On Friday, Russia’s military deployed a new intercontinental weapon, the Avangard hypersonic missile system that can fly 27 times the speed of sound. This will be the Russian military’s first Avangard hypersonic intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle is a technological vehicle comparable to the 1957 Soviet launch of the first satellite.
Last month, Russia’s Defense Ministry demonstrated the Avangard system to a team of US officials as part of transparency measures under the New Start nuclear arms treaty with the country.
What is the Avangard hypersonic missile?
Previously referred to as Project 4202, the Avangard hypersonic missile system is a reentry body carried atop an existing ballistic missile, which has the capability to manoeuvre. It’s manoeuvring capability makes it difficult to predict its trajectory and gives it the ability to protect itself from the air and ballistic missile defences by delivering nuclear warheads to targets, for instance, in Europe and the US.
According to Missile Threat, the origins of the Avangard can be traced back to the mid-1980s, when Russia first started research on hypersonic warheads. It notes that in past Russia has repeatedly stated that it is developing hypersonic weapons to ensure that Russian strategic forces can penetrate future US air and missile defences.
The Avangard missiles have a range of over 6,000 km, weigh approximately 2,000 kg and can withstand temperatures of over 2000 degree celsius.
What does this mean for the US?
According to The Moscow Times, Putin has previously said that the nuclear-weapon will be launched by late 2019 and has touted the Avangard’s ability to evade the US missile defence systems.
Putin had mentioned the development of the Avangard ICBM along with a few other systems during his annual State of the Nation address to the Federal Assembly in March 2018. In that speech, a report prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CSR) notes that Putin “explicitly linked” the development of Russia’s strategic weapons to the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) in 2002. CSR has quoted Putin as saying, “… the US is permitting constant, uncontrolled growth of the number of anti-ballistic missiles, improving their quality, and creating new missile launching areas. If we do not do something, eventually this will result in the complete devaluation of Russia’s nuclear potential. Meaning that all of our missiles could simply be intercepted.” In his speech, Putin also claimed that the missiles can travel at a speed of 6.28 km per second.
Significantly, the report claims that the US has not developed or deployed ballistic missile defence systems, which are required to intercept Russia’s strategic ballistic missiles and warheads. It adds, “Hence, although the United States cannot defend against the existing warheads on Russian ballistic missiles, Russia has emphasised that Avangard poses a new challenge to the United States because missile defences cannot intercept a manoeuvring hypersonic glide vehicle.”
Citing analysts and observers, the report says Avangard’s development and deployment will not change the existing balance between the US defensive forces and the Russian offensive since the US maintains that it cannot defend against the existing warheads on Russian missiles, let alone the more advanced missiles such as Avangard.