Russia’s Hypersonic Weapons: What, When and Why?

Over recent years, hypersonic weapons have occupied a central position in discussions on new technologies affecting international security. Moreover, it should be noted that the quality of a discussion often leaves much to be desired. We will attempt to rectify the situation, at least as it relates to Russian armaments.


Why are hypersonic weapons highly important?

Guided hypersonic flight of delivery vehicles in the atmosphere presents a serious challenge both for the designer and the operator. For the owner of such a weapon, its development and operation is an extremely complex technological task. It is virtually impossible for a “receiving side” to understand where the hypersonic missile or its warhead is flying and what its target is.

In principle, in the expert community there is a common understanding of the fact that for a weapon to be called “hypersonic”, it must possess two main defining characteristics: a speed exceeding 5 Mach (i.e. five times the speed of sound in a medium), and the ability to perform maneuvers (both vertical and horizontal) while moving at this speed in the atmosphere.

It is believed that the combination of these two qualities is also added to sufficient precision and the impossibility to determine the type of the payload (i.e. whether the hypersonic weapon carries a nuclear or conventional warhead), as well as an undefined target (in the case of long-range weapons).

This, in its turn, creates the key threat of hypersonic weapons, for both international and national security: misperception of targets, and provoking political and military responses, often leading to new rounds of escalation.

It should be noted that at present time it is practically impossible to intercept “traditional” intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and medium-range missiles, taking into account the highly sophisticated missile defense penetration aids. Supersonic cruise missiles, commonly used as anti-ship missiles, also pose a serious challenge to anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense systems. At the same time, hypersonic boost-glide vehicles (HGV), cruise missiles, and aeroballestic missiles will make missile defense even more difficult.

As far as hypersonic boost-glide vehicles are concerned, it should be remembered that their speed at the final trajectory segment is significantly lower than that of “traditional” ICBM warheads, therefore, it is likely that the anti-missile and anti-aircraft assets of the protected object are quite capable of intercepting approaching gliders, particularly considering their large dimensions. Additionally, the size of the boost-glide vehicle and its heating during flight inside the atmosphere can simplify the task of detecting and tracking it using the infrared sensors of the satellites of the early-warning system. Nevertheless, the plasma “cloud” forming around the boost-glide vehicle will make it more difficult to provide target designation.

Simultaneously, the speed and maneuverability of hypersonic weapons result in very serious technological problems for their guidance and structural integrity. It can be assumed in general that maneuvers will be performed using very large radii (up to several hundred kilometers for weapons of intercontinental range). The “high precision” of hypersonic weapons is also not unconditional. Maneuvers lead to an accumulation of errors, while speed makes even the slightest mistakes highly critical.

Another big question relating to the technological aspects of the development, production, and use of hypersonic weapons goes as follows: is it possible “to communicate” with them when in flight and how can this be done? This process is significantly affected by plasma fields generated around the weapon during the hypersonic flight in the atmosphere. In order to solve this problem, several options can be resorted to; for example, decelerating, “jumping” from the atmosphere to space, or using satellite transmitters. Nevertheless, there is no open data about how communication is established in practice with hypersonic weapons currently being developed and deployed.

Traditionally, there are two main types of hypersonic weapons: hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV) and hypersonic cruise missiles. In addition to that, it seems appropriate to single out yet another conventional subcategory – hypersonic aeroballestic ballistic missiles.

Today, there are two types of hypersoic weapons deployed in Russia: boost- glide vehicles as part of the Avangard strategic delivery system, and hypersonic aeroballistic missiles as part of the Kinzhal aerial missile system.

What projects is Russia implementing?

To begin with, it is worth trying to formulate why Russia needs hypersonic weapons. The main declared task is the guaranteed delivery of nuclear warheads in the context of the US developing missile defense system (in terms of capabiity and geography) and persisting dominance of the United States in the field of conventional weapons, primarily with regard to high precision weapons, as well as the dominance of the U.S. Navy in the World Ocean. For this reason, funds are required both for overcoming missile defense and for the physical destruction of missile defense elements of various bases. One must not also forget the potential of lobbying on the part of the military-industrial complex, design bureaus, etc.

Russia’s capability in the development of hypersonic weapons resulted in that they are some of the most advanced, thanks, in part, to its huge research and technical experience, and the availability of all the infrastructure necessary for testing.

So far, Russia has deployed two models of hypersonic weapons:

  1. The Avangard strategic delivery system with boost-glide vehicles, deployed since December 2019, in the ranks of four regiments in the 13th Orenburg Red Banner Rocket Division. The renowned UR-100NUTTKh intercontinental ballistic missile is used as a boost stage. This project has been under development with varying degrees of intensity for several decades. Furthermore, it should be emphasized that it became known in December 2019 that its minimum range is 6,000 kilometers. As a matter of fact, this should end all discussions regarding the potential use of the Avangard in limited or regional conflicts. It is also important to remember that Avangard entered service as part of the Strategic Missile Forces, the ground-based leg of Russia’s strategic nuclear triad. The main – if not the only – task of the strategic missile forces is strategic nuclear deterrence, so one can confidently say that Avangard will be exclusively nuclear.

  2. The sub-strategic missile system Kinzhal, an airborne hypersonic air-launched ballistic missile, uses the modified MiG-31К interceptor as a carrier and/or boost vehicle. The missile itself is presumably related to the quasi-ballistic missile of the 9М723 family which is part of the operational-tactical Iskander-M missile system. Itis likely that about 10 units have been on experimental combat duty since December 2017 in the Southern Military District, they fly on combat patrol missions over the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea, and also in cooperation with the Long-Range Aviation (a branch of the Russian Aerospace Forces). Tests are underway for the use of the system in the Arctic. It has also been announced that MiG-31К has been deployed in KrasnoyarskyKray. The range of the Kinzhal missile system is up to 2,000 kilometers (possibly, including the range of the carrier aircraft).

  3. Furthermore, in recent years there have been quite a few reports about the sea-based (and, as it was recently confirmed officially, land-based) hypersonic missile 3М22 Tsirkon. According to current plans, it will be put into service as early as in 2021–2022; primarily for new frigates (project 22350) and the nuclear submarines of the Russian Navy (project 885/885М). According to existing information, Tsirkon is being developed taking into account the possibility of using the standard “cells” of the universal ship borne firing system, also used for the Kalibr cruise missile family (3М14 and anti-ship 3М54), and the supersonic anti-ship missile 3М55 Oniks. Presumably, the launcher for the land version of this complex will also be unified with the ground-based Kalibr, the development of which was announced in connection with the withdrawal from the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles (INF Treaty). At the same time, while the technologies behind the Avangard and Kinzhal are more or less clear (in fact, the first one is an enhanced maneuvering reentry vehicle, and the second one, an advanced airborne ballistic missile), the situation with the Tsirkon remains uncertain, despite the video footage of test launches released in the fall of 2020. The declared maximum range of the Tsirkon is up to 1,000 km, but, according to public data, the actual range demonstrated during the tests has not yet exceeded 500 kilometers.

The speeds, trajectories, and precision of all these systems remain unknown, as does their reliability. At the same time, it is important to emphasize that, for Russia, the main declared mission of hypersonic weapons is the delivery of nuclear weapons, while the United States focus on the capabilities of the “conventional” non-nuclear strike. Thus, precision requirements for the American program could be significantly higher.

Here we need to emphasize that the deployment of the Avangard, Kinzhal, Tsirkon, and future versions of the hypersonic weapon does not lead to revolutionary changes in Russia’s overall missile potential. Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles have been and remain to be a reliable shield against any existing threat. Supersonic and subsonic cruise missiles, as well as tactical ballistic missiles make for a serious argument in terms of non-nuclear deterrence, among other things.

However, as we enter the “hypersonic era”, the early deployment of such systems will allow the Russian Armed Forces and industry to better understand operational problems and eliminate any “rough edges” and “teething troubles” that may only be found in the process of continuous combat duty.

Sub-strategic weapons, such as Kinzhal and Tsirkon, could play an even bigger role: they enhance the deterrence potential related to the naval superiority of the United States and the NATO.

What is next?

A hypersonic arms race scenario is quite possible, for both military and political reasons. As far as the military aspect is concerned, such weapons do not lead to a revolution but they can ensure a relative advantage, particularly against enemy targets protected by layered air and anti-missile defense systems. From the political point of view, thanks to the hype surrounding this technology, it is quickly becoming a symbol of status. In such a situation, the main problem for those who want to obtain hypersonic weapons will be the infrastructure needed for developing, testing, manufacturing, and deploying them. It is likely that the emergence of hypersonic weapons on the markets of military products is not far off.

If the proliferation of hypersonic weapons technology becomes a reality, it will exacerbate the existing problems associated with the proliferation of “traditional” ballistic and cruise missiles, providing state and ultimately non-state actors with even better chances for carrying out high-precision strikes at long ranges. Besides that, it will stimulate investments in missile defense by all countries that may feel threatened, and as a result, we may see overlapping provisional “bubbles” of defensive and offensive potentials in various regions of the world. Of course, these “bubbles” will have significant “holes”, but the most important conclusion is that the inextricable link between offensive and defensive systems as basic elements of mutual deterrence, which was realized by Russia and the USA at the strategic level long ago, is also becoming a regional reality.

At the same time, the scale of a potential hypersonic arms race will be limited. In the long run, these weapons are very expensive and mass production will not necessarily lead to significant cost optimization. Moreover, the number of sufficiently valuable targets for such weapons also seems to be very limited.

What should be done?

In order to minimize the possible negative role of hypersonic weapons in the context of international security, several proposals can be formulated. First and foremost, transparency regarding intended missions and types of payload for hypersonic weapons is extremely needed here. Some countries may think that such openness could somehow undermine the perceived deterring effect of hypersonic weapons, but, it seems that this is an area where “ambiguity” can lead to catastrophic miscalculations.

Furthermore, it is advisable to hold events in various formats and prepare reports on the subject of hypersonic weapons, this helps increase awareness, eliminate some false and hazardous narratives and provide venues for the discussion of problems and intentions. Such activities are already being carried out, in particular, by the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA), the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, the Missile Dialogue Initiative of the ISS supported by the German Federal Foreign Office, the Vatfor Project, and others.

And last but not least, and in order to enhance the effectiveness of the dialog, at least at the expert level, it would be beneficial to develop a coordinated set of definitions, a glossary for analysis related to hypersonic weapons. 

To sum up, we should emphasize that hypersonic weapons are just another page in the book of the development of weapons and military equipment – not the most modern one, in fact. Concepts and even some projects were born many decades ago. Despite declarations of the contrary, these weapons will not change the nature of military-political relations on a global scale and do not, in any way, illustrate the intentions of the countries developing them. With or without hypersonic weapons, we live in a dangerous world and the only way to make it less dangerous is to seek joint solutions that address the concerns of all nations.

Author: Dmitry Stefanovich
Researcher at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences (IMEMO)

©New Defence Order. Strategy  №4 (69) 2021


Our partners