In a recent development, media reports have surfaced indicating that Russia’s rocket forces have reportedly loaded an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with the cutting-edge Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle into a launch silo situated in southern Russia. This move comes as President Vladimir Putin’s response to the United States’ advancement in a new generation of weapons.
Unveiled by President Putin in 2018, the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle boasts a unique capability. As it approaches its target, it separates from the rocket and executes sharp manoeuvres outside the rocket’s trajectory, achieving hypersonic speeds of up to 27 times the speed of sound, equivalent to approximately 21,000 miles per hour or 34,000 kilometres per hour. This technological marvel can be carried as a Multiple Independently-targetable Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) payload by various heavy ICBMs, including the UR-100UTTKh, R-36M2, and RS-28 Sarmat. Notably, the Avangard has the versatility to deliver both nuclear and conventional payloads. President Putin had initially unveiled the Avangard as one of six new Russian strategic weapons on March 1, 2018. This recent deployment underscores Russia’s commitment to advancing its military capabilities and maintaining a strategic edge in the realm of hypersonic technology.
Initiation of Hypersonic Race
The genesis of the hypersonic race can be traced back to 2002, a pivotal year marked by the United States’ withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, this move compelled Russia to initiate the development of hypersonic weapons, marking the beginning of a new era in strategic capabilities.
Putin’s response to the U.S. plans for deploying ballistic missile defences in Europe in 2007 hinted at Russia’s ambitious endeavours. He stated that Russia was actively engaged in the development of “strategic weapons systems of a completely different type” designed to travel at hypersonic speeds, possessing the unique capability to alter both altitude and direction during flight.
The Avangard, initially designated as Yu-71 and Yu-74, underwent significant testing between February 2015 and June 2016, utilising UR-100UTTKh Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). In a noteworthy achievement in October 2016, a pivotal flight test was conducted using the R-36M2 heavy ICBM launched from Dombarovsky Air Base. The test culminated in the Avangard successfully hitting a predetermined target at the Kura Missile Test Range, marking a crucial milestone as the first fully successful test of the hypersonic glide vehicle.
In a demonstration of transparency, the Russian Defense Ministry’s press service, in collaboration with TASS, reported that the Avangard missile system with the hypersonic glide vehicle was showcased to a U.S. inspection group in 2019, adhering to the procedures outlined in the New START treaty. This series of developments underscores the intensification of the hypersonic arms race, with Russia positioning itself at the forefront of this technological frontier.
How can HGV change the course of war?
Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGVs) distinguish themselves from traditional ballistic missiles through their exceptional manoeuvrability and operational capability at lower altitudes. This unique combination of high speed and agility presents formidable challenges for conventional missile defence systems. The resurgence of such advanced weapons has stirred excitement in the defence industry, as it heralds a return to the intense arms race reminiscent of the Cold War era, with the advantage tilting back towards the offensive capabilities.
Notably, the Avangard, as analysed by Jane’s, stands out as a pure glide vehicle, lacking an independent propulsion system. During its approach to a target, this glider is purportedly capable of executing sharp, high-speed horizontal and vertical evasive manoeuvres in flight. Russian officials assert that this manoeuvrability renders the Avangard “invulnerable to any missile defence system,” marking a significant leap in strategic capabilities.
In terms of destructive potential, the Avangard is reported to carry a nuclear warhead with a blast yield exceeding 2 megatons of TNT. This underscores the sheer firepower and impact that these hypersonic glide vehicles bring to the geopolitical landscape, amplifying concerns about the efficacy of existing missile defence systems in the face of such advanced weaponry.
Why are HGVs of high concern?
Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGVs) share similarities with Maneuverable Re-entry Vehicles (MaRVs), yet their operational concept differs significantly. While MaRVs can only manoeuvre shortly before impact, HGVs, in contrast, separate from their rocket boosters shortly after launch. This key distinction enhances the in-flight manoeuvrability of HGVs, making them unpredictable and challenging for anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems to intercept. Unlike conventional ballistic missiles, which follow a predictable trajectory, HGVs’ ability to manoeuvre throughout their flight allows them to effectively evade air defences, contributing to their heightened strategic value.
In the realm of arms development, HGVs have become a focal point, representing a new frontier in military capabilities. The ongoing development of hypersonic glide vehicles has given rise to an arms race as nations seek to harness the advantages offered by these sophisticated weapons.
Boost-glide weapons, a category to which HGVs belong, are strategically designed to outmanoeuvre existing missile defence systems. This is achieved through continuous manoeuvring or flying at lower altitudes, minimising warning time for potential interception. While this manoeuvrability enhances their evasion capabilities, it also presents a challenge, as defensive systems optimised for lower-altitude “low-tier” targets become more effective against these weapons. Additionally, the lower speeds of HGVs, compared to short-range ballistic missile warheads, make them more susceptible to interception. Cutting-edge technologies, such as hypervelocity guns and railguns, further expand the range of defensive measures against HGVs with very low terminal attack profiles. This dynamic landscape highlights the ongoing evolution of military capabilities and the strategic considerations in countering advanced hypersonic threats.
However, Russian sources assert that the Avangard Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV) achieves a staggering speed of Mach 27, employing a strategy that involves constant course and altitude changes, creating a chaotic and unpredictable flight path. According to these claims, this unpredictability renders the Avangard “invulnerable to interception.” However, scrutiny reveals potential challenges for hypersonic glide vehicles, despite these bold assertions.
One notable challenge stems from the ionised gas envelope formed around the HGV due to its high speed, rendering communication between the base and the vehicle impossible. Satellites, capable of detecting and tracking this ionised gas cloud, pose a potential vulnerability. Additionally, the intense heat generated at hypersonic velocities renders external sensors inoperable. To mitigate this, HGVs, including the Avangard, detach from their carrier ballistic missiles at the upper reaches of the atmosphere to avoid burning up.
Hypersonic vehicles, such as the Avangard, typically rely on scramjet engines to attain their extraordinary speeds. These engines activate once the glide vehicle reaches Mach 4.5 but are disengaged as it enters the terminal phase of its flight. Failure to deactivate the engines during reentry could result in a catastrophic buildup of heat as the atmosphere becomes denser. This precautionary measure ensures that the terminal phase of an HGV’s reentry mirrors that of a Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle (MIRV), maintaining the integrity and functionality of the vehicle. Despite claims of invulnerability, the intricate challenges associated with hypersonic glide vehicles underscore the ongoing complexities in advancing and perfecting this cutting-edge technology.