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).
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.
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
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.
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.