The Age of Hypersonic Weapons has Begun

With a highly publicized test firing and pledge by President Vladimir Putin that it will soon be deployed to frontline units, Russia’s Avangard hypersonic weapon has officially gone from a secretive development program to an inevitability. The first weapon of its type to enter into active service, it’s capable of delivering a payload to any spot on the planet at speeds up to Mach 27 while remaining effectively unstoppable by conventional missile defense systems because of its incredible speed and enhanced maneuverability compared to traditional intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

Rendering of Avangard reentering Earth’s atmosphere

In a statement made after the successful test of Avangard, which saw it hit a target approximately 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) from the launch site, President Putin made it clear that the evasive nature of the weapon was not to be underestimated: “The Avangard is invulnerable to intercept by any existing and prospective missile defense means of the potential adversary.” The former Soviet KGB agent turned head of state has never been one to shy away from boastful claims, but in this case it’s not just an exaggeration. While the United States and China have been working on their own hypersonic weapons which should be able to meet the capabilities of Avangard when they eventually come online, there’s still no clear deterrent for this type of weapon.

Earlier in the year, commander of U.S. Strategic Command General John Hyten testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the threat of retaliation was the best and perhaps only method of keeping the risk of hypersonic weapons in check: “We don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us, so our response would be our deterrent force.” Essentially, the threat of hypersonic weapons may usher in a new era of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD), the Cold War era doctrine that kept either side from firing the first shot knowing they would sustain the same or greater damage from their adversary.

With President Putin claiming Avangard has already entered into serial production and will be deployed as soon as early 2019, the race is on for the United States and China to close the hypersonic gap. But exactly how far away is the rest of the world from developing an operational hypersonic weapon? Perhaps more to the point, what does “hypersonic weapon” really mean?

A New Old Way to Fly

For anyone watching the test of the Avangard on Russian media, the launch didn’t look like anything special. If anything, it looked a bit dated. The heavy silo hatch opened in the snowy ground, flame billowed out, and viewers were treated to only the briefest of glimpses of the sleek missile as it roared into the cold air over the Dombarovsky Air Base. If viewers were hoping to see some futuristic spacecraft blasting off from the pad, they were certainly in for disappointment. But this rather anticlimactic launch was to be expected, as the Avangard isn’t a complete missile system, but simply the payload which is launched atop a Soviet-era UR-100UTTKh ICBM.

Avangard is what’s referred to in ICBM parlance as a “kill vehicle”: the final stage of the rocket that does the terminal guidance and carries the actual explosive device (nuclear or otherwise). While Avangard might look to all the world like a futuristic star fighter in the official renderings released by Russian media, it’s actually incapable of getting itself off the ground. It needs to be launched on a conventional rocket to reach the speed and altitude where it can separate and continue on its own independent flight.

At that point, the Avangard becomes what’s known as a hypersonic glide vehicle. These are craft which utilize the boost-glide principle, where a rocket-launched craft “skips” across the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere to increase its flight time. This concept was explored as long ago as World War II with the design of a sub-orbital space bomber called the “Silbervogel” which Germany hoped would allow them to strike targets in the United States. Germany was defeated before the bomber ever got off the drawing board, but a modern analysis of the design shows that contemporary material science and limited knowledge of atmospheric reentry meant the craft as designed would never have survived its intended mission.

Illustration of a atmospheric “skip” by Clem Tillier (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and more modern composite materials along with the benefit of computer modeling have made it possible to shrink such vehicles down to the point where they can be fit atop conventional ICBMs. This allows for a warhead which can travel much farther and faster than the missile which launched it, while also being free of the predictable parabolic flight path a traditional warhead would take.

Put simply, it may well be the perfect strategic strike weapon. Incredibly fast, difficult to track, capable of performing evasive maneuvers, and thanks to the fact it makes use of existing booster and launch infrastructure, relatively cheap to deploy. Now that the technology has been proven viable, proliferation within the next decade seems inescapable.

The Heat is On

Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2)

Russia might already have their Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle in production, but the United States and China aren’t far behind. Both countries have performed successful test flights of their own hypersonic gliders, though it should be said that they remain experimental projects and aren’t ready for practical deployment. At the current rate of development (which may well be accelerated in light of Russia’s accomplishments) neither country is expected to produce a functional weapon before 2020 at the earliest.

In the United States, the Prompt Global Strike program has been seeking to develop hypersonic weaponry of various types since the early 2000’s; and while no tangible system has emerged as of yet, the DARPA Falcon Project is the closest in form and function to Avangard. The most recent flights in this program were made by the Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2) in 2010 and 2011, both of which reached speeds of Mach 20 but ended less than ten minutes after separation from the Minotaur IV Lite booster when the craft started to break up. A third planned test flight was canceled when it was determined that the data collected from the first two was sufficient to meet the program’s goals.

People’s Republic of China DF-ZF

Less is known about China’s experimental DF-ZF hypersonic glider, but reconnaissance by US intelligence agencies indicate that all seven test flights performed between 2014 and 2017 were successful. The Chinese Defense Ministry claimed that these flights were purely for scientific purposes, but experts believe the hypersonic glider program to be part of the larger strengthening of the country’s military forces and that the system is very near operational status.

From the limited imagery provided by the Chinese media, the DF-ZF outwardly looks to be an amalgamation of the HTV-2’s arrowhead shape and the obvious fins and control surfaces of the Avangard. Despite these visual similarities and the fact it utilizes the same boost-glide principles, the DF-ZF has only been observed traveling at a maximum of Mach 10. That said, anything moving beyond Mach 5 should be more than fast enough to evade all current defense systems.

A New(er) Space Race

The Space Race of the 20th century was as much about determining who had the militaristic “High Ground” as it was about exploration or national pride. The United States believed that if the Soviet Union reached the Moon they would have the ultimate vantage point from which to launch an attack, a scenario which simply could not be allowed in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Despite enjoying an early lead demonstrated by putting the first satellite and then human into space, the USA ultimately beat the Soviet Union to the Moon. While the competition continued for a few more decades, the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union would leave the United States as the defacto leader in space technology and exploration.

But just shy of fifty years after Neil Armstrong’s one small step, that leadership is in a tenuous position. Not only is Russia now the nexus of human spaceflight after the retirement of the Space Shuttle, but they’ve just claimed a decisive win in terms of space-based weaponry. Even in the most optimistic view, the United States is likely five years away from meeting the capabilities of Avangard, and nowhere near a workable detection and countermeasure infrastructure.

We’ve all been excited and inspired by the “New Space Race” between commercial companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, thanks as much to their cutting edge technology as their Internet-savvy media departments. But while it might not have the same live-streamed media blitz, it seems the stage is set for a rematch between Russia and the United States for dominance of the heavens, this time with China joining in the fray. It’s anyone’s guess who might ultimately come out on top this time around, but true to form, Russia has definitely come out swinging.

184 thoughts on “The Age of Hypersonic Weapons has Begun

  1. “United States as de facto leader in space exploration… ” – funniest thing I read in a week. Hitching Soyuz to ISS and using Russian rocket engines.

    But I will give credit where it is due. USA is currently leading in deep space exploration.

    1. The Earth being flat had according to many internets become fact. I predict Trump to assume credit for a drop in long-distance airfare as we adjust to these “internet-based facts”…jk, plz jk…

      1. The quote in the article is: “the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union would leave the United States as the defacto leader in space technology and exploration”. OP sounds like he applied it to the current state of affairs which is addressed in the article’s next paragraph.

      2. Oh, found it! I couldn’t find it before because I was searching “de facto”, and in the article is written with a typo, as “defacto”.
        :o)

        Since we are at it and that paragraph mentions the Lunar Landing, mean people are saying that wouldn’t had been possible without Wernher von Braun, rafly speaking a former Nazi rocket scientist, one of the best that ever existed.

        Landing on the Moon was von Braun’s dream. That was long before he managed to turn his ideas into reality with the help of USA.

        Even today, von Braun still have a heavy influence at NASA. I’m saying this because I saw Destin from “Smarter Every Day” (a YouTube channel) talking with great admiration about von Brawn. Destin was a former NASA employee, and in a talk about how a technical challenge is approached “NASA style”, Destin was saying (quote from memory):

        “What would von Braun do?”

        1. You should have been the grandchild of a London-citizen, which had witnessed the destruction and terror of the V1/2. Grandma should have wooped your ass, when saying that Braun was a pretty cool guy.

          1. I think Antwerp was the target for far more V1 and V2 bombs than London. The most effective ‘countermeasure’ in both cases was capturing the launch sites.

        2. Yeah right. If you want the real future, you should say What would Elon Do? or other commercial companies that will leave governments in the dust.
          SpaceX is already surpassing China which is still trying to do things done 50 yrs ago and will soon pass the US as the first man capable dragon launches in a few days.
          I’d bet they make the first moon landing, base, of modern times and the first Mars landing of people.
          As for the ‘new’ nuke weapon delivery it still has the fatal flaw it can’t be used without having Russia destroyed.
          And can be simply countered with land based Sidewinder AA missiles.

          1. You clearly missed the whole “hypersonic” part.

            AA missiles would have to destroy the carrier vehicle before the final stage seperated. The whole point of an evasive and INCREDIBLY fast kill vehicle is that there are NO currently deployed (or even in development) countermeasures that can hit them. I’m not even sure if we can accurately track them on approach.

          2. They’re much too fast for conventional AA missiles, you need something like Sprint and Spartan to shoot them down or make use of a laser or kinetic kill vehicles aka brilliant pebbles to shoot them down during the boost and cruise phases of flight.
            But since they come in lower and steer for part of the flight there is less warning time in finding out where the general target is.

    2. The key phrase is “space exploration”. Ferrying people to and from the ISS is not space exploration. That job will soon be taken by private US companies. The Russian space program will implode with no money to fund it.

      1. Nope!

        NASA has already declared that they will continue to use Russia even after commercial US rides are available. They didn’t say they would exclusively rely on Russia but they will keep using them. I’m not sure they explained why. My guess is to prevent exactly what you said from occurring. The Russians have a lot of experience in space and since the USSR fell have been good partners to the US. Before that they were even more useful to NASA as cold war competition (which seems to be on the rebound) meant tax dollars.

        1. NASA would like to keep working together with the international community. It’s a good idea. It would be a shame if we lost any more of the very few remaining teams building vehicles capable of getting people into orbit, even if there’s a technically superior alternative. Variety is good and cooperation is good.

        2. The reason is simple Payload size. While the commercial offerings are of interest they cannot carry the size or more importantly mass that the Russian vehicles can handle.

    3. Literally the next sentence addresses the US falling behind today for those reasons. You you were so inpatient to post this “clever” retort, next time try actually reading the thing.

    4. Russia has nearly always been ahead in manned space travel. Now they are ahead in weaponry too.

      Flying tight circles, skimming the upper atmosphere of your own home planet is only exploration until you have produced an accurate globe. After that it has purposes but exploration is not one of them. The US has been doing very well with robotic probes. Exploration is not an area where Russia is ahead.

      1. The problem for Russia is they can’t afford any of it. A third-world economy supporting a first-world military and weapons R&D (at least the part that can’t be stolen). The Russian people pay for this in very real terms – less than $800 a month average salary. And laser systems will make it all for nought.

        1. So you are saying that Russia did what US is doing now with budget of third-world economy? Should we expect explosive scientific or space development from Texas any moment now since they have economy level?

        2. “And laser systems will make it all for nought”
          Do tell how… you see all that plasma around the vehicle in the renderings?
          You what plasma does well apart from pretty lights? It absorbs all kinds of electromagnetic radiation, near infra-red included. Overcoming this with just raw power puts lasers out of the realm of “doable”.

      2. Sometimes Russia is ahead sometimes America was. What really killed the ussr was America didn’t try and keep up with the number of nukes.

        You only need to able to blow the world up so many times. But let the ussr keep blowing money like no tomorrow and lead to collapse of the USSR.

        This weapon won’t stop the retaliation with conventional nukes it just prevents the Americans from being able to strike knowing they could potential atop Russian retaliation, but the us doesn’t really have that capability. So I say let Russia keep spending massive amount of the money on it’s military it’ll only lead to put on eventually collapse.

        1. What killed the USSR was the Russian’s inability to generate an expanding economy both from simple corruption and typical incompetence. They spent far less that the US did, but spent a far greater portion.

    5. Let’s just all ignore the fact that Obama canceled the space shuttle program and that NASA has been in hiatus since. Let’s also ignore the fact that Trump wants to build a permanent station on the moon and send men to Mars. The ISS is about to meet the end of its operational life, so we should also be focusing on alternatives or maybe even a new project of its magnitude.

      1. Ok. Why ignore either? Both are pretty positive steps! The space shuttle wasn’t getting us anywhere that people hadn’t already been. It was supposed to be a testing ground for the concept of reusable space vehicles. It’s design had to be severely altered in order to make it a weapon capable of raining a whole lot of bombs down on Moscow from space making it far less efficient than it should have been as a space vehicle and actually more costly to re-use than Apollo equipment was to simply build new each launch. Then the money stopped because the Pentagon realized it was a dumb idea anyway and ICBMs were what they really needed and NASA was strapped with a crippling program built around a vehicle that their own astronauts gave nicknames like Turkey and Flying Brick.

        So… the shuttle program was 4 decades of doing mostly nothing at all. Sure, we eventually got a space telescope and parts of a space station. How long would that have taken an extended Apollo program to complete? Oh. Yeah, Apollo already had a space station but due to Apollo’s cancellation and the ridiculousness of it’s replacement nobody ever go to use it before it fell from the sky! What a waste! We haven’t even been back to the moon!

        Two generations of potential engineers and scientists were left mostly uninspired. NASA, finally attempting to get back on the track of actual exploration has had to resort to reverse-engineering their own pre-shuttle hardware because the people who actually know how to do something got old and died waiting for their talents to be called for again.

        I am glad the shuttle program is canceled.

      2. President Obama did not cancel the shuttle program, President Bush did in 2004. President Obama did not reinstate the program, but he certainly did not cancel it.

        As for President Trump wanting to build a permanent station on the moon… I’ll believe it when I see it. It’s nice to have aspirations, but without concrete policy and a plan to back it up it will never happen.

      1. It seems almost as likely as the idea that members of the various flat earth societies actually believe the Earth is flat.

        They’re nearly always attacking the people know the Earth is round; because they were told so, and it sounds reasonable. But the average person will tell you that they personally have an understanding of science, and that science has “proven” the Earth is flat.

        And yet, science is a process, not a conclusion, and it doesn’t even attempt to “prove” things.

        The flat-Earth movement is an attack on credulousness, designed using the exact same forms of credulousness for their own arguments.

        It isn’t that they believe the Earth is flat, it is just that they believe they can make a dishonest argument that presents credulousness as fact just as well the average person; and maybe better, because they’re practicing.

        I share their distaste for credulity, but I don’t think they’re helping. They’re probably not trying to, though, they’re merely entertaining themselves with people’s outrage.

    6. Hmm, odd definition of being ahead you have there.
      Much of the Russian space program is very old tech – reliable and comparatively cheap, but far from leading edge. It’s also getting worse due to poor moral and motivation among the staff.
      The US is coming at the problem from two angles. NASA are still at the leading edge for science and exploration (what notable exploration craft has Russia fielded in recent years?). Private companies (SpaceX, Blue Origin etc) are at the leading edge of launch technology (both in mass to orbit and cost per unit mass), which are likely to put a serious dent in the Russian space program as they undercut their launch price considerably. Fewer customers and the same fixed costs is not a good combination.

          1. I saw a small Lada (Niva?) back in 1987, I was impressed that one could select FWD, RWD, and 4WD in the same subcompact 4 seater. It may have influenced my decision to purchase a Suzuki Sidekick several years later.
            (but the Sidekick couldn’t select between FWD and RWD)

          2. I just read up on the Lada Niva on Wikipedia,
            I guess it didn’t have selectable FWD or RWD. English wasn’t the primary language the owner of vehicle I looked it, we probably mis-communicated that concept.

      1. Actually, that’s not true. The sad fact is that we never had our way. The closest we ever got to extending humanity to another world was those all-to-short visits to the moon. The only real purpose of that though was to win a pissing match between two states that were full of themselves. There was never any intention to actually grow.

          1. He has a point, too. We almost immediately fell back on our laurels when the Soviet Union was no longer our adversary. It’s been half a century since we’ve had humans above LEO, making it almost impossible to deny that the space race was about domination, not higher motives like exploration. We’ve had robots of course, but there’s only so much probes can do. Is our role in space really only about passively collecting bits of data and imagery? Shouldn’t this all lead towards some greater development someday?

        1. I think it is historically well-established that the “space race” was not a real thing.

          Both sides were using that supposed “race” to develop military rockets (ICBMs), and everybody succeeded at doing it.

          After visiting the moon, there aren’t any parts left to demonstrate, so it is all just missile contracts and satellite launches after that.

      2. The shuttle was supposed to have been part of a system that would have returned to the moon but it was severely under funded because of Nixon’s cuts to NASA’s budget so we only got part of the system with a lot of compromises made in the name of cost and a greatly delayed space station.

  2. Just another endless mine is bigger than yours, why can’t powerful people just mind their own damn business. I think all of these “super-power” countries should concentrate on improving quality of life for people and making the world a better place instead of charging everyone taxes to compare d*** sizes.

    1. Defense spending is huge. It employees many. It pays huge dividends to its investors who then donate to political candidates who may or may not come from families with ties to these as well as the myriad of companies that benefit from defense spending. Has nothing to do with dick size, these are cunts that couldn’t give a crap about what they are doing as long as they see some payoff that benefits themselves in the future.

      1. Add struggling with Pan Troglodyte and/or Bonobo inherited traits real slick brute force style all cute, sweet and innocent using maybe this “hypersonic weapon” or this “hypersonic weapon” malicious hitting everyone on the head they can with Crown Dependency Financial systems backing, a reversion to ancient Rome as the Religious most advanced with their trafficking networks to dope whatever they can get away with if bribery, extortion and blackmail does work and an expectation of the U.S. being the Military for all throughout the World. Now led on with the speed of light and hypersonic weapons?

        1. The latest brainwashing cult’s leadership expectations without Nixon shock (might be a more advanced complex domesticated society however that provides more areas of oppurtunity):
          http://alexanderhiggins.com/title-28-usc-3002-section-15-the-united-states-is-a-corporation-and-not-a-government/

          A brief background (hypersonic trading ;) ):

          Attorneys first responsibility is to their clients and then their article 1 courts… or wait… is that hypersonic donkey backwards?

          1. Thank you for sharing. 911 was basically an attack on World Trade.

            The reason America can impose sanctions on other countries like Iran, Russia and China is because the world economy is based on the dollar and banks can be told not to do business with these countries. If you were under sanctions, wouldn’t you want to get out from under it?

            The reader digest version is Russia and China joined forces against America to get out of our control. China has been building more ships than America and Russia is deploying kalibr cruise missiles around the world.

            https://freebeacon.com/national-security/russia-to-deploy-precision-strike-missiles-in-western-atlantic/

            http://www.eutimes.net/2011/12/china-joins-russia-orders-military-to-prepare-for-world-war-iii/

            https://www.newsweek.com/russia-china-bring-valentines-day-treaty-back-life-military-power-806950

            And China is building man made islands in the China sea to extend its influence.

            https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/taiwans-military-really-ready-take-china-40682

            And America is already outnumbered in ships:

            https://www.military.com/defensetech/2014/12/03/report-chinese-navys-fleet-will-outnumber-u-s-by-2020

            There is no defense yet against hypersonic weapons that is publically known.

          2. @Chuck any country can impose sanctions on another if they control a resource. OPEC did to the US during the 1970s caused the oil crisis and China tried to impose sanctions of rare earth elements on Japan and the US in 2011.

        2. Humans are not descended from chimps, they’re our cousins not our ancestors.

          They’ve evolved just as much as we have since we diverged. They can carry no blame for our foibles.

      2. That’s how it works in the US. How does it work in Russia? I was under the impression that there it was more a case of it works the way Putin says it works or else… Do you have any idea what it feels like to die by ingesting polonium?

      3. Not only are you correct about the pervasive persuasive effects of defense spending (how many congressional districts have a piece of the F-35?) – but Dave’s first sentence has a bit of a flaw. Powerful people didn’t become powerful by minding their own business! Habits die hard, if at all. Yes, I know there are a few, but only a few, who were born on third base and convince themselves they hit a triple, but “a fool and his *anything* are soon parted”.

        1. The US spends over 3 times the military budget on federally funded healthcare alone. And a good portion of military spending builds up stocks of expendables with no storage limits and hardware with 50+ year lifetimes. It is money in the bank and hope you never have to spend it. In Russia, the dictator spends about 5.4% of GDP on military versus the US 3.5%. His selected “oligarchs” get another big chunk. Average Russian salary $670 a month. Average US salary $4,700 a month. (China is about the same as Hungary and Czech Republic at double the Russian rate.) Russia is a poverty stricken country. The relative cost of to the Russian people of the Soyuz launches is stunning. Average Russian income is roughly 1/3 of the US poverty rate income. Unfortunately this makes Putin very dangerous and expansionist.

          1. You’re doing it wrong. If you want to compare the well-being of the people, use purchasing power parity. Doing this will put the average Russian salary at $670×2.5 ≈ $1700, assuming that the $670 a month figure is correct. I mean, still not exactly much, but hardly the disaster you paint it to be. As for the cost of a Soyuz launch, it’s roughly $50M, or roughly thirty cents per capita (ignoring the fact that Russia actually makes money off commercial launches, and ignoring the fact that Russians are the ones *making* the Soyuz and getting paid for it). I mean, all of thirty cents — it’s a wonder they aren’t toppling statues in the Red Square by now.

          2. I guess you are saying it is on a par with China. Between being a petro-state and various controls – I suspect rent control that is pretty strict since buying a place is about he same as average in the US. You can buy a nice house for $125 a square foot in the US. And you still have that 5.3% of GDP going to military and we don’t know for sure how funding is divided up or if that includes R&D. They were (still are?) selling fighter plane rides “to the edge of space” for maintenance and personnel money. The Russian people pay for the entire Russian space infrastructure. How are they setting cost of a launch?

            Anyway, check Russian sources on people starving in Moscow. Check rents versus average income https://www.numbeo.com/cost-of-living/country_result.jsp?country=Russia&displayCurrency=USD

  3. Before praising Putin’s “might” do a search for Project Pluto and see what the US was playing with 50 years ago and why they abandoned this idea after successfully testing the engines.

    I guess it’s time to break out the old museum piece, update it then tell Putin to behave.

    1. Pluto was designed to fly around using a nuclear thermal ramjet for propulsion with zero containment or shielding, kind of like the reavers in Firefly. It would violently irradiate everything it flew over, and could be programmed to maintain a holding pattern around its target until it Chernobyled the whole continent. It wasn’t a suborbital warhead delivery system like this thing. It was a worldwide ecological disaster packaged up as a single aircraft. Truly bonkers, whoever designed it must have been the king of all misanthropes.

      Not to say this thing isn’t horrifying and questionable. Of course our ability to shoot down ICBMs (also dubious) has never been the real deterrent to nuclear war anyway, so who knows.

      1. Yes, radiation is magical. That is why we have all been “Chenobyled” by the Sun. Shielding is to protect living things. You don’t need it for unoccupied contraptions are are 10 miles up.

        Lets do a calculation. Say it will give you a lethal dose in 10 minutes from 100 feet away. If it is 50,000 feet above you, and you can stay directly beneath it somehow, and not bothering wit the air, you need an exposure of 2,500,000 minutes, or 4 years and 9 months (ratio of squares of 100 and 50000). But that is no longer lethal at all. And air stops a lot, and it is much further away nearly all the time. And what kind of radiation does it put out? Reactor type radiation is not very energetic compared to cosmic rays that penetrate the atmosphere to the surface. Gamma is the only thing that will go anywhere and these lower energy gamma will get absorbed easily. Beta will react and produce some gamma and x-rays. Alpha (helium nuclei) will go nowhere and again produce some gamma and x-ray. Neutrons will be “thermalized” by the atmosphere and likely make some deuterium.

        I really can’t see any need for shielding.

        1. This thing wouldn’t BE at 50k feet. Project Pluto would be at a few hundred feet, doing Mach 3+! and pulverizing anything and everything on the ground with it’s supersonic shockwave every time it came over. It’s reactor would be producing long lasting radioactive fallout from the dust it sucked up into the engine and heavily irradiated with it’s neutron flux. Because of it’s lack of shielding even externally it would have enough neutron radiation to cause other materials to become radioactive. And even at a few hundred feet, the rest of the radiation (Mostly Alpha and Gamma iirc) would keep the area it was flying over heavily irradiated for at least the weeks it kept flying around.

          Project Pluto really was the ultimate “F* him, F* that, F* you, F* everything” flying middle finger. It was so stupidly dangerous it made the US leadership jumpy and decide it would be better NOT to continue work on it of their own volition lest the Commies built something similar. And this from a country that thought things like nuclear landmines, neutron bombs and fractional orbit weapons were a swell idea!

          1. “Once it reached cruising altitude and was far away from populated areas, the nuclear reactor would be made critical. Since nuclear power gave it almost unlimited range, the missile could cruise in circles over the ocean until ordered “down to the deck” for its supersonic dash to targets in the Soviet Union.”

    2. Fast cruise missile (wikipedia page says mach 4.2) versus extremely fast ICBM? The search results are saying Pluto was scrapped because ICBMs were better, and now they’re even better than they were in the 60s.

    3. There is no way they would do that, then they’d need a new cover story for Roswell and they already have people believing it was aliens.

      They’re not going to give up one of their biggest PR wins in history, just to embarrass Putin in the eyes of a handful of foreigners who probably don’t support him anyway.

      He can successfully counter that with one folksy 5-minute interview anyways.

  4. Does anyone else find the claim that it’s impervious to any prospective defense system laughable? “Our new weapon can’t be beat by anything.” Propaganda mid-speech, it’s amazing.

    Technically impressive, but the grandstanding detracts from how impressed I am.

    1. Laughable?

      No.

      If the Pentagon even had an inkling of an idea how to stop it I’m sure the propaganda machine would be in full force to ensure all us citizens that big brother is protecting us.

      I think that claiming that it cannot be stopped with so much certainty is a bit much. There is certainly a will, someone might find the way. If that happens though it will take time, time during which all that is left to do is play the proliferation game.

      That is anything but laughable.

      1. Not really. During SDI (“Starwars”) working systems to find orbital re-entry targets and hit them with airborne lasers (30,000 at a time in simulations) and successful intercepts in space with “brilliant pebbles” and 15meter mesh nets (for example ICBM from submarine, target squired and intercept launched from Kuajelein) were kept secret while the press, including Scientific American, went wild with “experts” explaining why SDI can’t work. Everyone in favor was “idiotic”.

        Don’t count on the research being paraded about for all to glory in.

          1. It does not take much to produce an instability at those speeds, as in a tiny defect in a Space Shuttle tile. You don’t have to destroy it. Just give it a chance to destroy itself. There is a lot of kinetic energy there looking for a place to go.

          2. Reentry temps are around 2000C, the avangarde specifically is publicly rated for 1600-2000C. If your space laser can deliver more than 2000C for sufficient time to burn through even a portion of the heat shield, or disable the launch vehicle, the warhead is done.

          3. The better question is the amount of heat transferred. Lasers don’t deliver temperature, they deliver energy. So it’s a matter of how much each can provide. One big factor is that the plasma surrounding a reentry vehicle may be opaque to laser energy. Likewise is the question of how much heat can be radiated at the temp one wants to reach and whether the laser can supply enough to make up for that loss. From what I’ve seen demonstrated, the lasers will have to up their game to beat the reentry protections.

        1. Those who claim SDI is ‘impossible’ are as nutty as the ones who claim the Patriot missiles in Desert Storm ‘never hit a single SCUD’. The Patriot, and most other anti-air missiles and artillery are *proximity* weapons. They explode *near* their target to cause structural damage from blast pressure and shrapnel.

          With a balloon tank missile like a SCUD or the Atlas it only takes a small amount of damage to make it crumple and break apart. The one time Patriots weren’t fired at a SCUD (due to a clock slippage error in control systems that had been running too long when they should’ve been rebooted every 3~4 days) the SCUD hit its target quite precisely.

          I could see hypersonic anti-hypersonic missile artillery shells popping clouds of shrapnel along the flight path of the warheads so the high speed impacts cause enough damage to make them break up or at least go off course.

          Think CIWS but for targets much farther away.

          Then there are LASERs. The Tactical High Energy LASER or THEL was developed in conjunction with Israel, for both fixed and portable installations. It proved very adept at defense against incoming artillery shells, katyusha rockets and other improvised rockets. But Israel decided to go with “Iron Dome” that uses small, high speed countermissiles, which don’t ‘hit’ their targets directly.

          The R&D for THEL is already done, it just needs to be put into production and have its software adapted to tracking and shooting faster targets at longer ranges. A THEL battery could quickly cycle among a bunch of incoming hypersonic warheads, flicking back to zap a second time any that didn’t get taken out the first time. THEL could be backstopped by hypersonic artillery, lofting a shield of small but dense shrapnel timed to rain down to intercept the incoming warheads.

          1. I’m not sure that a incoming hypersonic vehicle is as susceptible to lasser emission as slow flying “cool” vehicles. Especially the ionized air will absorb a fair bit.

            Further a vehicle traveling at let’s say Mach 20 (with maneuverability) will mean a reduced window of opportunity (would need airborne lasers with power issues at flat areas).

          2. I also do not believe any claims of “unstoppable by (any) future weapons system”. But at current time it seems to be very advanced. If it isn’t mostly propaganda. Which also played a big role in “SDI”.

          3. Your shrapnel wouldn’t even need to be hyper sonic. If the projectile is traveling hyper sonic smashing into even relative small pieces of slow.moving shrapnel would release huge amount of energy

          4. The claim was they did not stop a single SCUD and the evidence is that every SCUD warhead was unaffected, most landing where they would have otherwise. Almost always the Patriot did a great job of punching holes in the boosters. Iron Dome seems to have the same level of success, with the decrease in ground injuries the result of early warning to civilians allowing them to get to shelters.

    2. I don’t find that laughable because ‘prospective’ means ‘expected’ or ‘likely in the future’. It wouldn’t be fair to say the weapon is unbeatable, but there’s nothing now or coming that could knock it out. I suspect any protection would be based on clouds of debris for the missile to hit, launched by missiles that will have to be pretty rapid themselves.

    3. I mean it’s incredibly doubtful that we could successfully stop even a volley of traditional ICBMs from the sixties if we had to. There have been systems designed and tests done, but they have not been reassuring at all. So no, it’s very reasonable to claim there would be no way to defend against this thing. You could launch a return volley before it descended and probably wipe them out too, but that’s not going to prevent mutually assured destruction.

      Which of course is the real defense against nuclear war, along with human empathy and integrity which has prevented close calls from devolving into nuclear exchanges a few times in the past. I’m always reassured in my faith in humanity by those low-level officers who simply decided not to launch, that they wouldn’t annihilate the planet out of spite even though they thought a volley was already headed their way and had orders. That kind of selfless, cool-headed ethical rebellion saved us all a few times in the 20th century. That is heroism in my eyes.

      1. Putin has also bragged about his high speed nuclear torpedoes and making little tsunamis that can destroy ports. What is the end game here? Russia is no danger of being attacked unless they piss off the Chinese, and even then it is a border scuffle. It must be the predictable dictator with economic problems needs distractions and possible salvation through expansion. All over again.

        1. So far I’ve read more US Government officials willing to attack Russia than the opposite, well, at least whatever reaches western media. (this have been going on since 2000s~)

    4. It is laughable because they’re claiming increased speed and also increased maneuverability, in the first usable generation of a new technology.

      That’s unlikely, but if it was going to happen it would involve being an order of magnitude more expensive; does that seem likely given the economic context? And would they be able to build that sort of technology to scale, given that their precision manufacturing seems to be experiencing long-term systemic decline?

      The reality is, the faster you’re going, the harder it is to maneuver. If you’re claiming to go the fastest ever, you should also be claiming to be relatively awful at maneuvering.

      1. I assume this is relative. If you’re going reentry speeds your turn radius is probably on the order of tens of kilometers. But like with the SR71 you don’t really need to maneuver that rapidly if you’re a hundred km away by the time the interceptor matches altitude.

  5. Well, MAD was effective, but now rogue nations/groups are often supplied by the Big 3 (and I don’t mean automakers).
    Making it almost impossible to know the guilty party if a nuke is launched off-shore.

    1. “Making it almost impossible to know the guilty party if a nuke is launched off-shore.”
      That’s one of the themes of a James Bond film, right? A baddie steals a bunch of subs from US and Russia, and plans to set off those nukes so both countries think they are being attacked by each other.

      1. Which is what it would take. Otherwise gamma spectrometry of the signatures of the fallout can tell one which part of which reactor produced the fuel, as well as other interesting bits of info. Attribution is much easier than it is with say, computer hacking.

      2. Stolen nuclear warheads, the subject of the book and movie “Thunderball” and the only James Bond story to be filmed twice as “Never Say Never Again”.

        Casino Royale doesn’t count as being filmed twice because the movie with Woody Allen had essentially nothing to do with the book aside from the title.

      1. China is a Confucian autocratic parliamentary dictatorship.

        Even lately in the news they’ve been cracking down on Communist student groups.

        China, Taiwan, both Koreas, they’re all different forms of governments that attempt to implement Confucian Meritocracy according to different theories of implementation and from different historical contexts. This view of civics presumes that all these forms of government, and more, are appropriate depending on the social context and the specific people that are competing for leadership at different times.

        Whenever China says one thing, and does another, both the real actions and the choice of messaging are consistent with Confucian civics, but rarely with Communism. It is just a flag and costume that they maintain for legacy reasons, it isn’t actually part of their system of government.

        By way of comparison, when the US says one thing and does another, one of the two is probably from a Representative Democracy perspective, and the other from a Representative Parliamentary perspective. The UK likes to mix a Representative Parliamentary system with Feudalism and Direct Democracy.

        1. Xi has dramatically stepped up stronger teaching of Marxist economic theory and all that. Of course, it is a tool for control, but I think he is in so deep that he is in some sense a true believer. And the system of being watched all the time to measure one’s social score is very Confucian. When will he implement the health measure of old men having sex with young women to keep their stem wound tightly?

    1. Russia has repeatedly clarified that Avangard was designed with the capability to carry a nuclear payload, but that’s probably as much for shock value in international media as anything else. As you say, the kinetic energy of something like this hitting at Mach 20+ is likely enough to get the message across without resorting to actual nuclear warfare.

      1. *IF* it were possible to track and predict the eventual target, and *IF* you could launch in time, what would a cloud of ball bearings in its path do? i.e. a defensive missile whose payload consists of 2cm ball bearings and a small explosive charge to disperse them. If it hits a cloud of balls at mach 20+ (plus or minus the velocity of the balls), wouldn’t it do some serious damage? AKA “flak”, but with the target providing the velocity, rather than shrapnel from an explosive shell.

        1. Right, but I don’t think the suggestion was ever that the kinetic force would make a nuclear warhead redundant. The kinetic impact would be the “less lethal” option. There’s plenty of applications for a rapid and accurate non-nuclear weapon that your target has little to no chance of stopping.

          But it does ultimately boil down to how accurate terminal guidance is, which of course nobody outside the Kremlin knows for sure. If it isn’t accurate enough to land a direct hit on a specific target, then the kinetic option won’t do you much good.

          1. I’m not sure if the kinetic option would be economically viable. A Tomahawk cruise missile is in the $130M range, so I can only imagine the cost of one of these, which is essentially an ICBM with a RAMJET/SCRAMJET booster on top, with the kinetic warhead on top of that, so you are in the $1B (?) range just to eliminate one bunker? Doesn’t seem worth the money for a kinetic weapon.

          1. I’m not sure how they work, but there has been work on them for decades. One example I saw (illustration) decades ago, was an hour glass shaped explosion. Not very precise, but it could reduce collateral damage. But that doesn’t mean development has stopped.

          2. I had to do a quick check to make sure the topic is on Google…

            Looks like the almighty Wikipedia eludes really generally:
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_shaped_charge
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Explosive_lens
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shaped_charge

            I’ve proposed ideas before… and wonder if this topic and/or microwave or whatever known functional group spectroscopy related data used in reverse to highly specifically catalyze reactions using the “peaks” basically related frequency energy earned me all the surveillance. I think some of the surveillance origin is more corrupt like sonofthunderboanerges has noted to me having PTSD relating to the movie issues noted in “American Made” now with more… “Meth” or whatever kingpin related cartel movie I grew up around.

            I figured at an early age I’m going to have to support the military, executive and civil servants since the lower level jurisdictions were way corrupt and might (or thought they did more than once) murder me.

      1. It doesn’t matter.
        If Russia launched some, the US would need to decide whether to fire nukes or not before the thing hit.
        Then when it turns out to be kinetic only, the US are painted the bad guys.

    2. Mach 27 is “only” around 9.3 km/s. If you only wanted to sink a boat or something, sure, you wouldn’t need any warhead. But for it to be an ICBM replacement it’s still not fast enough to replace a nuke with kinetic energy.

      ICBMs actually descend pretty dang fast, because they fall from a very high suborbital trajectory where there’s no atmosphere. Like around 7-10 km/s.

      For reference, things in LEO such as the ISS fly at around 7.7 km/s. As a general rule, objects traveling 3 km/s deliver kinetic energy equal to its mass in TNT. A nuke is measured in thousands or millions of tons of TNT, so this thing would have to be pretty damn massive and still maintain that speed to be equivalent to a warhead. To get practical nuclear equivalents with pure kinetic energy, you’re going to have to get up to like 120 km/s, so in the neighborhood of Mach 362. At that point measuring things by the speed of sound doesn’t really make a ton of sense. You can’t really cut through air at that speed; it would go splat on the edge of the atmosphere and resemble a nuke in space, kind of like project starfish.

      Some interesting reading: http://www.projectrho.com/public_html/rocket/spacegunconvent.php#id–Kinetic_Kill_Weapons

    3. Because physics—the kinetic energy is impressive but doesn’t hold a candle to the nukes.
      Behold the ‘units’ program:
      You have: 1|2 ton (27 mach)^2
      You want: ton tnt
      * 8.6828809
      so it’s just few tons of TNT; nukes are up to a million times more powerful.

  6. It would seem like the trajectories of this device would be generally predictable, so I’m wondering if this can’t be derailed by simple space junk arranged in annoying orbits.

    As this summary indicates, though, the strategic leverage of this technology does not seem to change the playing field. Russia’s opponents would still have submarines hidden throughout the ocean that can respond to any hypersonic act of aggression with punishing consequences. Nothing to chase after and waste a bunch of resources on matching capabilities.

    1. Actually the whole point of this thing is that its trajectory is relatively very unpredictable and capable of last-minute evasive maneuvers, as opposed to literally everything else in orbital or suborbital flight which is moving in a purely ballistic trajectory with a couple of RCS thrusters only capable of making very fine adjustments.

      If we put up enough space junk to present a problem to this craft, it would make it extremely difficult to do anything else in low orbit as well. It would have to be like an intentional Kessler syndrome, which would not only be really difficult but an enormous shot in the foot. And whether it’s possible to make complete enough coverage that there wouldn’t be any viable path left for this thing would be dubious. That’s a whole planet worth of surface area to junk up.

      You’re right that this thing isn’t much different functionally than existing ICBMs. We can’t really shoot those down, and now we double can’t shoot them down. So I guess we’re still stuck with MAD. Hey, it’s worked this long right?

    2. The launch and boost phase would be pretty standard and predictable as far as ICBMs go, but once it releases the glider then all bets are off. It has the ability to independently maneuver and is much smaller and harder to detect than the carrier rocket.

      According to Russia, it retains that maneuverability even in the terminal phase making things even trickier. You might think it was about to hit Washington, but 30 seconds from impact it makes a turn and heads to NYC instead.

  7. My question is: how do they (a) supply that much power and (b) prevent it from melting? Power is proportional to the cube of the velocity, which means for a given distance the energy is proportional to the square of the velocity. So something going mach 27 will take 729 times the energy to maintain that speed vs something going mach 1.

    Obviously the thing is very wedge-like and elongated to reduce drag, but that gets you only so far.

    1. It skips off the surface of the atmosphere, so for the grand majority of its flight it’s not dealing with drag. It doesn’t require constant power to maintain that velocity. After all, other spacecraft in orbit successfully fly at almost this speed.

      As far as not melting, ablative composites are kind of amazing. Back in the sixties and seventies, the Apollo capsules reentered at around 12.4 km/s, or mach 36. They didn’t melt either, and we’ve only got much better at materials science since then. Granted this one will have to hit the atmosphere a few times in succession, but it doesn’t seem outside the realms of possibility.

      1. Some days I wonder if there is redundancy designed into the global advancing scheme (albeit toxic still) where the leaders… the U.S. in technology still in many ways and means, play dumb like we can’t do things and/or the press secretaries just don’t know.

        Kind of like “need to know basis” issues with the “can neither confirm nor deny” capabilities to better shelter those with systems that can’t be known in unsafe environments.

        This keeps systems that are highly dangerous more secured until determined how to more clearly disclose if even implement with critical standard operating procedures and protocols regarding the system life cycle.

        Typically, used to be in the U.S… people like in some of the Nazi manufacturing plants… would sabotage the manufacturing operations… or just not develop systems… to keep unlawful fanatics from implementing systems not required for survival, and that really only cause more arguments, unless used in defensive for the Jurisdiction’s in general survival.

        I’ve felt that over the years with systems I thought would be most excellent for anyone… though later to realize some find the dangerous aspects of the systems either in unlawful application or regarding highly offensive to preserve their exclusive system, that reminds me what I’ve heard Mary Lou Jepsen note that need to be evaluated and mitigated regarding the issues to implement the Open Water technology. Talk about “U.S. Diplomats” and “Sonic Weapons” and wow… amazing… it’s like capabilities of technology all the sudden don’t exist and I overdosed since the 70’s on no-go pills and can’t remember or didn’t know James Clapper style.

  8. All you folks bashing nasa for hitching rides on old dependable russian hw. . .

    Nasa’s budget historically meant running the shuttle meant NO deep space exploration. No budget for RnD into it, and while we sustained a meaningful advantage doing so, it was fleeting.

    Long term it meant we were being left in the dust. Our advantage being overtaken by countries with NO presence or minimal .

    What we did was take a very small fraction of our budget and hitch rides. Freeing up our RnD arm with a full budget to sustain our long term advantage while tying down Russia with a short term propaganda win that Nasa chose to hitch on their hardware while our money and time went into long term sustaining of our advantage. Notice people openly admitting we lead in deep space exploration. (read that as are closer to mining deep space for resources that out value ANYTHING and EVERYTHING on earth. )

    Its very easy to lose sight of the big picture when something very publicly visible like hitching rides is there to distract. But rest assured that is all it is , a distraction.

    As for this launch… Russia has a tendency to put safety last. To rush things to the front with out proper testing. To bluff on their accomplishments and embellish success while silencing failure with an iron fist.

    We on the other hand are slow to reveal our working, ready to field tech. And china is pretty provably just using plans they stole from us with known limitations. While they have improved on what they stole, there is no replacement for innovation and experience which is what we likely have despite our silence on the matter being so loud.

    All russia has done with this, is try to broadcast an advantage which will lead to an arms race. Countries like NK and others are likely rushing to begin RnD. Effectively they stamped an expiration date on their advantage they claim to have. This is the act of someone that knows there is no real advantage but the propaganda value.

  9. I find it amazing that the United States which spends about half of the world’s budget on national defense, finds itself outsmarted in this important technological breakthrough. Obviously the comparative value of the ruble to the dollar does not accurately reflect upon the true strengths of the two economies. Here, for instance, is a nation whose economy is comparable to Italy and yet it posses the ability to build intercontinental range nuclear missiles, sophisticated surface to air missiles, long range anti-ship missiles, tanks, nuclear powered submarines, surveillance satellites, long range radars, et cetera. When was the last time Japan, Germany, Great Britain or France ever envisioned building such a panoply of sophisticated militaria? Should either one of them attempted to do so it would quickly find itself headed down the road to financial ruin. The Russians have evidently stumbled across a secret sauce that has permitted them to keep themselves relevant in the geo-political spectrum.

    1. Literally 100% of the information we have about this is public messaging by the participants.

      We don’t actually even know if they’re working on it, or if it is really a new video game they’re promoting.

      So conclusions might automatically outsmart themselves.

      Also, you might be surprised at the sophistication of the French and Japanese military forces, or the effects on their economies.

      The sauce might not be secret, it might just be a matter of weapons exports. France exports a lot more than Italy, but less than Russia.

    2. The US military budget is less than 1/3 of the federal expenditures on medical care alone and 3.5% of US GDP. If that is half the world wide budget on military expenditures, then the US is very very impressive. Putin spends 5.3% of the Russian GDP on the stuff they admit as military. If the US spent 5.3% on military, Russia would be in the soup and go broke right quickly (again).

      1. This infographic:

        Shows that 4.7% of the US GDP is spent on the military, not 3.5%. It also doesn’t include money spent on “black ops”.

        Yes, Russia spending 5.3% of their GDP is more as a percentage, but you should also acknowledge that Russia’s economy is similar to the size of Spain’s or South Korea’s:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(nominal)

        And, yes, the US does account for close to half of all military expenditures.

    3. The average Russian monthly wage is MUCH lower than Italy’s which means their development cost for the tech is a lot lower. Most of the base materials can also be sourced from the country itself meaning they don’t have to trade for it, again lowering cost. So yes, the Russians CAN develop a lot of stuff Japan, Germany, GB and France can’t.

      Keep in mind France DOES have SLBMs and nuclear weapons developed entirely on it’s own. Along with a carrier and pretty advanced fighters developed either by itself or with help from Germany.

      Germany in it’s turn is still dealing with the effects of it’s reunification in the 90s and having to pull eastern Germany up from what was essentially a state of poverty. Japan has other things to worry about and isn’t currently interested in having this sort of weaponry. GB is simply struggling with it’s fall as an empire and being unable to compete with the rest of the world, losing a lot of it’s (defense) industry. All of these nations COULD, if they wanted to develop weapons systems like this. They don’t because they aren’t so interested. The focus for European nations military has traditionally focused on it’s close neighbors. Not the nations 5000 Km away.

    1. I’m confused. Are you really complaining that Hackaday is covering interesting current event engineering topics? Ones which have possibly historic importance? Would you rather an Arduino post or something? Maybe a Raspberry Pi so you’d feel more comfortable?

      1. I care not for Arduino or most of Raspberry Pu projects but even they will be more interesting than this politically inclined article.
        How much ‘engineering’ was covered?
        (For the record I am not Russian..)

  10. As of now there has been no indication from the authorities in charge of America’s national defense to imply that the Russians are bluffing. Conceivably the Russians may be exaggerating the efficacy of Avangard and its imminent availability but one must not underestimate technological prowess of Russia. A large part of the International Space Station was built by them after all. We rely on their rockets to put our astronauts into orbit and much of the space launching capability of American rockets are powered by Russian designed engines.

    1. Most of the tests were conducted over a year ago. The performance isn’t exxagerated, if anything it’s under reported. IMO the glider its self doesn’t change the missile game horribly. You still see the launch vehicle firing and the missile door opening. Sure the warhead (s) get there in a fraction of the time but plenty of time to counter attack via conventional icbms or submarines off the coast.

      Counter to the recent media frenzy, the technologic victory is the more important one.

      1. Probably right. And there are lots of ways to deliver nukes and don’t require missiles and have what amounts to zero delivery time.

        As Zap Brannigan said “The key to victory is the element of surprise. Surprise!”

    1. I mean, 80 years ago skip wouldn’t have worked. So while all of it is old it working isnt.

      That said, it is outrageous how easy it is to work people into a frenzy about things they clearly dont know much about. Its one hell of an echo chamber with people parroting what they are told to fear.

    2. I guess you’re trying to make an observation about how the Nazis were trying to do this back in the day, but still a pretty pointless comment. Even if they had done it 80 years ago (they didn’t), it would still be notable that somebody was doing it again if nobody had done it in so long.

      Like do you think it won’t be news the next time a human lands on the Moon?

  11. There is no reaseon to fear of being ruled by Russians. Our country was for about 40 years and it was quite a refreshment after being ruled by Germans for 6 years. Greetings form Czech Republic!

    1. And if you can hit something a mile away, you just need to deliver within a mile. And if you can get within 1 mile starting from 10, just deliver to within ten miles,100, 1000, 10,000 etc. Distance doesn’t mean anything in regards to hitting a target. Endurance and reliability are the chief demonstration.

  12. Mach 27?!?!?!?! Its a shame they can’t de-weaponize this for sending more useful cargo such as medical supplies. A notable useful application would be medical isotopes like 99Mo and 18F glucose as they are a pain to send conventionally due to short half life.

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