Russian president Vladimir Putin’s chest-thumping March 1 Moscow speech touting high-tech armaments included the most provocative statements yet in a long-simmering, superpower race to develop and deploy an entirely new class of weaponry: highly precise, long-range, hypersonic missiles.
Long a dream of military engineers in the United States, Russia, and China – who each point to the other’s work as justification for their own -- hypersonics by all accounts pose a risk of altering the strategic calculations that have helped push off any direct conflict between nuclear powers.
Hypersonics can reach speeds of more than five times the speed of sound, travel much lower in the atmosphere than traditional ballistic missiles, and maneuver midflight. The potential advantages are clear: Hypersonic missiles would allow a nation to strike an adversary in a matter of minutes. The weapons’ low trajectory allows them to travel much farther and more stealthily than other missiles. And their maneuverability allows them to evade missile defenses that nations might spend billions of dollars to create.
Besides the three superpowers, France and India are among the nations in pursuit of the complicated and challenging technologies needed to field a battle-capable hypersonic missile. None have yet to achieve one. To the contrary, the pursuit has been marked by some spectacular failures. In August 2014, for example, the U.S. Army deliberately destroyed a test weapon over the Gulf of Alaska after about four seconds into an errant flight. Chinese tests have failed similarly. Russian tests have failed, too.
While the U.S. Navy announced a successful test of a prototype hypersonic missile in November, the fielding of such an American weapon is considered years away. And Putin, in his speech, obviously wanted to change the narrative of a long-distance race between peers by abruptly placing Russia ahead of the U.S. and China. He alluded to multiple hypersonic weapons systems that he claimed were in trial deployment or final testing.
One was what Putin called a hypersonic warhead for Russia’s new Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, which Putin said “can attack targets both via the North and South poles.” The Sarmat isn’t operational yet, but Putin noted its ability to carry a “broad range of powerful nuclear warheads” and evade a robust Western missile defense system.
Putin did not set a timeline for the Sarmat’s deployment, but a video of the test and animation he showed indicate it’s either on track to be deployed in 2020, as previously announced, or ahead of schedule. A potential hypersonic warhead for such a missile would not follow a parabolic trajectory to impact its target, but would instead flatten its trajectory after reentering the earth’s atmosphere, behaving instead like a cruise missile. It would be flying at such incredibly high speed and such a low altitude that radar would have a hard time tracking it, and defensive weapons would have a hard time engaging it.
Such a weapon reaches "its target like a meteorite, like a ball of fire," Putin said, at twenty times the speed of sound. This hypersonic glide weapon has been in development since 2004, Putin said, but he did not set a timeline for deployment.