A video grab released by the Russian Defence Ministry of the new Avangard missile, which is equipped with a hypersonic winged glider unit, during a test launch at the Kura Test Range in Russia's Kamchatka region. Photo: Russian Defence Ministry / Sputnik/ AFP
A video grab released by the Russian Defence Ministry of the new Avangard missile, which is equipped with a hypersonic winged glider unit, during a test launch at the Kura Test Range in Russia's Kamchatka region. Photo: Russian Defence Ministry / Sputnik/ AFP

Russia, China and the United States are all working on hypersonic weapons – missiles that fly so fast current technology has difficulty picking them up on radar and even bigger problems trying to defeat them.

President Vladimir Putin has claimed that Russia is getting ready to deploy an intercontinental ballistic missile called Avangard in 2019 that can fly up to 20 times the speed of sound. The missile, if it performs as advertised, is a game changer because there is no defense system that can intercept a warhead flying to a target at hypersonic speed.

With the US lagging in this sphere, how important is this?

Missile defense ‘not good’

Today the US has only a few missile-defense systems deployed and none are capable of defeating a nuclear attack from Russia or China.

The reason for that is two-fold: firstly, US missile defenses are not yet reliable interceptors (even in tests where incoming missiles don’t deploy decoys or maneuver). Secondly, there are too few interceptors, in the form of THAAD, PAC-3, Ground-Based Interceptor or land or sea-based SM-3s, that can deal with mass missile attacks.

Consequently, the US has provided some missile and air-defense systems to allies and friends – such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Poland, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel. But they are mostly designed to deal with small-scale attacks and focused on terminal air defense – that is, killing the incoming missile when it is close to its target.

One of the reasons why Israel developed its Arrow 3 interceptor is to be able to kill enemy missiles in the exo-atmosphere (outside the earth’s atmosphere) is an incoming missile hit overhead (called the endo-atmosphere) risks crashing into populated centers, as Scud rockets did during the First Gulf War and as Iranian rockets fired by Houthi rebels did in Riyadh, Taif and elsewhere.

US strategic doctrine has been torn between two opposing theories of what to do about missile threats.

Mutually Assured Destruction

In simplest terms, the most pervasive operational theory has been “mutually assured destruction” or MAD. MAD posits that if an enemy attacks, the US will launch its own strategic missiles and bombs, some of them deep underground in hardened silos, others aboard strategic bombers and still others launched by missile-firing submarines (“Boomers”). Taken together the US calls this the strategic triad.

The other approach is not to rely on MAD as a sufficient deterrent but to build missile defenses. Mostly this has been justified as a means to deal with rogue states or errant missile launches against the United States or its allies. Even so, missile defenses are one of the sore spots in US defenses, because all the programs have been controversial and either under serious delays (problems in testing) or underfunded.

MAD proponents and Russian propaganda have typically attacked US programs like the Ground Based Interceptor and THAAD as intending to give the US a “first strike” capability. While making such claims Russia and China have both continued to pursue systems that offer “break out” from the constraints of MAD and to get out from under arms control agreements.

The latest Russian gambit to deploy Avangard directly undermines all strategic arms agreements because it is a first-strike threat when measured against current technology that could defeat such missiles.  The heart of all arms control efforts is to aim to stabilize the nuclear arms balance and control or eliminate systems that fall outside of the ambit of the balance.

INF Treaty

Thus, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), for example, had a major purpose of removing high-risk hard-to-intercept systems such as Russia’s SS-20 and the US Pershing II (which both threatened Europe and European Russia). The Trump administration has served notice it wants to cancel the INF because of Russian “cheating,” but it is too soon to be sure what the final outcome will be.

Meanwhile, Avangard (and surely others in the same class of hypersonic weapons) is a direct challenge both to the MAD doctrine and to missile defenses as it undermines in a fundamental manner all US-Russia arms control agreements.

A dangerous consequence of all this is that Avangard will give Russian military commanders the idea they can strike first and “win” whatever conflict they may get into with the United States and NATO. Given that no one can be sure about Russia’s future stability, this is a huge threat and risk.

Avangard-like weapons are not so far away in Asia either. China is surely watching how the US will respond to Russia’s initiative on hypersonic weapons to see if Avangard-like weapons can be subjected to missile control agreements in the future.

Relations between Russia and the United States are still very bad and that suggests any solution is far off. Meanwhile, Avangard will wreak havoc on existing arms-control measures and destabilize the nuclear-weapons arena.

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