A series of televised interviews spread over 20 episodes, marking as many years of President Putin in power are currently being aired in Russia by the State-run Tass news agency. In one such episode, the President has claimed that Russia has developed such offensive strike systems which the world has never seen. One such weapon quoted by the President is the ‘hypersonic offensive system’ that can fly 27 times the speed of sound. 1 The same is claimed to be undetectable and un-attackable by any conventional missile defence system.
On the rationale for having such systems, the President has stated that these weapons are required for maintaining ‘strategic stability’ (implying deterrence effect) and ‘strategic balance’ (implying capability matching with global peers).
This article attempts to make a sense of the President’s claim with a special reference to Russia’s capability in the hypersonic domain; the so called ‘27 times the speed of sound.’
Some Basics in Hypersonic Domain
‘Hypersonics’ has now become a familiar word in the professional circles as to meaning those class of weapons that can fly at speeds equal or in excess of five times the speed of sound (i.e Mach 5 meaning approx. 5000 Km/h). This actually means a speed of about 1.6 Km/sec.
Fundamentally, such weapons draw their strength of devastating lethality and near total invincibility from the fact that flying at such speeds makes them strike their targets in a time frame which is much too miniscule for any conventional missile defence system to respond even from a fully deployed and operational state, leave alone from a cold start. The most basic and essential activities of acquiring the target, establishing its identity and launching missiles on it far, far outstretches the time in which the hypersonic weapons could home on and attack.
Even 5 Mach + will be too much for a conventional missile system leave alone 27 Mach as the President has claimed. In fact, in the hypersonic world, the going cliché is ‘speed is the new stealth’ since invincibility here is not the function of un-detectability due to stealth muscle but due to tremendous speed far out-beating the minimum reaction cycle required by defenders.
Another demon in the hypersonic threat is ‘unpredictability’ where the end target of hypersonic weapons can change very dynamically as a function of their blistering speeds. This capability allows them to hold disproportionately large areas under their threat foot-print as a whole swath of area becomes attackable once such a weapon is in flight. This forces the defenders to commit weapons to cover large areas on theatre grids.
As to the types, the cutting edge of the hypersonic arsenal is driven by the binary pair of Hypersonic Cruise Missiles (HCMs) and the Hypersonic Glide Vehicles ( HGVs).
HCM is a typical cruise missile except that it is capable of operating in the hypersonic speed (> 5 Mach). This level of speed is achieved by keeping the missile powered ‘all through’ unlike the conventional missiles which feature a booster and a sustainer motor at best.
The HGVs or Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGVs) are the other class in the hypersonic weapon range. Such a vehicle is also called a “wave-rider” because it uses the shock waves generated by its own flight as a lifting surface to enhance the lift-to-drag ratio to reach the hypersonic regime of Mach 5 or even more. 2 A typical HGV is launched by any solid propellant rocket/missile which can give it the initial boost and momentum up to a point after which the wave rider phenomenon can be sustained by the hypersonic vehicle on its own.
Assessing the Russian Capability
Russia along with China are the two countries that are pushing the cutting edge of hypersonic weapons both in the HCM as well as HGV domain. If the open source capabilities are to be compared, both these countries come out a shade ahead of USA in the field of hypersonic arsenal.
Last year, around the same time (14 Mar 2019), Russia announced that it is getting ready to launch the Zircon anti-ship HCM (NATO reporting name SS-N-33) from a naval vessel. The missile was claimed to have a speed of Mach 8-9 which amounts to about 9878.4 -11025 km per hour.
As stated, such tremendous speeds are achieved by keeping the missile powered all the way. Initially a booster accelerates the missile to supersonic speed, after which a scramjet rocket motor accelerates and sustains it in the hypersonic domain of 8-9 Mach. At such speed, missile is claimed to be “unstoppable” by any known missile defence system in the world. Zircon is anti-ship HCM.
Open source reported that prior to the anti-ship version, the tests for the land-attack version of Zircon have been done five times starting Jun 2017, The weapon is likely to go into production in 2021 and would probably enter Service by 2022 3 .
In fact, the development of the hypersonic capability in Russia can be traced back to 1995, when a Hypersonic Experimental Flying Vehicle was displayed for the first time in the Aviation and Space Show (MAKS) in Russia. From that time and counting, several strategic arsenal in the hypersonic domain have become a reality.
One such weapon is the Kh47 M2 Kinzhal an Air Launhed Ballistic Missile (ALBM) capable of carrying nuclear warheads of 100-500 Kiloton (KT) to a range of 2000 Km+. The hypersonic connection of Kinzhal is in its speed which is stated to be in the region of Mach 10 (12,348 km per hour). Tupolov 22 and Mig 31K are the aerial platforms capable of launching the Kinzhal. The missile system is reported to have entered service in Dec 2017. President Putin who unveiled this weapon system on 01 March 2018, included it in the list of six new strategic weapons. The first launch of Kinzhal took place in the Arctic region in Mid Nov 2019.
In the field of HGVs, Russia has claimed to have successfully developed the Avanguard HGV. This missile can be carried on board the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) RS 28 Sarmat as an MIRV payload. RS 28 can launch both the conventional, as well as, the nuclear payload.
The open source has reported that this HGV has a speed of Mach 20-27 (24696-33,340kmph). Such speeds, as stated earlier, are only achievable by employing the ‘wave rider principal’ wherein the missile initially boosted to tremendous supersonic speeds by the carrier (in this case the RS 28 ICBM) makes use of the shock waves generated during the flight to act as lifting surfaces. The future carrier vehicle for Avanguard HGV is reported to be RS 26 Rubezh ICBM.
Avanguard was also included in the list of six strategic weapons by President Putin in his state-of-the-nation address on Mar 1 , 2018. In fact, the list of six included 1. Avanguard HGV, 2. Kinzhal HCM, 3. RS 28 Sarmat ICBM. 4. Poseidon underwater drone 5. Peresvet laser combat system and 6. 9M 730 Burevestnik nuclear powered cruise missile.
While the hypersonic arsenal to include the Sarmat, Kinzhal and Avanguard have been briefly enumerated a word on the other three in the list of six is briefly attempted
Burevestnik ( NATO reporting name SSC-X9 Skyfall) is a nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed cruise missile which is claimed to be a revolutionary weapon. Not much details are available of the same. The word Burevestnik in Russian means ‘stormcrier’ or ‘stormbringer’. Being nuclear-powered , it is claimed that the missile has an unlimited range. Burevestnik is slated to be used in the anti-missile role as a strategic missile defence system. Burevestnik is actually a nuclear thermal rocket where unlimited propellant energy is achieved through a nuclear-fission reaction.
Poseidon (NATO reporting name Kanyon) underwater drone is a nuclear-capable unmanned underwater vehicle with intercontinental range which is designed to be launched by a nuclear-powered submarine. In Feb 2019, Russia announced the completion of the key stage trials of Poseidon autonomous underwater nuclear drone. Experts have assessed that the system is likely to enter operational service by 2027 as an inter-continental nuclear-armed torpedo driven by nuclear energy 7 , 8 .
And finally the Peresvet laser combat system. Open sources have reported that the same entered service in Dec 2018. Named after the medieval warrior monk Alexander Peresvet, the weapon is designed as an air defence and a missile defense system which will take on the 21 Century air and missile threat in the soft-kill mode by directing high-energy, high-power coherent laser kill beams to debilitate electronics and electromagnetics on board the threat vehicles besides defeating their structural integrity through catastrophic heat concentration at critical points 9 .
Making a sense of President’s Claim
Following points are made:-
1. The President initially made a mention of the six systems described above in his 01 Mar 2018 address to the nation. He again reiterated these in his televised interview aired in Mar 2020. This is indicative of a continuous and a focused development cycle.
2. The examination of the open source material does indicate that at least four of the six systems, i.e. 1. Avanguard HGV, 2. Kinzhal HCM, 3. RS 28 Sarmat ICBM and 4. Peresvet laser combat system are a reality today while the 9M 730 Burevestnik nuclear powered cruise missile and Poseidon underwater drone are in the pipeline.
3. Russia has certainly made fast progress in the hypersonic offensive weapons standing shoulder-to-shoulder with China and probably a step ahead of USA.
4. That said, the claim of 27 Mach for Avanguard might be a little over since as late as Dec 2019, the claimed speed of Avanguard post its test-launch at Kura range was Mach 20 (24,501 km/hr) 10 , 11 .
5. Also, 20 Mach itself is way over the current peak speeds of hypersonic offensive weapons which is hovering in the range of 6-10 Mach. (China – Starry Sky 2 HCM – 5.5 to 6 Mach 12 ).
6. The President rightly mentioned the two words, ‘strategic stability’ and ‘strategic balance’ since the six strategic weapons mentioned by him (except may be for Peresvet, which is a battlefield system) are actually ‘weapons of peace’ bringing a degree of strategic stability though their cumulative deterrent value.
7. Notwithstanding the entire continuum of six strategic weapons as mentioned by the President, the currently ‘hot arms race’ is in the hypersonic offensive weapons domain where the leading players (China, Russia, USA) are trying to do one better than the other.
Since the Russian crosswire is likely to be on USA, a very brief peep into the
US capability is attempted.
Interestingly, while Russia has reported test launches of Avanguard making big claims on speeds of Mach 27 etc. and the Chinese have claimed their hypersonic capability of HGV on board DF 17 missile and the Starry Sky 2 HCM, the open source does not mention of any ready-deployable and proven hypersonic weapon with US at this point in time. Recent thinking from the senior Air Force weapon developers has held that US hypersonic weapons might first be deployable by the early 2020s. 13
The above position has been corroborated by the Mar 4, 2020 Congressional Research Service Report wherein Gen John Hyten, Vice Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff and former Commander of the US Strategic Command has reported to the Congress that the US is actively pursuing the development of hypersonic weapons as a part of its conventional global strike programme since early 2020 14 .
In fact, open sources in the past have reported some salient developments in the US hypersonic arsenal. For instance in Aug 2018, the US Air Force have reportedly awarded M/s Lockheed Martin a $480 million contract to develop a second hypersonic weapon prototype – The Air launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) following a previous separate contract in Apr 2018 wherein the company was selected to design a prototype for the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon or “Hacksaw”.
From all the above, the opinion one probably gathers is that USA is indeed a step behind in the hypersonic offensive weapons, the counter view is that it is not so and in fact US is ahead in the hypersonic race.
Experts who subscribe to the above view believe that US is following a different end point, wherein, in contrast to the rivals, who are focussing on the hypersonic weapons for the delivery of nuclear weapons, US is developing hypersonic weapons for the delivery of non-nuclear conventional warheads. Such weapons need to be much more precise and pose a higher technological challenge 15 .
As regards the boost glide weapon technology , the US has claimed that its Advanced Hypersonic Weapon Research has tested HGVs over 4000 Km range dwarfing the HGV vehicle range of less than 2000 km by China 16 . While the claims and counter-claims will continue as essential and intrinsic signatures of a hot boiling arms race now operating in the relatively new domain of hypersonics, it is the view of the author that weapon-to-weapon, Russia and China are indeed a shade ahead of US today when it comes to hypersonic offensive weapons.
And finally coming back to the President’s assertion, it is felt that the CLAIM IS CERAINLY NOT HOLLOW. There is surely some BANG BEHING THE WORDS.
1 “Putin boasts about new Russian weapons, calls them defensive,” at www.economictimes.indiatimes.com. Accessed on 05 Mar 2020.
3 “Russia likely to launch Zircon hypersonic rocket from a warship by year end,”at www.defenseworld.net. Accessed on 05 Mar 2020.
4 “Here’s the six super weapons Putin unveiled …,” at www.thedrive.com. Accessed on 05 Mar 2020.
5 Here’s is what we know-Russia’s new generation of nuclear capable weapons,” at www.rferl.com. Accessed on 07 Mar 2020.
6 “Russia’s nuclear powered skyfall missile with unlimited range,” at www. nationalinterest.org. Accessed on 07 Mar 2020.7 US Intelligence: Russia’s nuclear Capable Poseidom underwater drone ready for service by 2027. Accessed on 07 Mar 2020.
8 “Russia has begun underwater tests ofPoseidom thermonuclear torpedo,” at www.nationalinterest.com. Accessed on 07 Mar 2020.
9 “Russia deploysnew ground based laser weapon, “ at www.popularmechanics.com. Accessed on 07 Mar 2020.
10 https://www.dailymail.co.uk>what-is-russia’s-avangard-hypersonic-glide-vehicle. Accessed on 07 Mar 2020.
11 https://www.en.wikipedia.org>avangard-hypersonic-vehicle. Accessed on 07 Mar 2020.
12 “China conducts new hypersonic weapon test,” at www.popularmechanics.com. Accessed on 07 Mar 2020.
13 “”Mach 5 Arms Race: Us Military is Racing to Build Hypersonic Weapons", at www.nationalinterest.org. Accessed on Accessed on 07 Mar 2020.
14 “Report on US hypersonic weapon development,” at www.news.usni.org. Accessed on 07 Mar 2020.
15 “Hypersonic Arms Race: US may not be losing to China or Russia,”at www.cnbc.com. Accessed on 07 Mar 2020.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.