Fears of a new Cold War between the US and Russia have been renewed as of late, and things are taking a turn toward the terrifying just after Christmas.
Now it appears as though this same high-level effort is being employed in the Kremlin’s military efforts, with even more striking results.
A new intercontinental weapon that can fly 27 times the speed of sound became operational Friday, Russia’s defense minister reported to President Vladimir Putin, bolstering the country’s nuclear strike capability.
Putin has described the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle as a technological breakthrough comparable to the 1957 Soviet launch of the first satellite. The new Russian weapon and a similar system being developed by China have troubled the United States, which has pondered defense strategies.
The Avangard is launched atop an intercontinental ballistic missile, but unlike a regular missile warhead that follows a predictable path after separation it can make sharp maneuvers in the atmosphere en route to target, making it much harder to intercept.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu informed Putin that the first missile unit equipped with the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle 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 incredible speeds that the Avangard can reach would make it possible for the projectile to leave Moscow, laden with a powerful, possibly nuclear warhead, and reach the White House in approximately 6 minutes.
By Nebojsa Malic,
Moscow’s deployment of ‘Avangard’ hypersonic warheads means the US missile defense installations in Europe are now obsolete – and that Washington would have to spend a lot of money it doesn’t have in order to catch up.
Video released by the Russian defense ministry on Friday shows the hypersonic glider warheads being loaded onto silo-based missiles. For now, the Avangards will be mounted on the UR-100N (or SS-19 Stiletto, as NATO calls them) ballistic missiles, until the RS-28 Sarmat is ready to enter service.
Hypersonic weapons fly far faster than the speed of sound. Avangard is capable of reaching Mach 27 without losing control or disintegrating under heat and pressure. This means that the weapon can outmaneuver any defenses on its approach phase, rendering it “absolutely invulnerable to any air or missile defense system,” in the words of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“We don't have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us,” is how General John Hyten, then head of the US Strategic Command, put it to the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2018, shortly after Putin confirmed the existence of Avangard and several other weapons.
In a major show of confidence, Moscow even showed off the Avangard to US inspectors last month, as part of an effort to improve transparency in observing the last remaining treaty limiting nuclear weapons. Russia has offered to extend the New Start treaty beyond February 2021, but Washington has yet to respond, one way or another.
Russia is the only nation that currently fields hypersonic missiles, both the Avangard and its shorter-range, airplane-launched cousin the Kinzhal. According to Putin, Russian military scientists are also working on developing defenses against such weapons – if there are any.
Earlier this week, Putin made a point of saying that Russia is now ahead of other countries when it comes to a major weapons technology, contrasting it with the Soviet Union always being a step behind during the Cold War.
Instead, now it is the US that is scrambling to catch up. A contract to develop a glide body capable of Mach 5 – was just awarded earlier this year, with the expected launch date of sometime in 2023.
Avangard’s existence also puts more urgency into developing space-based interceptors that could theoretically target missiles during the boost phase, before the hypersonic warheads can be unleashed. This may be the mission of the newly established ‘Space Force.’
It was also the stuff of Pentagon fantasies in the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan launched the ‘Star Wars’ initiative. While it did not amount to much in reality, it is conventional wisdom in the US that it drove the Soviet Union into a costly arms race that ultimately led to bankruptcy and the collapse of Communism.