On Wednesday, Russia’s Defense Ministry announced that it had successfully tested a supersonic weapon that can travel at least 20 times the speed of sound. The glider, reportedly capable of carrying a conventional or nuclear warhead, launched aboard a rocket in southwestern Russia before detaching, gliding down, and hitting a target in the Kamchatka Peninsula over 3,500 miles away. In addition to being a new nuclear-capable weapon in Russia’s arsenal, the so-called “Avangard” moves so quickly that it can cover great distances without being intercepted by any existing technology.
If true, that means the United States has no defense against it. The news marks the latest chapter in a growing arms race among the United States, Russia, and China.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the successful test in a meeting with other members of the Russian government on Wednesday:
As per my instructions, a Defence Ministry enterprise prepared and conducted the final test of this system. This test has just proved to be an unqualified success. All of the system’s specifications and its performance have been confirmed. I repeat, the test was a success. Starting in 2019, the Russian army will receive the new Avangard intercontinental strategic system. The first Avangard regiment will be deployed as part of the Strategic Missile Forces. This is a major event in the life of the Armed Forces and probably the entire country. Russia now has a new strategic weapons system.
The successful test hasn’t yet been independently confirmed.
If the Avangard does what Russia’s Defense Ministry claims it does, maneuvering nimbly at speeds measured in miles per second, then it is a weapon that has no equivalent in the US arsenal and could not be tracked and shot down in transit.
Such a weapon would shift the balance of nuclear armament between the US and Russia. But as commentators have pointed out, this assumes that Russia’s claims are confirmed.
Avangard represents a Russian response to a hypothetical situation in the arms race. Russia’s nuclear arsenal already exceeds the US’s missile defense capacity, so there’s currently no real need for a glider that can maneuver around US missile defenses. But in a potential future, one in which US missile defenses cover enough of the country and are sophisticated enough to defend against a Russian attack, the strength of a Russian nuclear arsenal’s deterrent effect would depend on being able to get around those defenses.
In other words, the Russian military is working on weapons that will outpace not only current but also future missile defense systems.
“The Avangard is invulnerable to intercept by any existing and prospective missile defense means of the potential adversary,” the Associated Press reports Putin said after the test. The weapon is scheduled to enter Russia’s arsenal in 2019.