Speaking to the Russian Defense Ministry’s annual board meeting at the National Defense Center in Moscow on Dec. 24, President Vladimir Putin praised Russia for having developed an entirely new class of weapons.
Addressing the board members, Soviet style, as “respected comrades,” Putin said that during the Cold War, the Soviet Union was “always” behind the United States in developing weapons.
“Today we have a situation that is unique in modern history: they have to catch up to us,” Putin declared. “Not a single country in the world has hypersonic weapons, let alone hypersonic weapons of intercontinental range.”
That claim is misleading, and the key to deciphering it is in the details.
Firstly, how is “hypersonic” defined? The universally accepted definition of “hypersonic” is anything traveling at Mach 5 (five times of a speed of sound) or faster. According to Putin, Russia’s hypersonic missiles can fly “27 times faster than the speed of sound.”
If speed were the only factor in determining whether a weapon should be labelled hypersonic, then the U.S. LGM-30 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, which reaches a speed of Mach 23, would qualify. The first version of the Minuteman system was deployed in the early 1960s, and the nuclear-tipped missile has been regularly modernized.
While not described as “hypersonic,” the speed of the LGM-30 Minuteman III nearly matches that of Russia’s Kinzhal, Avangard and Tsircon hypersonic delivery systems.
If the U.S. had a hypersonic intercontinental ballistic missile well before Russia, why is Putin claiming that only Russia has such weapons?
“The LGM-30 Minuteman III is the launcher vehicle for the weapon, in this case the RV (re-entry vehicle, carrying the nuclear warheads). It [the Minuteman] does in fact fly at hypersonic speeds but it’s a different class of weapon system,” George Nacouzi, a senior engineer with the at the RAND Corporation’s Project Air Force, told Polygraph.info.
That raises a second question: what types of hypersonic weapons are known to be under development? There are two -- hypersonic cruise missiles, which can fly at altitudes up to 100,000 feet, and hypersonic glide vehicles, which can fly above 100,000 feet. A glide vehicle is placed atop a rocket, from which it is launched and then glides on top of the atmosphere.
“The hypersonic weapons being discussed by Putin and others are Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGV) and some are hypersonic cruise missiles (HCM). Unlike an RV, which flies ballistically (like a baseball flying through the air), an HGV flies more like a glider on top of the atmosphere. It’s a completely different trajectory and the HGV is maneuverable so it’s much more difficult to defend against,” Nacouzi explained.
Nacouzi noted that China may have an “operational” hypersonic missile with a range of 1,800-2,500 kilometers, which is classified a medium range missile, compared to the intercontinental (5,500 km) missile Putin claimed Russia has developed.
“We don’t know what its status is,” he said. “However, given that they displayed several of them, the message they seem to be sending is that they do have an operational hypersonic missile. Open sources indicate that the DF-17 has a range between 1800-2500 km.”
While Russia and China are the first nations to have announced the operational deployment of hypersonic weapons systems, other nations have had hypersonic programs for decades, and some of those have successfully tested these weapons as early as in 2011.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) reported in September 2019 that at least seven countries have been developing hypersonic weapons technology for over a decade. These include the United States, Russia, China, Australia, India, France and Germany.
Titled “Hypersonic Weapons: Background and Issues for Congress” the CRS report detailed open source information about the U.S. and other nation’s programs to develop these weapons.
“Some of the systems described in the report are similar to the ones Putin is referring to,” Nacouzi said. “However, it’s not clear how far along the US intercontinental range hypersonic weapon is. So the types of weapons are the same, i.e., hypersonic glide vehicles, but Putin claims that Russia has an intercontinental range class and it’s not clear what the status of the US version is.”
Much depends on whether the nations developing this class of weapons arm them with nuclear warheads. As described in “Global Hypersonic Missiles Market 2017-2021,” a report conducted by the Ireland-based Research and Markets group, arming such missiles with nuclear warheads could have a devastating effect.
“Hypersonic missiles, when fitted with nuclear warheads, can be fatal to the target enemy country,” the report stated. “It can also cause nuclear winter that could last for a very long time after the initial attack and eventually leave the area inhabitable.”
According to the Sept. 2019 CRS report and other open source data, the U.S. has invested in research and development for a hypersonic missile called the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW), which uses boost glide technology to propel warheads with conventional, rather than nuclear payloads.
Nacouzi said, this program presents the U.S. with additional challenges.
”The US intercontinental version is more challenging since it will need to have much higher accuracy due to its conventional system, as opposed to the Russian system, which has a nuclear payload so [it] doesn’t need the same level of accuracy,” he said.
In 2011, the U.S. successfully tested an AHW to try and determine its capabilities for atmospheric flight over long ranges.
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DAPRA) Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2) achieved a speed of Mach 20 in August 2011.
The U.S. Air Force successfully tested a hypersonic AGM-183A Air Launched Rapid Response Weapon, or ARRW, in June 2019.
“Putin may be right in saying that no one has a hypersonic glide vehicle of intercontinental range, but [it is] not true that no one has a hypersonic weapon,” Nacouzi said.