Ever since Soviet Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov first wrote about the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) 40 years ago, Moscow has looked to build weapons based upon what he called “new physical principles” to compete with the West. That determination is no less present today. Notably, at the end of October, Russia held its second test this year of an “Object 4202” hypersonic warhead, designed specifically for the RS-28 Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)—currently also under development. The hypersonic reentry vehicle is reportedly capable of reaching speeds of Mach 15, or 7 kilometers per second (RIA Novosti, October 28).
Upon returning to the presidency in 2012, Vladimir Putin emphasized the need to create new generations of weapons based on new physical principles (beam, geophysical, genetic, psychophysical and other technology). He also singled out cyber, information and communications technology, noting that as high-precision weapons proliferate and become common, they will become the main means for achieving a decisive victory over opponents, including in global conflicts (Premier.gov, February 20, 2012). Evidently these are the categories of weapons that comprise Russia’s so-called “asymmetric strategy.”
The focus of Russia’s futuristic arms development involves weapons that are hypersonic or that incorporate not only advanced unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology, but also lasers, artificial intelligence, robotics, potential biogenetic principles, and 3-D printing or additive manufacturing. They also comprise both conventional and nuclear weapons. Limited space precludes an exhaustive taxonomy of all the developments in these fields that are currently underway, but it is clear that collectively these systems enjoy a high priority. Nonetheless, it is unclear how budget cuts, which are being forced upon the defense sector (see EDM, October 6, November 3, 8), will affect the progress of current research or production. That said, at least some—primarily Russia’s advanced nuclear warhead and delivery vehicle development programs—deserve mention and closer scrutiny.
Indeed, current Russian nuclear programs include some hypersonic weapons systems. As one example, a new stealthy heavy bomber will reportedly be able to carry hypersonic air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM). The development of these advanced ALCMs is apparently now reaching its final phase (Sputnik News, June 13).
The above-mentioned Object 4202 vehicle, which has until now been tested on the UR-100N (NATO codename: the SS-19 “Stiletto”) ICBM, is also intended to be hypersonic (Russianforces.org, March 3, 2015; Military Russia, September 17). Hypersonic vehicles or, alternatively, “boost-glide vehicles” travel at speeds between Mach 5 and Mach 10 (3,840–7,680 miles per hour). They use sophisticated technologies for maneuvering and boost, which allows them to deliver warheads rapidly, evade defenses, and target precisely. This is designed to ensure high rates of ICBM reentry vehicle survivability against the enemy’s missile defense systems. These qualities excite Russian designers and planners because Moscow fully believes that the United States’ ballistic missile defense system now being built in Europe and Asia aims, despite all abundant evidence to the contrary, to neutralize Russia’s nuclear strike capability against Europe and the US. This explains the obsession—not too strong a word here—of Russian leaders is to build supposedly invulnerable nuclear weapons that cannot be attacked by missile defenses (Sputnik News, June 13).
The development of such weapons goes a long way toward confirming that Moscow wants to hold the US itself at risk of nuclear strikes and sees a military utility in nuclear weapons as warfighting instruments. Last year’s (2015) tests of the Object 4202 weapons development project comprised flight trials of what Russia calls the Yu-71 hypersonic attack aircraft, which can supposedly reach speeds of 7,000 miles per hour. It can be used not just as a warhead for the existing UR-100N ICBM, but reportedly can also be adapted for launch by Russia’s advanced long-range strategic bomber (Moskovsky Komsomolets, April 20). But in 2016 Moscow apparently tested an even more advanced Yu-74 hypersonic attack aircraft. Evidently these gliders have been designed to be loaded onto the new RS-28 Sarmat (NATO codename: SS-X-30 “Satan 2”) state-of-the-art ICBM, which that can carry up to 24 individual reentry vehicles. When loaded with the Yu-74 hypersonic gliders, the Sarmat will be capable of hitting any target within a 6,200-mile radius in an hour (Sputnik News, June 13).
Each Yu-74 glider can be equipped with a nuclear warhead and/or electronic warfare (EW) application. Alternatively, some of the gliders can be fitted with false-target simulators to ensure the penetration of any missile defense system and thus significantly raise the efficiency of Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces. The search for penetration systems to break through any missile defense by means of hypermodern technologies also helps explain Russia’s commitment to modernize old systems like the SS-19 Stiletto, which can serve as launchers for these hypersonic warheads (Sputnik News, June 13).
Russian analysts from the analytical site Ostkraft emphasize that the Yu-74 gliders will not only evade the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) missile defense systems, but will be also capable of penetrating the United States’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) shield. The analysts argue that while the THAAD system is effective in intercepting outdated R-17 Elbrus tactical ballistic missiles, it is potentially vulnerable to the threat posed by advanced missile systems (Ostkraft.ru, June 8). Of course, if Moscow is in fact finalizing an effective means to breach THAAD, then it remains a mystery why Moscow, if not Beijing, is so upset that South Korea, which clearly faces a serious missile and nuclear threat from North Korea, opted to join the US THAAD network (see EDM, July 22).
At the same time, Russia is reportedly developing “next-generation” air defenses against the expected US/NATO and/or Chinese hypersonics. It is not unusual to encounter statements in the Russian media boasting about future weapons systems like the S-500 Prometey, which can allegedly destroy hypersonic cruise missiles and planes flying at Mach 5 and beyond, while detecting and simultaneously attacking up to ten incoming ballistic missiles—essentially negating Western aerospace power (Sputnik News, July 3). But even though Moscow is developing defenses against Western hypersonics, it is clear from its rounds of tests and procurement schedules that Russia’s main thrust is to develop offensive strike capabilities that can threaten not just Europe but the continental US. This suggests a desire to use nuclear weapons as warfighting weapons, not just as deterrents against conventional or nuclear attack. On one hand, this procurement policy can be said to be outrunning doctrinal efforts to regulate procurements in service of a coherent strategy. Yet, for the Kremlin, it has its own logic: namely, being able to control escalation processes and dynamics through all phases of any crisis.