It looks like Russian President Vladimir Putin got what he wanted from Santa for Christmas – a working hypersonic missile that can travel at up to 27 times the speed of sound. At that speed (33339.6 km/h or 20716.3 mph), which arrived on Putin’s roof first – Santa or the missile?
"The Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation, Army General Sergei Shoigu, reported to Russian President Vladimir Putin on setting up on December 27 from 10:00 on combat duty the first missile regiment armed with the latest strategic missile system with the Avangard hypersonic planning winged warhead."
Interfax reports that the first Avangard missile is in the Yasnensky Missile Division, which is deployed in the Orenburg region at the southern end of the Ural Mountains in southwestern Russia. That’s very close to Europe, although its range is likely to be farther than that. The Moscow Times reports that the Avangard was tested in December 2018 and hit a practice target 6,000 km (3,728 miles) away. But the Avangard is much more than just the world’s fastest missile. It’s a ‘boost-glide’ system, which means it’s launched like a ballistic missile but then quickly re-enters the atmosphere at a lower trajectory and glides unpowered for thousands of kilometers.
But wait … there’s more!
“It is not so much the speed of the hypersonic weapon alone that counts. It is its extraordinary maneuverability as it glides towards its target. This poses a huge problem for existing anti-missile defense systems. Indeed the glide vehicle's trajectory, "surfing along the edge of the atmosphere" as one expert put it to me recently, presents any defensive system with additional problems. Thus, if Russia's claims are true, it has developed a long-range intercontinental missile system that may well be impossible to defend against.”
Jonathon Marcus, the BBC’s defence correspondent says the Avangard could put Russia ahead of both China and the U.S. in this technology. As Vladimir Putin himself put it:
“Not a single country possesses hypersonic weapons, let alone continental-range hypersonic weapons. The West and other nations were "playing catch-up with us."
Being the nice guy that he is, Putin allowed a team of U.S. inspectors to see a demonstration of the Avangard as part of transparency measures under the New START nuclear arms treaty with the U.S., which is up for renewal in 2021. According to Aljazeera, U.S. defense secretary Mark Esper says the Pentagon is working on the development of hypersonic weapons but it will be “probably a matter of a couple of years" before one is tested – after the New START treaty is renewed … or not renewed.
What does Russia’s deployment of the Avangard mean? Jonathon Marcus puts it bluntly.
“With a whole new generation of nuclear weapons at the threshold of entering service, many believe not just that existing agreements should be bolstered, but that new treaties are needed to manage what could turn into a new nuclear arms race.”
Merry Christmas from your pal Vladimir.