Russia has deployed its first hypersonic nuclear-capable missiles, with Vladimir Putin boasting that it puts his country in a class of its own.
According to a report in The Guardian, the president described the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, which can fly at 27 times the speed of sound, as a technological breakthrough comparable to the 1957 Soviet launch of the first satellite.
Putin has said Russia’s new generation of nuclear weapons can hit almost any point in the world and evade a US-built missile shield, though some western experts have questioned how advanced some of the weapons programs are.
The Avangard is launched on top of an intercontinental ballistic missile, but, unlike a regular missile warhead, which follows a predictable path after separation, it can make sharp manoeuvres en route to its target, making it harder to intercept.
The defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, told Putin the first missile unit equipped with the Avangard had entered combat duty.
“I congratulate you on this landmark event for the military and the entire nation,” Shoigu said later during a conference call with top military leaders.
The strategic missile forces chief, Gen Sergei Karakaev, said during the call that the Avangard had been put on duty with a unit in the Orenburg region in the southern Ural mountains.
Putin unveiled the Avangard and other prospective weapons systems in his state-of-the-nation address in March 2018, saying its ability to make sharp manoeuvres on its way to a target would render missile defense useless.
“It heads to target like a meteorite, like a fireball,” he said at the time.
The Russian leader said the Avangard had been designed using new composite materials to withstand temperatures of up to 2,000C (3,632F) which can be reached while travelling at hypersonic speeds. The missile can carry a nuclear weapon of up to 2 megatons.
Putin has said Russia had to develop the Avangard and other weapons systems because of US efforts to develop a missile defence system that he claimed could erode Russia’s nuclear deterrent. Moscow has scoffed at US claims that its missile shield isn’t intended to counter Russia’s missile arsenals.
Putin’s nuclear agenda was laid bare, as he openly taunted the US — noting that, for the first time, Russia was leading the world in developing a new class of weapons, unlike in the past when it was catching up with the US.
In December 2018, the Avangard was launched from the Dombarovskiy missile base in the southern Urals and hit a practice target on the Kura shooting range on the Kamchatka peninsula, 3,700 miles (6,000km) away.
The Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Yury Borisov stated a day later that the glider flew at 27 times the speed of sound, “invulnerable to interception.”
The defence ministry said last month it had demonstrated the Avangard to a team of US inspectors as part of transparency measures under the New Start nuclear arms treaty between the two countries.
China has tested its own hypersonic glide vehicle, believed to be capable of travelling at least five times the speed of sound. It displayed the weapon called Dong Feng 17, or DF-17, at a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese state.
US officials have talked about putting a layer of sensors in space to more quickly detect enemy missiles, particularly the hypersonic weapons. The administration also plans to study the idea of basing interceptors in space, so the US can strike incoming missiles during the first minutes of flight when the booster engines are still burning.
The Pentagon has been working on developing hypersonic weapons in recent years, and the defence secretary, Mark Esper, said in August that he believed it would be a couple of years before the US had one.