5 and has flight altitude of 200,000 (Roque, 2019) ft. The HAWC, on the other hand, is designed to be launched from air. According to Jane’s Defense, HAWC has been designed as a hypersonic cruise missile as well. DARPA has been said to have scheduled to test both weapons on a B-52 bomber at the end of 2019. (Roque, 2019) So far, no information has been made public on the results of the tests.

As regards the U.S. Navy began developing an intermediate-range ballistic missile (SLIRBM) launched by the submarine in 2003 as part of its CPGS program in order to fulfill its mission. (Keck, 2017) However, the Congress cut its funding in 2008, and these efforts had terminated. (all CPGS funds were merged into a single DoD-wide account instead of individual programs). In 2012 the Navy began seeking industry proposals and strongly advocating CPGS technology launched by the submarine, and in 2014, (Howard, 2019) a booster explosion during an army AHW test prompted the Pentagon to get the Navy involved in the project and modify the boost-glide AHW for submarine missile tubes. Although the AHW was an HGV paired with a ballistic missile, it would be launched not only from SSBNs, but from SSGNs (Howard, 2019) and attack submarines. The Director of the Strategic Systems Program (SSP), Admiral Terry Benedict, announced on 30 October 2017, (Keck, 2017) a successful first test of the project – the CPS FE-1 (Conventional Prompt Strike Flight Experiment) – from an onshore facility in Hawaii.

The DoD stated that the Navy would (Congressional Research Service, 2019a) lead the development of a common glide vehicle for use in all services with a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in June 2018. The common glide vehicle is adapted from a prototype Army warhead, Alternative Reentry System, which was successfully tested in 2011 and 2017. The Army’s Alternate Reentry System evolved from the backup plan of the Pentagon. (Freedberg Jr, 2018) Currently, it appears that this vehicle can be deployed to medium-range missiles in the Navy submarines, now known as the Prompt Strike Mission. (Congressional Research Service, 2019b)

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency announced the existence of a new counter hypersonic weapon program named “Regional Glide Phase Weapon System (RGPWS)” on 5 December 2019. Accordingly, the program aims to complement another defense effort called the Hypersonic Defense Weapon System (HDWS), which started in September 2018. (Dahlgren, 2019) In this initiative, the Air Force, Navy and Army have put together their efforts on a common unpowered boost-glide vehicle design (Trevithick, 2018c) that can help give each of them an operational hypersonic weapon in the short term. As the above-mentioned common hypersonic glide, the Air Force, Army, and Navy are now working together to develop and deploy them by the early 2020s.

b. The New START

The New START Treaty, the latest of its kind to limit the U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons stockpiles, will expire in February 2021 if the sides do not agree to extend it. On the other hand, Moscow is developing missiles that will not fall under the prescribed limits of the agreement.

On 19 December 2019, President Putin stressed that Washington had not yet responded to Russian proposals to extend the agreement. The Russian leader underlined that nothing could prevent a new arms race and that global security (Presstv, 2019) would be threatened if the U.S. does not agree on the renewal of the bilateral treaty.

General John Hyten, during his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2019, has expressed his worries about new Russian nuclear delivery systems, namely the Poseidon underwater drone, the Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile, Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile, and the Tsirkon (Zircon) hypersonic cruise missile. All those fall beyond the coverage of the New START. (Congressional Research Service, 2020) He said that these weapons could ultimately pose a threat to the United States and that the U.S. and Russia could agree on an amended version of the New START that would cover this new Russian delivery systems. (Erdogan, 2019b)

U.S. intelligence officials believe that Poseidon will be ready by 2027 at the earliest, and the latest tests of Burevestnik have failed so far. As such, these systems should have little effect on the U.S. short-term deterrence strategy and will not have a decisive role in decision making regarding the extension of the New START. (Erdogan, 2019b) On the other hand, Russia will probably deploy Avangard and Kinzhal before the end of the New START, which will make it a pressing issue for the U.S. arms control negotiators. (Vaddi, 2019)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced “Russia is prepared to include its Avangard and Sarmat missile systems in New START when it is extended”, and further said, “We have already presented Avangard to the Americans, and we will be ready to do the same with Sarmat at a certain stage”. (TASS, 2019f) According to Lavrov, since these technologies are new, it is normal that the treaty did not cover them at the time of writing.

Deputy Director of the Russian Foreign Ministry Vladimir Leontiev said that the Russian missile systems, Sarmat and Avangard fit well with and could be included in the New START. In his opinion, if Sarmat materializes at least as a prototype, while the treaty is still effective, including possible prolongation, will not be a problem. He added “There are no big problems with Avangard, either, because it is an optional warhead for an ICBM of the corresponding type, to which the treaty applies, (TASS, 2019g) too.”

In the finality that New START is not prolonged, emboldened by having no regulatory force, Russia might choose to reinforce its existing inventory of cruise and ballistic missiles. And, this has potential to cause Russia not to make any commitment within another binding mutual or trilateral setting. In other words, Trump’s unrealistic policy of pushing both China and Russia to make commitment in a trilateral setting until the end of New START, if an agreement is not attained before the end of New START, has potential to put the two nuclear powers into another cycle of arms race which would further put a vast geography to include Euro-Atlantic zone within reach of harm. It seems that the extension of the New START with Russia is the best option for dealing with the most disturbing situations of Russian six “next generation” strategic weapons and try ways to pull China into the agreement afterwards.

4. Conclusion

While China is pursuing a long-term approach to develop strategic technologies and close the capability gap with west, Russia is taking the initiative to triumph over US technological superiority. Particularly recent Russian next-generation weapons focusing on hypersonic speed and extended range have the potential to threaten Europe and the U.S.

Russia has progressed substantially in developing long-range, nuclear-capable, air, land, and sea-launched hypersonic weapons. These hypersonic weapons have a broad range of applications in battlefield ranging from A2/AD in local conflicts to delivering strategic nuclear weapons. As such, they pose a substantial threat to NATO missile defense systems and overall security with their reported speed, range, and maneuverability.

From a realist perspective, the U.S. is expected to take necessary measures to counterbalance the threat posed to its security and accelerate R&D efforts to maintain technological edge in the development of hypersonic weapons to reciprocate Russian and Chinese efforts in the same direction. However, the proliferation of hypersonic weapon technology has the potential to increase instability throughout the world by encouraging both conventional and unconventional arms race.

*Dr. Aziz Erdogan is a senior research fellow at Beyond the Horizon ISSG


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