Russian President Vladimir Putin used his annual address to the Federal Assembly (upper chamber of parliament), on February 20, to, among other issues, highlight advances in the country’s hypersonic missile systems (see EDM, February 21, 25). It was not the first time that Putin has warned potential adversaries of the development of new weapons capable of overcoming any air- or ballistic missile defense systems. Yet, he seemed to exude renewed confidence in the capacity of the domestic defense industry to develop and deliver these modern cruise missiles to the Armed Forces (Izvestia, February 23). The political-military leadership is cashing in on Washington’s decision, announced on February 2, to suspend the United States’ participation in the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Putin’s political message was a mixture of denial and talking up future Russian cruise missile procurement—denying that existing systems violated the terms of the INF Treaty, while stressing that, in the future, new Russian super weapons will be impossible to defend against (Gazeta.ru, February 24).
The INF Treaty prohibits the deployment of medium-range (1,000–5,500 kilometers) ballistic and cruise missiles as well as short-range systems (500–1,000 km). In the aftermath of Putin’s comments, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) issued an unusually tough response, noting that it considers Russian threats to target allies unacceptable. NATO deputy spokesperson Pierce Cazalet added that the Alliance wants to avoid a new arms race and urged Moscow to return to abide by the terms of the INF Treaty before it becomes void on August 1. In particular, Moscow would need to scrap its controversial 9M729 cruise missiles (see EDM, February 7), which, according to Western assessments, violate the INF—an assertion that Moscow obstinately denies (Topwar.ru, February 20).
While much of the focus on the Russian violations of the INF centers on the 9M729 cruise missiles, these are really only part of the issue; many of the Russian systems in development or close to procurement flagrantly violate the treaty’s terms (Lenta.ru, February 23). One illustration of this is the plan to develop a new variant of the Kalibr family of cruise missiles, designated as Kalibr-M, which, reportedly, will be capable of striking targets up to 4,500 km away. It will be developed both in ground-launched and sea-launched cruise missile (GLCM, SLCM) variants (see EDM, January 22, February 12).
Putin also highlighted the development of the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, the fifth-generation Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Buresvestnik nuclear cruise missile, the new Peresvet mobile laser system, the Kinzhal hypersonic aircraft as well as the nuclear-armed unmanned underwater vehicle, the Poseidon. He also referred to the characteristics of another in-development hypersonic weapons system, the 3K22 Tsirkon (“Zircon”) cruise missile. The defense industry has boasted of the potential Mach speed of this new advanced cruise missile. In April 2017, Russian media outlets published assessments of its speed as up to Mach 7 or Mach 8 (Lenta.ru, Tatar-inform.ru, April 15, 2017). More sober estimates by Russian military specialists suggested the Tsirkon might reach Mach 5–6 (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, April 26, 2017). Nevertheless, according to Putin’s comments from last week, the Tsirkon system will now allegedly reach Mach 9 (Izvestia, February 21).
The Tsirkon cruise missile system remains in its testing phase, and may not be procured until 2021 or 2022. It will enter service in the Russian Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot—VMF), onboard the Yasen-M- and Husky-class submarines and surface vessels. Rear Admiral (ret.) Vladimir Khmyrov echoed Putin’s confidence that the Tsirkon will be able to overcome enemy air defenses. Khmyrov referred to the speed of the cruise missile without being specific; but he said it would not be detected or intercepted. Russia makes similar claims about other high-precision strike systems, such as the Avangard, Kalibr or Kinzhal (Gazeta.ru, February 24).
Khmyrov’s comments raise questions as to what forms the basis for this level of confidence in the ability of Russian high-precision strike systems to overcome enemy defenses (Izvestia, February 21). What appears entirely lacking in the public discourse, which seems fixated on the missiles’ pure speed, is any commentary about a potential very low observable or stealth element. Indeed, if these high-precision strike systems currently being developed possess stealth capability, they may indeed prove to be a potential game changer: such systems would pose a serious challenge to US and NATO air defenses. The twin danger of hypersonic speeds and stealth capability would be quite an advance for Russian precision-strike capability.
Specialist commentary, as well as public statements by the political-military leadership do not indicate that any serious effort will occur in the coming months to somehow rescue the INF Treaty. Russia first employed high-precision strike systems in combat operations in Syria. Its existing research and development of those weapons, combined with announced plans to introduce more variety into the conventional cruise missile and precision-strike inventory, has already undermined the entire INF framework. To resuscitate this arms control agreement would involve not only scrapping Russia’s 9M729 cruise missiles, but effectively abandoning current plans to boost conventional precision-strike in the array of future Russian military capabilities (Kommersant, February 25; Gazeta.ru, February 24; Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, February 22).
Putin has used the inevitable collapse of the INF Treaty to mask long-standing Russian ambitions to fully enter the precision-strike regime. This was intended not only to boost Russia’s conventional Armed Forces combat capability, but to add a new layer of deterrence—the so-called “non-nuclear” or “pre-nuclear” deterrence (see EDM, April 3, 2018). Much media and analytical commentary focuses on the perhaps exaggerated claims concerning the Mach speeds and exact range of these systems. And many observers express skepticism about some of the claims concerning these new cruise missile and other hypersonic weapons systems, eliciting critical commentary in Moscow-based publications (see above). But such limited analysis entirely ignores the extent to which any or some of these may incorporate stealth technology. If they do, in fact, utilize stealth capacity, it would go a long way to explaining the high level of confidence that Russia’s political-military leadership seems to express in these systems. Moreover, if these systems do include stealth technology, the US and its allies will face a serious long-term existential threat to their existing air defenses.