A lot of hype is surrounding Russia’s deployment of the Kinzhal hypersonic missile and Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, which can travel at more than five times the speed of sound (Mach 5).
Some observers say they are asymmetric game-changers because no current or prospective air and missile defense system deployed by the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization can intercept them.
Others claim their use has no immediate strategic implications for Washington and its allies in the short term, as there are no existing US and NATO counter-measures to defeat a barrage of Russian nuclear or conventional missiles already in Moscow’s strategic arsenal.
Two missile experts explained to Asia Times that it was difficult at this stage to assess the capabilities of Russia’s two unproven hypersonic systems.
Kinzhal is an air-launched complex. It is virtually a ground-based Iskander ballistic missile, which has a range of 500 kilometers, carried on a MiG-31K fighter jet or a Tu-22M3 medium-range bomber. It can reach a maximum range of up to 2,000km if accelerated by a MIG-31 platform and 3,000km by a Tu-22M3 aircraft, according to official Russian sources.
Avangard is an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system with a gliding hypersonic maneuvering warhead. It is said to have a maximum range of 6,000km and a minimum range of 2,000km.
A squadron of MiG-31K fighters equipped with Kinzhal missiles were deployed in the Caspian Sea region in April, according to Russian media reports. Avangard projectiles should enter service in 2019, stationed in the Dombarovsky area, in southwestern Russia.
The two hypersonic systems have been developed to improve national defenses and deter any attack on the country and its allies, the Russian Defense Ministry was quoted as saying by TASS news agency.
Global military balance unlikely to be affected
Alexander Savelyev, chief research fellow at the Moscow-based Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations, said there was still a lack of information to make clear conclusions about the military and strategic impact of hypersonic weapons.
“Technical characteristics, as described in open sources, do not reveal a very important detail, the accuracy of Kinzhal and Avangard projectiles.” As a result, “it makes it difficult to conclude in which category these arms systems should be included, if first-strike or second-strike weapons,” he added.
In addition, there is the problem of the number of warheads that can be deployed. The Russian scholar, who participated as an adviser in the START-1 negotiations between the US and the Soviet Union from 1989 to 1991, does not believe the number of Kinzhal and Avangard missiles will be “big enough to have reasonable effect on the strategic balance.”
This is particularly true with the Avangard complex’s deployment, which is regulated by the New START treaty. Signed in 2010, it limits the US and Russia to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and bombs. The number of delivery vehicles is also capped at 700 units for each side.
Savelyev added that economic reasons could also limit such a deployment, having in mind budgetary difficulties, worsened by international sanctions imposed on Russia over its intervention in Ukraine, that his country has experienced in the past four years.
As a preliminary conclusion, Savelyev said it was unlikely that Kinzhal and Avangard missiles could seriously affect the global military balance in the near future. However, he highlighted the fact that they could influence the political situation at regional level, because “if these new systems prove to be highly effective, concerns about plans for their use will grow in many states both in the West and in the East.”
Kinzhal’s established role
Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, also stressed his perplexity, making a distinction between the potential impact of the Avangard platform and Kinzhal’s.
The US researcher, who is also editor of the Nonproliferation Review, pointed out that the Avangard system was intended to be a ground-launched intercontinental weapon, like an ICBM, whereas the Kinzhal was an air-launched ballistic missile with a range of a couple of thousand kilometers, like a long-range cruise missile but very fast-flying.
For Pollack, Kinzhal is a different sort of weapon, potentially conventional or nuclear, and thus “useful for fighting wars as much as it is for deterrence.” He doubts it will allow the Russian military to accomplish anything that it cannot already do. “Kinzhal is an exotic weapon, but it seems to fit into an established role,” he said.
For example, if carried on tactical aircraft “its main advantage is to provide the Russian air force with additional strike platforms against targets in Syria from inside Russian airspace.” But he noted that Russian cruise-missile strikes into Syrian territory had already taken place from naval vessels, so this modus operandi – Russia’s launch of stand-off projectiles against enemies on Syrian soil – is not entirely new, “it just allows another service to play an expanded role.”