Russia says its ‘Avangard’ hypersonic missile system will be fielded by 2019, but doubts remain

The Russian military plans to deploy a fully operational regiment of its new Avangard ICBM with hypersonic glide vehicle possibly by the end of this year, according to a domestic defense industry source who spoke to Russian news agency Tass.

“The scheduled period for placing the lead regiment on combat duty is the end of 2019. Initially, the regiment will comprise at least two systems but eventually their number will rise to their organic quantity of six units,” the source reportedly said.

Tass noted further:

In compliance with the established procedure, a control launch of the glide vehicle’s carrier, the UR-100N UTTKh [Editor’s note: NATO designation: SS-19 Stiletto] missile, is expected to be carried out before the hypersonic system is accepted for service. However, considering the successful previous launches of the glide vehicle itself and the existence of the reliable and already tested missile, possibly no such a launch will be conducted,” the source said.

The Avangard is a strategic intercontinental ballistic missile system equipped with a hypersonic glide vehicle. According to open sources, the ‘breakthrough’ weapon was developed by the Research and Production Association of Machine-Building (the town of Reutov, the Moscow Region) and was tested from 2004. The glide vehicle is capable of flying at hypersonic speed in the dense layers of the atmosphere, maneuvering by its flight path and its altitude and breaching any anti-missile defense.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the system during his State of the Nationa address to the Federal Assembly on 1 March. He noted further during his annual question-and-answer session on 7 June that “the Avangard system is already in the process of its manufacture and has entered its serial production and in 2019 we are planning to deliver it to the Armed Forces.”

Analysis: Russia has been known to hype the existence of weapons that either do not exist, are in the early stages of development, or cannot perform as advertised.

The SS-19s are liquid-fueled ICBMs that Russia obtained from Ukraine after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union as part of a “gas debt.” Reports said Moscow received about 30 of them. Following the USSR’s collapse, the missiles were kept in storage, unfueled, meaning their condition was pristine. 

In addition, the Russians plan to mount hypersonic glide vehicles atop the RS-28 Sarmat ICBMs, which are newer but are also liquid-fueled. It has been in development since about 2009. In its non-hypersonic state, the missile carries “MIRV” — multiple independent reentry vehicles, or several nuclear warheads. 

What’s more, U.S. intelligence says that the Avangard’s single warhead is massive — 2 megatons, which is about four times larger than a typical modern nuclear warhead at 500 kilotons. And it will be able to deliver that very large warhead far faster than traditional ICBMs, making our missile defenses virtually worthless.

Reports that cite U.S. intelligence officials note that the missile has been successfully tested and it will be ready for deployment by 2020. And at least one report confirmed that SS-19s were going to serve as the Avangard’s carrier.

“These kinds of boost-glide vehicles attack the gaps in our missile defense system,” Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said. Moreover, they come equipped with countermeasures that make them impossible to track and thus destroy.

“There’s no time like the present to modify our current missile defense posture,” Karako added, saying it was “unfortunate that we have let Russia come this far.”

Is the hype legitimate? And will Russia put the Avangard system into operation next year? The Center for Naval Analyses research scientist Michael Kofman said earlier this year there was no chance of that happening.

So, who do we believe? Does it matter? 

Yes. The U.S. is working on its own hypersonic missile design, while the Chinese are said to have successfully tested a design on more than one occasion. When the great powers obtain and field these weapons, much of the missile defense money spent thus far on defending against conventional ICBMs and regional missile threats (not all of it because the vast majority of ballistic missiles will not have hypersonic capabilities. 

Hypersonic missiles, when they are fielded, will be game-changers because as Karako says, we can’t defend against them. But neither can Russia or China.

That said, we will become more vulnerable again to a deadly first strike, and the only thing we know of that would be fast and economical enough to counter a hypersonic threat is laser weaponry, perhaps operating in space. That would violate pledges not to weaponize space but the Russians and Chinese will have left us little choice.


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