No Surprise: The US has already accessed Russian hypersonic missiles

Russia’s deployment of its Avangard hypersonic missiles does not come as a surprise since the US has already had access to them. This state of the art system is the world’s first and the only known hypersonic weapon. It travels at 27 times the speed of sound and is claimed by Russia to be capable of penetrating the US missile shield.

What Has Russia Declared so Far?

According to the Russian Defense Ministry, the missiles are capable of carrying nuclear warheads and are able to hit targets anywhere in the world. Though their deployment locations have, understandably, not been revealed. 

These hypersonic weapons are installed atop an intercontinental ballistic missile where a hypersonic glide vehicle and the nuclear warhead form its payload. On their launch, they are flown by the missile to altitudes ranging from 25 to 60 miles (40 to 100 km). The glide vehicle then detaches and homes onto the target. The glide vehicles are maneuverable and follow a trajectory lower than that of ballistic missiles. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin was jubilant while announcing the weapon. He remarked about the edge Russia had achieved as no other country presently possesses the hypersonic capability. Western experts, however, have taken the achievement with a pinch of salt seeing the record of Russia’s weapon systems. 

How the US Accessed Russian Hypersonic Missiles?

The US accessed Russian hypersonic missiles under the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). New START is a bilateral agreement between the two countries, aimed at discouraging a nuclear arms race. It was signed in 2010 and allows mutual weapon inspections so that the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers can be reduced. 

On 26 November 2019, US inspectors visited Russia and were given a tour of an Avangard facility under the inspection provisions of the New START. The exercise was part of measures to increase transparency in the nuclear programs of the two countries. 

The visit of US experts was announced by no less than the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. His ministry stated that the inspection was carried out to keep the treaty “viable and effective”.

The inspection was acknowledged also by the Executive Director of the United States’ Arms Control Association (ACA) Daryl Kimball. According to him, Russia demonstrated the weapon that was to be deployed on a ballistic missile. After Russia’s announcement of Avangard’s deployment, a US State Department official confirmed the November inspection but did not add any further comment. 

Expiring on 5 February 2021, this last remaining arms control treaty between the two has slim chances of renewal in light of the US’s pullout from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in August 2019. Seeing the tendencies of US President Donald Trump, Russia has already expressed its willingness to extend the New START without any preconditions. If the US refuses the extension, Mr. Putin will clearly emerge exonerated. 

President Vladimir Putin watches a test launch of Russia's Avangard hypersonic weapon (Getty Images)
President Vladimir Putin watches a test launch of Russia’s Avangard hypersonic weapon (Getty Images)

Does the US Have Hypersonic Weapons?

The US started working on developing hypersonic weapons in 2000. The pace, however, remained slow since ground-based insurgency remained the major threat during the last two decades.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) had been extensively working on Program Falcon to develop these weapons. But after failed trials during 2010 and 2011, Congress pulled the plug on funding. As per recent reports though, it has resumed work on developing their engines

Later in 2018 when Russia was testing the Avangard system, the US Air Force announced that it was working with Lockheed Martin to develop its own hypersonic weapons. At the same time, Boeing is invested with a British company to develop their propulsion systems

During the last two decades, Russia and China were not engaged in counter-insurgency conflicts at the level of the US and remained focused on developing next-generation weapons. With their research now bearing results, the US has accelerated to cover the lag. 

Defence Secretary Mark Esper has made their development a priority as Congress received repeated warnings that Russian and Chinese missiles are increasingly becoming sophisticated and difficult to track and defeat. Esper believes the US will also be successful in showcasing a hypersonic weapon in its strategic arsenal in a couple of years. 

How to Counter Hypersonic Weapons

Till the time the US fields hypersonic weapons of its own, it is trying to employ countermeasures against those of its adversaries. 

Neutralizing hypersonic weapons is tricky since they travel more than five times the speed of sound, covering more than a mile in each second of their flight. This high speed makes them extremely difficult to detect, track and defeat. 

So the suggestion put up by US officials is to deploy sensors and interceptors in space that can carry out all of these actions. This, however, will give rise to counter-countermeasures and thus the dawn of space warfare. 

US President Donald Trump has been pursuing the establishment of a dedicated military branch for space since 2018. The House and Senate have reached an agreement to fund a Space Force and the US Space Command has been upgraded as a unified combatant command

Forecast

In light of the Russian deployment, US efforts to achieve the publicly perceived balance of power will accelerate and a homegrown hypersonic weapon will be announced before 2022. President Trump and his security team have this on their priority list. 

The hypersonic weapon developed by the US will have better capability since there doesn’t seem to be an urgency of achieving parity without due research. One area to watch is the technology that the US’s re-entry vehicle will adopt. The gliding mechanism of the Russian vehicle is relatively slow and is prone to defensive measures.

Chinese technology is quick to follow global trends and defense is no exception. In 2018, China had successfully tested its first hypersonic aircraft. With the country’s scientific progress, we should expect China’s announcement of hypersonic weapons coming out at any time. 

And finally, as mentioned earlier, the dawn of space warfare. Unless the UN Outer Space Treaty is updated to restrict deployment of any weapon rather than just nuclear weapons of WMDs in space, the global security situation is going to get more complex and more resource-intensive.