The Role of Hypersonic Weapons in Russian Military Strategy

Executive Summary

Today, Moscow is modernizing and increasing its high-precision strike systems, partly reflecting the drive to implement the pre-nuclear deterrence element contained in its 2014 Military Doctrine. The context provides an explanation as to why the Russian political leadership places such emphasis upon hypersonic systems: Moscow can present those new weapons as capable of overcoming “any” foreign missile-defense systems.

Yet hypersonic weapons also have strategic value for Russian military planners. In the references to these systems and the context in which they are being developed, it is clear that the General Staff leadership assigns the highest levels of importance to these capabilities. Conceptually, hypersonic systems are closely tied to the “strategy of active defense” (strategiya aktivnoy oborony), which was referred to in the speech, and later article, by the Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov, when he addressed the annual conference of the Academy of Military Sciences in Moscow on March 2, 2019. Gerasimov asserted, “The basis of ‘our response’ is the ‘strategy of active defense,’ which, taking into account the defensive nature of the Russian Military Doctrine, provides for a set of measures to preemptively neutralize threats [uprezhdayushchey neytralizatsii ugroz] to the security of the state.”

International attention sparked by the program to produce Russian hypersonic missile systems implies that this area is entirely new and denotes a paradigm shift in the defense posture of the political-military leadership. This has been exacerbated by the extent to which the term “super weapons” has taken hold within the analytical discourse. Moscow’s planned hypersonic weapons are by no means a game changer in the international security environment, nor do they, in themselves, provide evidence that the Kremlin leadership is pursuing an aggressive or expansionist foreign and defense policy.

While adding hypersonic missiles to the military inventory certainly strengthens overall military capability, it will also bring fresh challenges. These include systems integration, minimizing vulnerability to enemy precision-strikes, and resolving the cost-effectiveness issue of manufacturing hypersonics versus alternative, existing precision-strike weapons.



One of the hallmarks of Russia’s Armed Forces transformation and modernization since 2008 has been the extent to which it has implemented plans to develop and enhance conventional precision-strike capability.[1] It showily demonstrated its entry to the precision-strike regime during Russian military operations in Syria, ordered by the Kremlin in support of the Bashar al-Assad regime in late September 2015.[2] More recently, following high profile-statements by the political-military leadership, wider attention has fixated upon Moscow’s plans to introduce hypersonic weapons (Giperzvukovogo Oruzhiya—GZO; or Giperzvukovyye letatel’nyye apparaty—GZLA) into the military’s inventory.[3] These systems, while new in the sense that such capabilities have heretofore been absent in the Armed Forces, actually appear to be an extension of Russian pursuits in precision strike, though covering both nuclear and conventional capabilities.

In general terms, hypersonic missiles will provide Russia’s Armed Forces with strike options against an array of potential targets, easily overcoming enemy air defenses. Specifically, the conventional variants of these systems offer a more readily usable strike option in any conflict with a peer adversary since these stop short of escalation to a nuclear exchange. Of course, Russia is not alone in seeking to develop and procure such highly advanced missile systems, with active work in this field ongoing in the United States and China.[4] The reemergence of Russia as one of the leading military powers in the world is clear from its successful military modernization across a number of broader areas, yet entering the elite club of countries with such hypersonic capabilities raises numerous policy-related questions about Moscow’s future defense posture. Russia’s hypersonic missile capability will steadily develop over the course of the next decade and beyond; but it is worth examining the potential value of such weapons from a Russian military perspective and where they fit into strategy and doctrine.

In scholarly precise terms, hypersonic capacity can include all spacecraft, including recoverable spaceplanes, or the warheads, known as hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV), of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) in the final segment of their flight path. However, their military applications can be divided into two main categories. The first is the hypersonic element of a ballistic missile, which has a complex trajectory and generates new opportunities to overcome missile defenses and to create high-precision non-nuclear systems. The second is hypersonic air- and sea-launched cruise missiles.[5]

The following paper examines Russia’s hypersonic weapons program from the perspective of how this is viewed by the senior military leadership: as adding value to existing military capabilities. It will address how hypersonic weapons systems fit into Russian military strategy, exploring these issues through the writings of senior Russian military officers and military theorists. This approach necessitates outlining the type of systems under development, considering the utility of the conventional application of hypersonic weapons along with how Russian officers perceive these and discuss such capabilities.


Hypersonic Systems as Nuclear or Conventional Weapons

Russian President Vladimir Putin used his annual address to the Federal Assembly (upper chamber of parliament) on March 1, 2018, to highlight advances in the country’s hypersonic missile systems.[6] The hypersonic systems to which Putin referred were soon characterized as superoruzhie (super weapons). Indeed, Putin’s statements on such nuclear and conventional missile systems, and the implied advances of the domestic defense industry to manufacture them, not only displayed growing confidence in Russia’s burgeoning military capability but also highlighted the belief that Moscow is ahead of foreign competitors in this field. The role of such systems in the strategic thinking and planning of Moscow’s political-military leadership will continue to expand in the future as these systems enter service, with their range and accuracy enhanced by the long-term aim to extend the range and scope of battlefield sensors. It marks Russia’s further advance into high-precision strike capability, which will greatly enhance its overall deterrence—both nuclear and non-nuclear—as well as offer additional options to target enemy forces at depth.[7]

Unsurprisingly, Putin repeated his references to these systems in his address to the Federal Assembly on February 20, 2019, in the context of Washington’s decision, announced on February 2, to suspend the United States’ participation in the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Thus, Putin again warned potential adversaries about Russia’s development of new weapons capable of overcoming any air- or ballistic-missile-defense systems. He seemed to exude renewed confidence in the capacity of the domestic defense industry to develop and deliver these modern systems to the Armed Forces.[8] The political-military leadership was essentially cashing in on Putin’s political message, simultaneously denying that existing systems violated the terms of the INF Treaty, while stressing that, in the future, new Russian hypersonic weapons would be impossible to defend against.

The INF Treaty bans ground-launched intermediate-range (defined as 500–5,500 kilometers) ballistic and cruise missiles as well as their associated launch vehicles . In the aftermath of Putin’s statements, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) issued an unusually tough response, noting that it considered Russian threats to targeted allies unacceptable. NATO deputy spokesperson Piers Cazalet added that the Alliance wanted to avoid a new arms race and urged Moscow to return to abide by the terms of the INF Treaty before it would become void on August 1, 2019. In particular, Moscow would need to scrap its controversial 9M729 cruise missiles, which, according to Western assessments, were in breach of the INF—an assertion that Moscow denied.[9]

While much of the focus on the Russian violations of the INF centered on the 9M729s, these were really only part of the issue; many of the Russian systems in development or close to procurement flagrantly violated the treaty’s terms. One illustration of this is the planned variant of the Kalibr family of cruise missiles, designated as Kalibr-M, which, reportedly, would be capable of striking targets at up to 4,500 km. Moscow apparently plans to develop the Kalibr-M both in ground-launched and sea-launched cruise missile (GLCM, SLCM) variants.[10]

Of course, Moscow’s interest in the military application of hypersonic technology was already advancing in the late Soviet era. In the second half of the 1980s, NPO Mashinostroyenia (in Reutov, Moscow region) developed the Albatros missile system. In part, this program pursued the creation of a cruise missile warhead capable of performing an evasive maneuver to overcome enemy air defenses.[11] Also in the 1980s, Soviet research and development (R&D) on military hypersonic technology included work on the Kholod and Kholod-2, as well as the Igla systems. In parallel, they developed the Metorit strategic supersonic missile and the Kh-90 missile, known as the Hypersonic Experimental Aircraft (Giperzvukovoy Eksperimental’nyy Letatelnyy Apparat—GELA).[12]

In Putin’s list of hypersonic weapons presented to the Federal Assembly in March 2018, only one these—the Kinzhal—was sub-strategic (range less than 5,500 km).[13] In an analysis of Russian hypersonic missile systems, Richard Connolly, the director of the Eastern Advisory Group and an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), outlined the characteristics of these hypersonic systems. These are worth detailing to distinguish between the nuclear and the dual use systems:[14]

  • Sarmat—The inclusion of the RS-28 Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (NATO reporting name SS-X-29 or SS-X-30) in Putin’s speech in 2018 was no surprise to analysts. The super-heavy, liquid-fueled ICBM has been under development by the Makeyev Rocket Design Bureau since 2009. The Sarmat is expected to replace the Soviet-era RS-36M Voevoda (SS-18 Satan) in the Uzhurskaya and Dombarovskaya divisions of the Strategic Missile Forces of the Russian Federation (Raketnye Voyska Strategicheskogo Naznacheniya—RVSN). Successful launch tests were carried out in 2020 and, by February 2021, preparations were under way for flight tests at the Severo-Yenisei test site. According to the commander of the Strategic Missile Forces, Colonel General Sergey Karakaev, the new missile should enter service in 2022 with the 62nd Missile Division based at Uzhur (Krasnoyarsk region), where the construction of new facilities to house the missile is under way.
  • Avangard—The Avangard missile system combines the old and the new: the old in the form of a Soviet-era RS18A (SS-19 Stiletto) ICBM, and the new being a Yu-71 hypersonic glide vehicle. The Avangard system emerged after the Soviet-era Albatros research project to develop an HGV was resurrected, following the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002. After a number of unsuccessful trials during the 2010s, several efficacious tests took place over the course of 2015–2016. The most recent test occurred in December 2018, after President Putin’s “super weapons” announcement in March of that year. The first two Avangard systems were placed on active duty at the end of 2019. Russian officials have also expressed the hope that enough Avangard systems will be produced to fully equip two missile regiments (approximately 18–20 missiles in total) by the end of the State Armaments Program (Gosudarstvennaya Programma Vooruzheniya—GPV) to 2027.
  • Poseidon—The existence of the Poseidon nuclear-armed, unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) was first revealed publicly in November 2015, when broad details became available in the form of program schematics photographs at a Ministry of Defense meeting. Initially known as the Oceanic Multipurpose System Status-6—or simply as Status-6—it was characterized as a large, autonomous (i.e. crewless) and fast (i.e. with a reported speed of around 70 knots) nuclear-tipped torpedo. After the system was renamed the Poseidon in 2018 by a public poll, Putin and other defense officials steadily revealed more information about both the system and its intended role. According to the Russian president, the Poseidon is a multi-purpose UUV that “can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads, which enables them to engage various targets, including aircraft [carrier] groups, coastal fortifications and infrastructure.” It is also powered by a miniature nuclear reactor, giving it an unlimited range (in practical terms). The Poseidon is reported to be capable of diving to depths of up to one kilometer, rendering it safe from existing manned submarines.
  • Burevestnik—Of the four strategic systems unveiled by Putin in 2018, the least is known about the 9M730 Burevestnik [Petrel] (SSC-X-9 Skyfall) ground-launched, nuclear-powered cruise missile. When Putin publicly revealed the program in 2018, he stated that the novelty and operational utility of the Burevestnik is in its unlimited (in practical terms) range, which would enable the missile to evade any adversary’s air defense systems. The missile might also be much more difficult to detect,[15] principally because its unlimited range would permit it to fly at low altitudes throughout its journey. By contrast, the range of other, conventionally powered, cruise missiles—such as the US Tomahawk and Russian Kalibr families, powered by turbojets or turbofans—is curtailed the longer they fly at low altitudes.[16]

As Connolly notes, most of these systems have been in development for quite some time, with little known about the Burevestnik. On the Kinzhal sub-strategic hypersonic missile system, Connolly summarizes:

  • Kinzhal—The 9-S-7760 Kinzhal (Dagger) air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) was the only sub-strategic system unveiled by Putin in 2018. It is a modified variant of the 9M723 Iskander ground-launched ballistic missile but is launched by the MiG-31K missile carrier—a modified version of the MiG-31 Foxhound interceptor.[17] The MiG-31K launches the missile at high (i.e. supersonic) speed, thereby boosting the flying velocity of the Kinzhal. The Kinzhal, therefore, like the Iskander, follows an aero-ballistic flight profile. According to Putin, the Kinzhal eventually reaches Mach 10 and is capable of maneuvering throughout all phases of its flight trajectory. It is reported to possess a range of around 2,000 km from the point of release from the MiG-31K. It has also been reported that the Kinzhal will be launched from the supersonic Tu-22M3M Backfire bomber, whichis under development, and, further in the future, the Su-57 Felon fifth-generation fighter aircraft.[18]

Consequently, most of the systems referred to by Putin in his March 2018 address to the Federal Assembly relate to modernizing the country’s nuclear deterrent and by exploiting hypersonic capability to ensure its longer-term strike capability.[19] Among the sub-strategic systems in the hypersonic category, two stand out in particular and have attracted greater attention based on public statements by the political-military leadership and tests, these are the Kinzhal and the Tsirkon.[20] Beyond modernizing the nuclear deterrent by adding hypersonic systems, conventionally armed hypersonic systems such as the Kinzhal and Tsirkon offer further standoff strike capability, and they appear to signal a longer-term shift in Russian military strategy toward fostering an element of preemption in conventional warfighting.[21]


Kinzhal and Tsirkon as Standoff Strike Systems

The 9-S-7660 Kinzhal nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile can also be armed with a conventional, high-explosive fragmentation warhead. The Kinzhal was first tested using a MiG-31D3, in the Southern Military District (MD) in March 2018. In addition to its hypersonic capability, the Kinzhal flies at the stratosphere boundary to minimize air resistance and is specially designed to evade enemy air defenses. Moreover, the weapon offers improved high-precision targeting and has the ability to perform evasive maneuvers at every stage of its flight. It can be launched from Tu-22M3 bombers or MiG-31K interceptors. The ALBM’s overall weight and characteristics compelled the defense ministry to specially modernize the existing MiG-31D3 to the MiG-31K. The newer MiG-31K interceptor has more advanced onboard equipment, an increased fuel supply, and superior communications equipment to facilitate the receipt of target designation data. These changes forced the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS) to redevelop the methodology for the combat use of the MiG-31K and to retrain its pilots. The MiG-31K accelerates to Mach 2.3 to provide the Kinzhal with the necessary launch speed, allowing the hypersonic ALBM to accelerate up to Mach 10. With its alleged 2,000 km range, the Kinzhal avoids requiring the MiG-31K to enter the coverage area of enemy air defenses.[22]

In May 2020, the VKS began preparing to create a MiG-31K regiment in the Siberian city of Kansk, (Central Military District) that would be fully equipped with Kinzhals. The training of flight crews was scheduled to commence in late 2021, with the switch to the new weapons systems complete by 2024. The preparations at the VKS base in Kansk was designed as a model for equipping other VKS regiments. However, the location itself confirms the strategic importance of the new hypersonic missile system and its importance to the VKS. Introducing the Kinzhal to the VKS regiment in Kansk offers the capability to cover potential aerial threats in all strategic directions across the Russian Federation. The commander of the Central MD, Lieutenant General Alexander Lapin, stated that the rearmament of the fighter regiment with hypersonic missile systems is scheduled for completion in 2024.[23]

Moscow-based Russian military expert Vladislav Shurygin highlighted the selection of Kansk and its strategic importance: “The place of this deployment was chosen as rationally as possible. From Siberia, MiGs with a long flight range can be thrown to the north, south, west or east of the country. The situation in all these areas cannot be called calm. In particular, after the withdrawal of the American army from Afghanistan, the situation in Central Asia, where militants will come, may worsen. In the Far East, we have unresolved territorial disputes with Japan. There are disagreements in the Arctic with a number of NATO countries over the use of the Northern Sea Route. Hypersonic missiles will certainly cool any hotheads.”[24]

Plans call for the Kinzhal-equipped regiment in Kansk to eventually be protected by the S-350 Vityaz surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, which will be put into service in another city in Krasnoyarsk Territory, Achinsk, by the end of 2025. Shurygin explained, “The MiG-31K with Kh-47M2 [sic][25] missiles must be reliably covered by air-defense systems. The S-350 will meet enemy aircraft and cruise missiles on the far approaches to the airfield. The Pantsir-S1, armed not only with anti-aircraft missiles but also with an artillery mount, will cover the MiG-31 and finish off the enemy that has broken through.” The Kinzhal hypersonic missile system will be an invaluable asset for the VKS, providing high-precision strike or nuclear options. The refitted MiG-31K has been modernized to suit the new air-launched ballistic missile. Over a three-year period, the regimental flight crews will be trained, doubtless drawing on the experience of testing the ALBM in the Southern MD and in November 2019 over the Arctic, before this advanced system is fully functional in the Central MD.[26]

Moscow is modernizing and increasing its high-precision strike systems, partly reflecting the drive to implement the pre-nuclear deterrence element contained in its 2014 Military Doctrine, as well as due to these arms control treaties proving moribund.[27] The context provides an explanation as to why the Russian leadership places such emphasis upon hypersonic systems: Moscow can, in part, present those new weapons as capable of overcoming “any” foreign missile-defense systems. The Tsirkon 3M22 is one of the systems at the forefront of this process, in addition to the maritime-based variants of the Kalibr cruise missiles. The political-military leadership claims the Tsirkon can reach speeds of up to Mach 9, and has a strike range of 1,000 km.[28]

On March 2, 2019, TASS reported that the Russian navy, the Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot—VMF), planned further test firings of the new 3M22 Tsirkon, designated in the Russian media as a scramjet-powered, maneuvering, anti-ship, hypersonic cruise missile. A sea-based test firing from a surface vessel was scheduled for late 2019, with a submarine launch intended early in 2020. Earlier tests of the Tsirkon were conducted mainly from coastal areas. The test launch in late 2019 involved the Project 22350 frigate Admiral Gorshkov, from the Northern Fleet.[29] The Tsirkon will be procured by the VMF as a hypersonic cruise-missile system designed for naval surface vessels and submarines, able to attack both ships and ground targets. Submarine test launches involved the newest multi-purpose nuclear submarine, the Project 885M Kazan. These submarine launches rehearsed strikes on sea- and ground-based targets.[30]

Moscow’s political-military leadership places growing emphasis on long-range standoff precision strike systems as a key element in its ongoing modernization program. This has involved modernizing the weapons inventory in the VMF with Kalibr cruise missiles.[31] Such advances in standoff strike capabilities complement efforts to strengthen “pre-nuclear” deterrence and offering additional conventional capabilities.[32] One emerging pattern is to equip Russia’s naval forces with the latest Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile system. In June 2020, the defense ministry announced that these strike systems would be placed onboard the newest frigates entering service in the Pacific Fleet. Nevertheless, like the effort in recent years to boost the strike capability of the VMF by mounting the Kalibr cruise missile system on surface ships, the plans for the Tsirkon include both frigates and submarines, which will extend across several of the VMF fleets.[33]

The Pacific Fleet was consequently earmarked to receive three new Project 22350 frigates by 2025; each of these will be armed with the Tsirkon missile system. The defense ministry plans the first of these, the Admiral Amelko, to arrive in the Pacific Fleet in 2023, with the additional two frigates entering service in 2025. This forms part of a wider plan to introduce Tsirkon-capable frigates in other fleets. A total of eight such frigates are planned, with three ships each for the Pacific and Northern Fleets and two for the Black Sea Fleet. The final four of these frigates will be fitted with 24 vertical launchers instead of the standard 16. The eight “Admiral” series of frigates are tasked with naval grouping protection, communications and counter-terrorism as well as peace-support missions and functions. Their armament allows them to offer air defense for other ships, support amphibious landing, and to strike various land and sea targets. They will be built using stealth technology, incorporating the most advanced composite materials, with an overall effort to reduce their radar visibility.[34]

Although the estimated range of the Tsirkon may be up to 1,000 km, reported test launches from naval platforms to strike ground targets appear more limited to around 500 km. In January 2020, Admiral Gorshkov launched the Tsirkon from the Barents Sea to strike a ground target at a training facility in the Northern Urals.[35] The Tsirkon will prove to be a significant boost to the VMF, since this missile’s hypersonic speed would likely overwhelm most air-defense systems.

The defense ministry’s plans to introduce the Tsirkon system also extends to Project 885 and 885M nuclear submarines, with reports that these will be capable of firing from under the ice. While some sources link this test to the Tsirkon, it is likely that it represents a prototype test, with the official testing for such submarine launches still more than two years away. In December 2019, the Severodvinsk (Project 885) allegedly carried out test launches of the Tsirkon from under the ice in the Arctic region. According to Deputy Defense Minister Alexei Krivoruchko, the Tsirkon is intended for Project 885, 885M and 949AM submarines, Project 22350 and 23560 surface ships, as well as the Project 1144.2 guided-missile cruiser Admiral Nakhimov. Krivoruchko additionally confirmed plans to develop a ground-based version of the system. Boris Obnosov, the general director of the Tactical Missile Weapons Corporation, explained that the Tsirkon advances in standoff strike systems are part of “several dozen” hypersonic projects currently in development.[36]

Preparation for the introduction of such hypersonic weapons systems into service in the VMF extends to linking automated naval command and control (C2) to these strike capabilities.[37] In early August 2021, Russia’s Northern Fleet staged a large naval exercise in the northeastern Atlantic, in which it again tested the Tsirkon 3M22 hypersonic cruise missile system. The Tsirkon 3M22 will be procured for surface ships and submarines in 2022. However, the exercise not only tested the Tsirkon, it carried out an innovative trial of a new naval automated control system (avtomatizirovannoy sistemy upravleniya—ASU); the reported results of this combination of automated (C2) and hypersonic strike systems mark an exponential increase in Russia’s maritime and non-contact standoff strike capabilities.[38]

The Northern Fleet exercise focused on testing the new naval ASU, integrating maritime and aviation assets to facilitate, in real time, a rehearsed attack on enemy shipping. The missile launches involved the nuclear submarine Orel, the cruiser Marshal Ustinov and the frigate Admiral of the Fleet Kasatonov. Two crews of Tu-142 reconnaissance and anti-submarine aircraft transferred data about the hypothetical enemy to the command, and they also launched a strike at a distance of hundreds of kilometers from the target.[39] The ASU unified the C2 with the processes of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) to offer real-time operational capability in target acquisition and executing the attack. In addition to receiving ISR from aircraft, the ASU obtains data collected by ground-based radars, satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). The naval ASU offers the capability to enhance the speed of decision-making in the use of the Tsirkon 3M-22, and it also functions equally well with other precision-strike systems, such as the Kalibr, Vulkan or Yakhont.[40]

Flying at distances of hundreds of kilometers from both the command and potential targets, the Tu-142 aircraft transmitted information about enemy locations. Meanwhile, according to defense ministry sources, the ASU itself identified the most important targets and “decided” how to destroy them. Russian military experts see this ASU development as greatly enhancing the firepower, speed of target acquisition, and destruction of maritime targets—clearly boosting the capabilities of the VMF.[41]

Russian defense ministry officials contend that the innovation in the use of the naval ASU lies in detection as well as the system’s involvement in target selection. Indeed, reporting on the conduct of the exercise strongly implied a role for artificial intelligence (AI), as the various assets were brought together throughout the automated C2, while the system itself “selected” the targets. The ASU was designed principally for use with the Tsirkon 3M22: together they make a highly potent combination. Since tests began on the Tsirkon 3M22, the VMF leadership has looked to these among other hypersonic systems to radically boost maritime capability. However, integrated with the new naval ASU, these systems will play a much greater role in Russian military operational capability and in deterrence.[42]

Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, referring to the testing of Tsirkon missiles, claimed that these had demonstrated the highest accuracy with launches at sea targets, leaving “no chance for the enemy.” Deputy Defense Minister Alexei Krivoruchko also confirmed that the state tests were planned to be completed in 2021 and would begin serial deliveries in 2022. “Russia was the first in the world to receive hypersonic weapons, and a new ASU is needed to fully reveal all of its strengths,” according to military expert Vladislav Shurygin, who added, “At the same time, it will also receive information from radars and satellites. After detecting a target, hypersonic speed makes it possible to hit it in a matter of minutes, even at a distance of hundreds of kilometers. During the flight time, the ships simply will not have time to go far.”[43]


Strategy of Active Defense

Since President Putin’s speech to the Federal Assembly in March 2018, announcing ambitions and intentions to introduce a range of hypersonic weapons systems into the country’s military inventory, speculation has been rife within Western analytical circles as to the purpose underlying such efforts to strengthen Russia’s nuclear and conventional strike capabilities. It is important to understand how the political-military leadership perceives such weapons systems and their potential role across the range of Russian military capabilities, including boosting pre-nuclear deterrence. Additional key analytical questions include what prompted such an agenda and where these systems fit into Russian military thought.[44] A crucial element in this quest to untangle the role played by hypersonic strike systems, especially those with conventional application potential, necessitates distinguishing between the rhetoric and speculation as well as identifying how the military leadership thinks about such weapons systems. How do these new weapons systems fit existing Russian military thought? Are these systems simply an extension of conventional standoff strike capability? Or do they also play a role in a potentially innovative development within Moscow’s approaches toward warfare generally. Finally, do these weapons play a role within doctrinal foundations that may influence or play a part in General Staff thinking in future conflicts?

In an effort to contextualize the potentially innovative role assigned to such weapons systems in the future—and considering how Moscow might exploit such additional capabilities—it is important to place this in the setting of Russian military strategy. In turn, this is heavily connected with how technology may transform approaches to warfare and, therefore, impact upon the development of military strategy.[45] Moreover, in examining key concepts and defining how the General Staff leadership thinks about hypersonic strike capability, the question arises as to whether the procurement of these systems constitutes a new set of options at the disposal of the political leadership in a confrontation with a peer adversary. The starting point is military strategy and related derivative concepts.[46] “Military strategy” (“voyennaya strategiya”) is defined in the Russian military encyclopedic dictionary as follows:

An integral part of the art of war, its highest field, which includes the theory and practice of the military activity of the state. The provisions of military strategy are based on the results of assessing the state and directions of development of the military-political situation, scientifically grounded goals, principles, directions and tasks, objective needs and real possibilities for the functioning and development of the military organization of the state. Military strategy is closely related to the policy of the state, and is directly dependent on it. Politics set military strategy tasks, and the strategy ensures their implementation. Military strategy is formulated in relation to the military-strategic sphere of the setting of the state’s military doctrine.

The main questions of the theoretical and practical aspects of military strategy are: the likely nature of wars and the military’s ways of preventing them; the means, goals and objectives of the Armed Forces in war and in the military; actions of a strategic scale; the necessary funds for their maintenance; the content, methods and conditions for preparing and waging war in general and various forms of strategic actions; strategic planning of the use of the Armed Forces in war and strategic operations; the use of aircraft types in them; fundamentals of moral, psychological, technical and logistical support for the actions of the Armed Forces; leadership of the Armed Forces in the peaceful and military times; development of strategic requirements for the construction of the Armed Forces, preparation of the economy, population and territory of the state for war; strategic views of the leading states and coalitions, their capabilities to prepare, unleash and conduct war and military operations of a strategic scale.[47]

Hypersonic weapons systems have strategic value for Russian military planners. In references to these systems and the context in which they are being developed, it is clear that the General Staff leadership assigns strategic importance to these capabilities. However, following from Russian military strategy are key conceptualizations that appear to be similar but need clarification in order to try to address the question as to how the General Staff thinks about hypersonic weapons and especially those systems with a conventional application. Conceptually, these systems are closely tied to the strategy of active defense (strategiya aktivnoy oborony), which was referred to in his speech (and later article) by the chief of the General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov, addressing the annual conference of the Academy of Military Sciences (Akademii Voyennykh Nauk—AVN) in Moscow on March 2, 2019.[48] This concept, as will be seen, can easily be confused with the long-established and varied concept of “active defense” (aktivnaya oborona); but the two concepts are different.

In re-conceptualizing “active defense” as a “strategy of active defense,” Gerasimov may have been presenting his ideas in a format immediately identifiable and having resonance with his largely military audience during the AVN conference.[49] However, the way in which he added additional explanation around his use of the term, as well as closely relating this to the plans to develop and procure hypersonic weapons, left little room for doubt that he was outlining something new. As noted, the two concepts could be misread or misinterpreted as essentially the same—though they are not.[50] To be clear, the concept of “active defense,” originating in the military thought of leading Russian imperial officers in the early 20th century, witnessed conceptual evolution in the course of Moscow’s experience of military conflict throughout the century and more recently resurfaced with important meaning for operational-tactical and tactical planning.

Again, the Russian military encyclopedic dictionary offer the following definition:

Active defense, in the historical literature, is a term denoting the defensive actions of one of the belligerents in order not only to hold territory, but mainly to exhaust and bleed large enemy forces. Active defense was used by Soviet troops during the Great Patriotic War and consisted of firmly holding prepared lines (positions) in combination with counterstrikes and counterattacks, [as well as] extensive use of anti-tank and other reserves. In the post-war period, the term is used only in historical literature; in modern conditions, the concept of defense activity is used to characterize defensive actions.[51]

The term “active defense” was written about in 1915, later going through modifications during the 1920 and 1930s, before emerging as a recognizable military concept during the Great Patriotic War (GPW, 1941–1945). It was denoted by military operations designed to exhaust large-scale enemy force groupings using active maneuver forces in the main counterattack. In some sources, its value lay in combining firepower of the first echelon formations and maneuver with reserves.[52] Soviet Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky criticized active defense due to its offensive nature and alleged failure to meet the criteria implied in any transition to defensive actions (gaining time and pinning down the enemy). Tukhachevsky believed that active defense under such circumstances would prove to be unsuitable and instead called for organizing a conventional offensive. After 1945, the concept of “active defense” faded and was mainly used only in military-historical literature. However, the term reappeared in Russian military usage later in the Soviet era and survived the transition to the post-Soviet Armed Forces lexicon, albeit in altered application.[53]

Indeed, “active defense” is a good example of how Russian-Soviet military concepts change over time, largely in response to the changing character of warfare. As such, “active defense” underwent revision from its earlier understanding and use during World War I, through the theoretical discussion among the leading Soviet officer military theorists in the 1920s and 1930s, with further change compelled by operational experience in the GPW, before reemerging more recently in contemporary Russian military theory. Thus, Lester W. Grau and Lieutenant Colonel Charles K. Bartles, in their 2016 book, The Russian Way of War: Force Structure, Tactics, and Modernization of the Russian Ground Forces, examined Russian combat manuals and military training materials to formulate how the concept of “active defense” is used in the modern Russian Armed Forces.

According to the authors, the characteristics of an “active defense” include that it:

  • Places the enemy under constant fires;
  • Creates unfavorable conditions for the enemy to conduct battle;
  • Conducts extensive maneuver of forces and systems in the conduct of fires and assaults;
  • Conducts defensive counterattacks.[54]

Achieving an active defense involves:

  • Careful organization of the means of nuclear and conventional fires to destroy the enemy and the skillful implementation of this during combat;
  • Timely maneuver of forces and systems, fires and obstacles against a threatened axis;
  • Jamming of enemy C2 systems, weapons and aircraft.[55]

This, in turn, leads to the use of two possible types of defense—positional defense and maneuver defense—with positional defense serving as the primary type. In author interviews with retired Russian military officers with experience of courses in the Combined Arms Academy in Moscow, they confirmed that the above outline of the “active defense” concept is how Russian officers use or understand the term today.[56]

Returning to Gerasimov’s speech delivered at the annual AVN conference on March 2, 2019, it was additionally published in the official defense ministry publication, Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer (Military Industrial Courier) and republished in the official journal of the AVN, together with the 2019 conference papers.[57] All these speeches/papers were based on or linked to the theme of military strategy. Among the notable and eminent Russian military theorists or defense academicians were Andrei Kokoshin and Lieutenant General Vladimir Ostankov. Kokoshin presented the paper “Perspektivy razvitiyavoyennoy tekhnosfery Budushcheye voyn i neboyevogoprimeneniya voyennoy sily” (“Development prospects of military technosphere and the future of wars and noncombat employment of military force”), and Ostankov, “Kharakter sovremennykh voyennykh konfliktov i yego vliyaniye na voyennuyu strategiyu” (“The nature of modern military conflicts and its effect on military strategy”). Ostankov is a leading military scientist at the Academy of the General Staff and is a former head of the General Staff think tank, the Center for Military-Strategic Research (Tsentr Voyenno-Strategicheskikh Issledovaniy—TsVSI).

In this context, Gerasimov presented his paper to the AVN, “Razvitiye voyennoy strategii v sovremennykh usloviyakh. Zadachi voyennoy nauki” (“Military Strategy Development in Modern Conditions: The Tasks of Military Science”).[58] Gerasimov addressed the theme of Russian military strategy in the context of the national threat perception, which raised issues of how the defense and security establishment sees the potential threat to Russia’s national security posed by the United States. Gerasimov stated, for example,

The United States and its allies have determined the aggressive vector of their foreign policy. They work out military actions of an offensive nature, such as “global strike,” [and] “multi-sphere battle,” they use technologies of “color revolutions” and “soft power.” Their goal is to liquidate the statehood of unwanted countries, undermine sovereignty, [and] change the legally elected bodies of state power. This was the case in Iraq, Libya and Ukraine. Currently, similar actions are being observed in Venezuela. The Pentagon has begun to develop a fundamentally new strategy of warfare, which has already been dubbed the “Trojan horse.” Its essence lies in the active use of the “protest potential of the fifth column” in the interests of destabilizing the situation while simultaneously delivering VTO [high-precision weapons] strikes against the most important targets.[59]

Gerasimov then explained that in response to the posture adopted by the United States and its allies toward Russia, the country’s military scientists and the General Staff had developed “conceptual approaches to neutralize the aggressive actions of potential adversaries.” He declared the nature of this conceptual “response” as:

The basis of “our response” is the “strategy of active defense” [strategiya aktivnoy oborony], which, taking into account the defensive nature of the Russian Military Doctrine, provides for a set of measures to preemptively neutralize threats [uprezhdayushchey neytralizatsii ugroz] to the security of the state.

It is the justification of the measures being developed that should constitute the scientific activity of military scientists. This is one of the priority areas for ensuring the security of the state. We must stay ahead of the enemy in the development of military strategy—go “one step ahead.”[60]

Significantly, Gerasimov later linked the “strategy of active defense” to hypersonic weapons systems:

As a result, an urgent task in the development of military strategy is to substantiate and improve measures of nuclear and non-nuclear deterrence.[61] Any potential aggressor must understand that any form of pressure on Russia and its allies is futile.

Our answer will not be long in coming. For this, modern weapons are being adopted and deployed, including fundamentally new types of weapons. Serial production of new types of weapons and equipping for the Armed Forces has begun. Avangard, Sarmat, the newest weapons Peresvet and Kinzhal have shown their high efficiency, the complexes Poseidon and Burevestnik are being successfully tested. Planned work is underway to create a sea-based hypersonic missile Tsirkon.

There is no doubt that in this area we are confidently leading in comparison with the technologically developed countries of the world. Thus, a decision was made to conduct scientific and design work to develop ground-based systems for medium- and shorter-range hypersonic missiles.[62]

Gerasimov made clear the linkage between the “strategy of active defense,” which he rooted firmly in the 2014 Russian Military Doctrine, stressing that one of its elements is to “preemptively neutralize threats,” with hypersonic weapons evidently envisaged as central to this. Since only the Kinzhal and Tsirkon have potential conventional application, it appears that these were what he had in mind in terms of preemption. However, Gerasimov also referred to future ground-based hypersonic weapons systems in both medium- and short-range versions.[63]

Some Western analysts soon picked up on the innovative nature of Gerasimov’s use of the term “strategy of active defense.” In late March, US defense analysts Dave Johnson published a commentary on Gerasimov’s address to the AVN in the NATO Defense College Russian Studies Series. Johnson noted:

According to General Gerasimov, current circumstances require Russia to continue to develop the forms and means of use of the Armed Forces for strategic deterrence and for the defence of the state. General Gerasimov said that Russia’s response to current and foreseen threats is a “strategy of active defence” entirely in line with the defensive character of Russia’s Military Doctrine. The strategy comprises “integrated means for the pre-emptive neutralization of threats to the security of the state” and is guided by principles for:

  • Prevention of war: strategic foresight to enable timely response to emerging threats;

  • Preparation for war: includes maintaining constant high combat readiness and readiness for mobilization of the armed forces and creation of strategic reserves and stockpiles;

  • The conduct of war: on the basis of coordinated employment of military and non-military means acting on the basis of surprise, decisiveness, and continuity of strategic action.

General Gerasimov went on to say, “acting quickly, we should preempt the enemy with our preventive measures, promptly identify his vulnerabilities and create threats of unacceptable damage to him. This ensures the capture and retention of the strategic initiative.”[64]

Johnson identified the significance of Gerasimov’s address to the AVN conference in 2019, examining the implications of the “strategy of active defense,” underscoring the preemptive aspects, but interconnecting strategic foresight, preparing for and conducting war to the theme of gaining and maintaining the strategic initiative. The Norwegian defense analysts Maren Garberg Bredesen and Karsten Friis also noted the innovative element of Gerasimov’s “strategy of active defense” and linked this to a response to the threat perception vis-à-vis the US and its allies:

Importantly, the active defense strategy—while presented as being a “defensive” response to Western political and military encroachment—foresees active, even anticipatory, use of military force based on prediction. The importance of such prediction and scenario-based thinking appears to be reinforced by concerns regarding the breakdown of international arms control regimes and the ensuing unpredictability in military-political affairs—all of which Gerasimov blames on Washington’s unilateral actions. Thus, for Gerasimov, seizing and upholding the strategic initiative has become increasingly important. Maintaining this initiative involves a set of measures aimed at strategically deterring and preemptively neutralizing threats to Russian national security. Towards this end, Gerasimov urges the upgrading of nuclear and non-nuclear weapons. He also draws attention to the utility of precision-strike capabilities in targeting the enemy’s critical nodes, such as decision-making centers and missile launchers.[65]

Garberg Bredesen and Friis drew attention to Gerasimov’s assertion that maintaining the strategic initiative relies on a set of measures to strategically deter and preemptively neutralize threats to Russia’s national security. In terms of hypersonic systems inflicting unacceptable damage on the adversary, this envisages targeting critical nodes, such C2 centers and enemy missile platforms.[66]

If there was any doubt concerning the distinction between the concept and term of “active defense” or “strategy of active defense,” this was clarified by no less an authority than Colonel General Vladimir Zarudnitskiy, the head of the Academy of the General Staff. In the January 2021 issue of Voyennaya Mysl’, Zarudnitskiy published “Kharakter i soderzhaniye voyennykh konfliktov v sovremennykh usloviyakh i obozrimoy perspektive” (“The Nature and Content of Military Conflicts in Present-day Conditions and in the Foreseeable Future”).[67] Zarudnitskiy almost summarized Gerasimov’s earlier address to the AVN conference:

Counteracting “multi-sphere” [mnogosfernosti][68] measures will require coordinated actions of the state in all spheres of confrontation within the framework of an active defense strategy [strategii aktivnoy oborony], which, taking into account the defensive nature of the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, should provide for complex measures to preemptively neutralize threats to state security.

In connection with the increase in the spatial scope and multi-sphere of military operations, the issues of organizing and maintaining interaction and coordination of actions of multi-service and multi-departmental groupings of troops (forces) are emerging to the fore.[69]

Zarudnitskiy not only linked the “strategy of active defense” to preemption, but also tied this to Moscow’s response to the US concept of multi-domain operations. What is unambiguous in these public statements by senior Russian military officers is that hypersonic weapons systems are considered tools of preemption that also play a deterrence role.[70] Preemption as a theme was taken up in an article devoted to the subject in the December 2021 issue of Voyennaya Mysl’. Major General (reserve) Vyacheslav Kruglov, a professor and leading researcher at the defense ministry’s Research Center for the Military Potential of Foreign Countries, and Colonel Aleksei Shubin, a department head and professor of the defense ministry’s Central Research Institute 18, addressed this in “O vozrastayushchem znachenii uprezhdeniya protivnika v deystviyakh” (“On the Increasing Importance of Preempting Adversary Actions”).[71] Kruglov and Shubin discussed the role played by standoff high-precision strike systems, including subsonic cruise missiles and hypersonic weapons. The authors noted the use of high-precision strike systems by Russia’s Armed Forces during operations in Syria:

The emergence of new means of warfare, in particular, high-precision, long-range, sea and airborne weapons [the Kalibr cruise missile, the Kinzhal and Tsirkon hypersonic missile systems], gives rise to such new forms of military operations as strategic strike and missile air-naval strike—the first time such strikes were struck in Syria on the formations of the Islamic State.[72]

The article clearly links preemption with the development and procurement of hypersonic systems, mentioning the Kinzhal and the Tsirkon.[73] This, in turn, the authors argue, will demand innovative approaches toward conducting future military operations, reflecting consideration of how such weapons might be best applied. Here, the authors even attempt to fit the role of hypersonic weapons such as the Kinzhal and the Tsirkon into the Soviet theory of deep battle, or the deep operation, most likely in an effort to make the connection with their readership of an identifiable continuum in military thought:

Other types of new weapons announced by the president of Russia in his address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation in 2018, also require further development of new forms and methods of their application and, in general, the conduct of military operations. The introduction of these new forms in conjunction with the main modern method of military operations, which presupposes simultaneous [this is how time manifests itself] defeat of the enemy to the full depth of its operational formation [in the long term—to the entire depth of its strategic deployment], in fact, is a consequence of the further development of the theory and practice of deep operation.[74]

Also in the December 2021 issue of Voyennaya Mysl’, Colonel Mikhail Stepshin and Andrei Anikov, leading researchers in the TsVSI, focused on the role of weapons development on the shape of future warfare: “Razvitiye vooruzheniya, voyennoy i spetsial’noy tekhniki i ikh vliyaniye na kharakter budushchikh voyn” (“Progress in Weapons, Special and Military Hardware and Their Effect on the Nature of Future Warfare”).[75] The TsVSI co-authors analyzed priorities in Russia’s weapons, military and special equipment (Vooruzheniya, Voyennoy i spetsial’noy tekhniki—VVST). On this basis, Stepshin and Anikov considered the directions and trends in Russia’s R&D of VVST and its influences on future warfare, outlining these as follows:

  • Development of hypersonic weapons (Giperzvukovogo Oruzhiya—GZO);

  • Development of weapons based on new physical principles (Oruzhiya na Novykh Fizicheskikh Printsipakh—ONFP);

  • Improvement of high-precision long-range weapons (Vysokotochnogo Oruzhiya Bol’shoy Dal’nosti—VTO DB);

  • Development of robotic military complexes (Robototekhnicheskikh Kompleksov—RTK);

  • Development of unmanned aerial vehicles (Bespilotnykh Letatel’nykh Apparatov—BPLA) with the expansion of the range of functions performed by them;

  • Development of elements of artificial intelligence (AI; Iskusstvennogo Intellekta—II) in the creation of advanced models of weapons and military equipment.[76]

Rooted in their analysis of the probable trends in Russia’s development of VVST, the authors argue that such systems in combination have the potential to change the nature of warfare itself. Thus, future war, in their view, may have the following features:

  • Non-contact impact on the enemy;

  • Information defeat of control elements of critical enemy targets;

  • Application of GZO, VTO and ONFP against enemy critical facilities;

  • Use of UAVs to break through the air-defense/missile defense system;

  • Massive use of unmanned aircraft for various purposes (reconnaissance, strike, electronic warfare);

  • Coverage of military operations from one to several theaters of operations;

  • Duration of hostilities from several hours to several days, depending on the level of achievement of the goal of the war;

  • Massive use by all types of the Armed Forces of robotic systems for combat and support purposes;

  • Application of elements of artificial intelligence in the general decision-making support system for command and control of troops and weapons;

  • Complex application of both military and non-military measures of armed struggle in achieving the goals of war.[77]

Stepshin and Anikov not only place hypersonic weapons systems in pole position in their assessment of VVST priorities, but see these in terms of striking critical enemy infrastructure. Indeed, as noted earlier, one of the advantages offered by such systems given their speed and likely successful evasion of enemy air defenses is the high probability of striking their targets. Of course, the role of hypersonic weapons is not analyzed by these authors in isolation from other developments in Russia’s military modernization. However, it is clear that senior Russian military officers with credible influence upon General Staff thinking pay serious attention to the utility of developing such strike capabilities.

In the AVN annual conference on March 2, 2019, during which Gerasimov outlined the “strategy of active defense,” Lieutenant General Vladimir Ostankov also presented a paper on the nature of modern military conflicts and its effect on military strategy. This was published together with the other conference papers in Vestnik, and it should be noted that Ostankov concluded his article by pointing out that Russian deterrence policy linked hypersonic weapons to intimidation and inflicting unacceptable damage to an adversary in response to large-scale aggression—as Gerasimov had also stated. The presence of this element in both papers delivered to the AVN conference by Gerasimov and Ostankov certainly cannot be attributed to mere coincidence.[78] In a May 28, 2019, article in Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, Ostankov considers the issue of Russian perspectives on future warfare, linking this to Moscow’s defense posture in several areas, and he repeats the linkages between hypersonic weapons systems and intimidation of adversaries.[79] At the article’s outset, Ostankov ties high technology and modern weapons systems to their impact on shaping the views and concepts of the Armed Forces, explaining that the most important aspect of military strategy is to predict the nature of future wars—military forecasting[80] as a specialist field—and outline the potential of the future enemy in order to form adequate counter measures. Ostankov then describes the main features of modern warfare as follows:

  • The massive use of high-precision and hypersonic weapons and Electronic Warfare (EW) tools;

  • A multifaceted impact on the enemy throughout the depth of its territory and simultaneously in the global information and aerospace confrontation;

  • Strengthened centralization and automation of troops and weapons control;

  • Participation in the battles of irregular armed formations and private military companies (PMC);

  • The complex use of force and non-military measures implemented with the wide use of the protest potential of the population;

  • The use of externally funded political forces and social movements.[81]

Significantly, Ostankov claims that the Russian political leadership has augmented its deterrence posture by adopting a deliberate policy of intimidating potential adversaries. That said, Ostankov believes the dominant role in future warfare still lies in the application of kinetic force. He refers to the changing face of warfare and its implications for the future:

New technologies have significantly reduced the spatial, temporal and informational gap between troops and command and control. Frontal collisions of large groups of troops (forces) at the strategic and operational levels are gradually becoming a thing of the past. A remote non-contact impact on the enemy becomes the main way to achieve the goals of the battle and operation. The destruction of its objects is carried out [across] the entire depth of the territory. The differences between the strategic, operational and tactical levels, [as well as] offensive and defensive actions are erased.[82]

Ostankov draws his ideas together with specific linkage to the future role of hypersonic weapons in Russian military strategy:

Anticipating a similar change in the nature of the struggle, military strategy develops requirements for the development of inter-specific reconnaissance-strike and reconnaissance-fire complexes, determining their place in the combat system and shared participation in the destruction of the enemy. No wonder that a unit has been created within the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation to deal with this problem. Analysis of the United States’ military capabilities has resulted in a transition of Russia from the policy of deterring a potential adversary with nuclear weapons to a policy of intimidation by causing unacceptable damage with hypersonic weapons in response to any large-scale aggression.[83]

Ostankov, similar to other senior Russian military officers, considers the role of hypersonic weapons especially with a conventional application as playing a critical part in the “strategy of active defense,” as outlined by Gerasimov. In Ostankov’s view, this also has a key role in Russia’s deterrence policy: marked by a shift to a policy of intimidation by causing unacceptable damage with hypersonic weapons.[84] Thus, as hypersonic weapons systems enter service in growing numbers in Russia’s Armed Forces in the 2020s and 2030s, including Kinzhal and Tsirkon as well as the ground-based medium- and short-range variants, these will play an increasingly prominent role in national deterrence policy—offering enhanced standoff strike capability, and providing a usable conventional high-precision strike against key enemy targets.[85]



Moscow’s interest in the development and procurement of hypersonic missile systems reflects similar attention to this field by the United States and China.[86] Arguably, Russia’s defense industry is ahead of the curve in this area. Yet this interest is an evolution of previous advances in hypersonic technology applied to the military in the later Soviet era. In the context of Russia’s military modernization and the revival of its conventional Armed Forces since the reforms launched in late 2008, hypersonic missile systems fit a broad swathe of Moscow’s security concerns and mark a continuum with Soviet military thought.[87]

International attention sparked by the program to produce Russian hypersonic missile systems implies that this area is entirely new and denotes a paradigm shift in the defense posture of the political-military leadership. Indeed, this misunderstanding has been exacerbated by the extent to which the term “super weapons” has taken hold within the analytical discourse. Moscow’s planned hypersonic weapons are by no means a game changer in the international security environment, nor do they provide evidence that the Kremlin leadership is pursuing an aggressive or expansionist foreign and defense policy.[88]

By reactivating the domestic capacity to conduct R&D on such systems and to invest in their procurement, Russia’s political leadership finds potential answers to military-technical issues such as overcoming potential adversary air defenses, ensuring the delivery of such strikes against high-value targets. At the same time, hypersonics are politically appealing in the sense that they can be cast as a response to US missile defense close to Russia’s borders. While Russia’s hypersonic weapons cover both nuclear and conventional capabilities—at the nuclear level, going one step further in ensuring first-strike and retaliatory-strike potential—the systems with conventional applications, such as the Kinzhal or Tsirkon, are notably sub-strategic systems, which undoubtedly offers better operational-tactical warfighting capability. This will be added to, according to Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, by ground-based medium- and short-range hypersonic missiles.[89] These systems, while initially benefiting the Aerospace Forces and the Military-Maritime Fleet, will also add standoff strike capability for the Ground Forces in the ground-based versions, likely entering service within the Missile and Artillery Troops (Raketnyye Voyska i Artilleriya—RV&A).

How these systems with conventional operational-tactical capability fit into Russia’s military strategy or define the extent to which such capabilities are new in Russian military thought is quite complex. It is possible to argue that these systems are intended to add to existing standoff strike capability, with the added value of the high probability of evading enemy air defenses. In this sense, Russian hypersonic missiles will further boost non-contact warfare capability. Moreover, hypersonic systems evidently complement and add real value to the 2014 Military Doctrine by asserting the role of “non-nuclear deterrence.”[90]

An additional role in Russia’s military strategy directly afforded by the procurement of hypersonic missiles, especially those with a conventional application such as the Kinzhal or Tsirkon, relates to Gerasimov’s elaboration of the “strategy of active defense.” As Gerasimov noted in his address to the AVN in March 2019, the strategy of active defense contains an anticipatory element to “preemptively neutralize threats (uprezhdayushchey neytralizatsii ugroz),” stemming from and rooted in the 2014 Military Doctrine.[91] This preemptive component of the “strategy of active defense” seems clear from the context in which Gerasimov talked about hypersonic systems during his address to the AVN—an address themed around military strategy and the role of military science. It is quite striking that during the same AVN conference, General Staff Academy leading military scientist General Vladimir Ostankov reinforced the idea that Russian deterrence policy links hypersonic weapons to intimidation and inflicting “unacceptable damage” (nepriyemlemyy ushcherb) on an adversary in response to large-scale aggression.[92] This theme of linking hypersonic systems—specifically the Kinzhal and Tsirkon—to deterrence resurfaced in the December issue of Voyennaya Mysl’, with Major General (reserve) Vyacheslav Kruglov and Colonel Aleksei Shubin clearly tying such weapons to preemption. Equally, leading researchers at the General Staff think tank, the TsVSI, place hypersonic systems development in primary place in their assessment of the influence modern weapons have on emerging views of future warfare.[93]

As Moscow makes further advances in hypersonics to boost Russian military capability in the 2020s and 2030s and beyond, this will need to be complemented by successful efforts to increase and diversify its array of battlefield sensors.[94] This would resolve the issue of target acquisition for hypersonic weapons and integrate these into the reconnaissance-strike system.[95] On the one hand, adding hypersonic missiles to the military inventory certainly strengthens overall capability. But on the other hand, it will also bring fresh challenges. These potential difficulties include completing systems integration, minimizing the vulnerability to enemy precision strikes, and lowering the relative manufacturing costs of these weapons compared to existing precision-strike weapons. Target acquisition of relocatable/moving targets at long range will also continue to be an issue, particularly for naval targets. Moreover, the primary long-range target acquisition platform—the Tu-142 heavy propeller aircraft—is unsuitable for contested environments. Large non-stealth UAVs are not particularly suitable for such environments either, and the Russian military has yet to field them in meaningful numbers.[96] Taken together, Moscow’s hypersonic weapons program remains a work in progress and is still in its relatively early stages.



[1] The author wishes to express his gratitude to the following individuals for reviewing and commenting on an earlier draft of this paper: Douglas Barrie, Charles K. Bartles, Lester W. Grau, Gudrun Persson, Guy Plopsky and Bettina Renz.

[2] See: Dmitry (Dima) Adamsky, “Russian Lessons Learned From the Operation in Syria: A Preliminary Assessment,” in Glen E. Howard and Matthew Czekaj (eds.), Russia’s Military Strategy and Doctrine, Washington DC, 2019, pp.379–410; Michael Kofman and Matthew Rojansky, “What Kind of Victory for Russia in Syria?” Military Review,, January 24, 2018.

[3] Hypersonic speeds are those that exceed Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound).

[4] “Hypersonic Weapons: Background and Issues for Congress,” Washington DC: Congressional Research Service,, October 19, 2021.

[5]Po tu storonu sverkhzvuka voyennyye konstruiruyut giperzvukovoye oruzhiye,”,, November 12, 2016.

[6] Vladimir Putin, “Poslaniye Prezidenta Federal’nomu Sobraniyu,”,, March 1, 2018.

[7] Ibid.

[8]Otvet na ugrozu: nazvany tseli Tsirkona v SShA Ivan Apuleyev,”,, February 24, 2019; “V Rossii planiruyut razrabotat’ nazemnyy Kalibr-M s dal’nost’yu 4,5 tys. Km,” Izvestia,, February 23, 2019.

[9]V NATO prokommentirovali poslaniye Putina Federal’nomu Sobraniyu,” Voyennoye Obozreniye,,, February 20, 2019.

[10]Rossiya perestroit Kalibr v otvet na vykhod SShA iz raketnogo dogovora,”,, February 23, 2019.

[12]Po tu storonu sverkhzvuka voyennyye konstruiruyut giperzvukovoye oruzhiye,”,, November 12, 2016.

[13] The Kinzhal is not a hypersonic glide vehicle or cruise missile, but a maneuverable ALBM (Air-Launched Ballistic Missile). Due to its hypersonic speed it is included in the analysis of Russia’s hypersonic weapons systems. ALCMs and ALBMs were not subject to the 1987 INF Treaty.

[14] Richard Connolly, “Putin’s ‘Super-Weapons,’ ” in Samuel Bendett (, Advanced military technology in Russia Capabilities and implications, London: Chatham House, September 2021, pp.23–33.

[15] Though, it may be emitting a lot of radiation.

[16] Ibid.

[17] The MiG-31s converted into the MiG-31K are the MiG-31D3 variant.

[18] Connolly, “Putin’s ‘Super-Weapons,’ ” Op.Cit. Although tests of the Kinzhal linked the missile with the Su-57 as the platform that will carry the weapon, that remains questionable given the missile’s size. The Russian press has also mentioned a different, smaller hypersonic weapon in development that will be carried by the Su-57, among other platforms. Smaller hypersonic missiles include the Lichinka-MD and OKR Gremlin hypersonic projects.

[19] Putin, “Poslaniye Prezidenta Federal’nomu Sobraniyu,Op.Cit.

[20] In October 2021 the Russian daily Izvestia reported work on the new hypersonic missile for the Su-57, the Lichinka-MD. This hypersonic system would eventually replace the Kh-31 supersonic anti-ship missile. The Lichinka-MD entered its second stage of development in 2019. The lead developer is Tactical Missile Armament Corporation. “Product 70” is used as an engine in the rocket, in development by the Soyuz machine-building design bureau, which specializes in engines for super-high-speed missiles. In 2019, Deputy Defense Minister Alexei Krivoruchko announced the development of a promising anti-ship missile for the Su-57. Work on the active homing head was being carried out by the Ural Design Bureau Detal. Anton Lavrov and Aleksei Ramm, “Giperzvuki Su: rossiyskiye voyennyye poluchat kompaktnuyu raketu,” Izvestia,, October 7, 2021.

[21] In addition to the Tsirkon and Kinzhal, some of the smaller air-launched hypersonic missiles (and possibly larger ones too) currently under development are likely to be conventionally armed (or dual-use) weapons. For example, the Lichinka-MD.

[22] Roman Kretsul and Bogdan Stepovoy, “Kinzhal’naya vataga: v Sibiri poyavitsya polk s giperzvukovymi raketami,” Izvestia,, May 10, 2020; Timur Alimov, “Raketu Kinzhal vpervyye ispytali v Arktike,” Rossyiskaya Gazeta,, November 31, 2019).

[23] Kseniya Murasheva, “V Rossii poobeshchali sozdat’ polk s giperzvukovym oruzhiyem V Sibiri,”,, May 10, 2020; Kretsul, Stepovoy, ‘Kinzhal’naya vataga: v Sibiri poyavitsya polk s giperzvukovymi raketami,’ Op.Cit.

[24] Kretsul, Stepovoy, “Kinzhal’naya vataga: v Sibiri poyavitsya polk s giperzvukovymi raketami,” Op.Cit.

[25] Kh-47M2 is an erroneous designation for the Kinzhal. Kinzhal is the name of the entire weapons system (designated 9-A-7660), while 9-S-7660 is the designation of its hypersonic missile.

[26] Kretsul, Stepovoy, ‘Kinzhal’naya vataga: v Sibiri poyavitsya polk s giperzvukovymi raketami,’ Op.Cit.

[27]Voyennaya doktrina Rossiyskoy Federatsii,”, December 30, 2014.

[28]VMF i Tsirkon: soveshchaniye proshlo v rezhime sekretnosti,” Vesti,, December 2, 2019.

[29]Raketu Tsirkon ispytayut s fregata Admiral Gorshkov v kontse 2019 goda,” Izvestia,, March 12, 2019.

[30]Istochnik: rossiyskaya atomnaya podlodka Kazan v 2020 godu vpervyye vystrelit Tsirkonom,” TASS,, March 19, 2019.

[31]Krylatyye rakety Kalibr budut ustanavlivat’ na podlodki proyekta 971,” TsAMTO,, March 21, 2016; Aleksandr Sharkovskiy, “Pal’miroy pozhertvovali radi polnogo osvobozhdeniya Aleppo,” Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye,, December 16, 2016; Nikolay Poroskov, “Oruzhiye pryamogo popadaniya,” Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye,, November 25, 2016; Oleg Vladykin, “Dlya chego nuzhny podlodki u beregov Sirii,” Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye,, October 31, 2016.

[32]Rossiyskiy giperzvukovoy Tsirkon udarit iz-podo l’da,”,, June 3, 2020.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Aleksei Ramm, Bogdan Stepovoy, “ ‘Sdat’ Kazan: noveyshuyu podvodnuyu lodku gotovyat k gosispytaniyam,” Izvestia,, June 10, 2020.

[35] Aleksei Ramm, Roman Kretsul, Bogdan Stepovoy, “Prikaz Admiralam: fregaty s Tsirkonami usilyat Tikhookeanskiy flot,” Izvestia,, June 4, 2020.

[36]Rogozin prokommentiroval slova Trampa o razrabotke ‘super-puper-rakety,’ ” RIA Novosti,, May 16, 2020; Vlad Kozlovskiy, ‘VMS Rossii mogut poluchit’ giperzvukovyye rakety Tsirkon v 2020 godu,’,, May 10, 2020.

[37] The Northern Fleet conducted more than twelve test launches of the Tsirkon missile system in 2021 from surface and sub-surface platforms. “Boleye 70 ispytaniy novogo vooruzheniya, v tom chisle giperzvukovogo raketnogo oruzhiya Tsirkon i Kinzhal, obespechil Severnyy flot v 2021 godu,”[email protected], Russian defense ministry, December 31, 2021.

[38]Khvatit odnoy rakety. Rossiyskiy flot vooruzhat ubiytsey avianostsev,” RIA Novosti,, August 27, 2021.

[39]V khode masshtabnykh ucheniy Severnogo flota proveli ispytaniya avtomatizirovannoy sistemy upravleniya aviatsiyey i korablyami,” Moskovsky Komsomolets,, August 26, 2021.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Anton Lavrov, Anna Cherepanova, “Tselevoy ukazatel: Tsirkony poluchili sverkhdal’neye navedeniye,” Izvestia,, August 23, 2021.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] I.N Vorobyev and V.A. Kiselev, “Otechestvennaya voennaya teoriya: istoriya i sovremennostVoyennaya Mysl’, No. 3, 2010, pp.43–49; Vorobyev I.N, Kiselev V.A, ‘Evolyutsiya printsipov voennogo iskusstva,’ Voyennaya Mysl’, No. 8, 2008, pp.2–8.

[45] V.N. Gorbunov and S.A. Bogdanov, “O kharaktere vooruzhennoi bor’by v XXI veke,” Voyennaya Mysl’, No. 3, 2009, pp.2–14. Burenok V.M, Tekhnologicheskie i tekhnicheskie osnovy razvitiya vooruzheniya i voennoi tekhniki, Moscow: Granitsa, 2010; Burenok V.M, Ivlev A.A, Korchak V.Yu, Razvitie voennykh tekhnologii XXI veka: problemy, planirovanie, realizatsiya, Tver: Kupol 2009.

[46] S.N. Mikhalev, Voyennaya strategiya: podgotovka i vedeniye voyn Novogo i Noveyshego vremeni, Kuchkovo pole, 2003, pp. 949.

[47] Russian military encyclopedic dictionary,[email protected], accessed, September 5, 2021.

[48] Valery V. Gerasimov, “Genshtab planiruyet udary,” Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer,, March 11, 2019.

[49] Author interviews with retired Russian officers via VTC, Moscow, October 6–7, 2021.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Russian military encyclopedic dictionary,[email protected], accessed, September 15, 2021.

[52]Aktivnaya oborona,” Sovetskaya voyennaya entsiklopediya, Voyennoye izdatel’stvo Ministerstva oborony Soyuza SSR, Moscow, 1976. Vol.1, p.133; “Aktivnaya oborona,” Bol’shaya sovetskaya entsiklopediya, A. M. Prokhorov (Ed), Bol’shaya sovetskaya entsiklopediya, 1970. Vol.1, p.354.

[53]Aktivnaya oborona,” Voyennyy entsiklopedicheskiy slovar’ A. P. Gorkin (Ed), Bol’shaya rossiyskaya entsiklopediya, Moscow, 2001, Vol.1, p.45; “Aktivnaya oborona,” Voyennyy entsiklopedicheskiy slovar’ raketnykh voysk strategicheskogo naznacheniya, I. D. Sergeyeva (Ed), Bol’shaya Rossiyskaya entsiklopediya, Moscow, 1999; M. N. Tukhachevskiy, Oboborone, Moscow: Voyenizdat, 1964, Vol.1, pp. 264.

[54] Lester W. Grau and Charles K. Bartles, The Russian Way of War: Force Structure, Tactics, and Modernization of the Russian Ground Forces, FMSO: Kansas, Fort Leavenworth, 2016, p.61.

[55] Ibid, p.62.

[56] Author interviews with retired Russian officers via VTC, Moscow, October 6–7, 2021.

[57] M.A. Gareev, “Itogi deyatelnosti Akademii voyennykh nauk za 2018 god i zadachi akademii na 2019 god” (“Results of the academy of military sciences activities in 2018 and the tasks of the academy for 2019”), A.M. Tsyganov, “Voyenno-politicheskiye aspekty stroitel’stva i razvitiya Vooruzhennykh Sil Rossiyskoy Federatsii na sovremennom etape” (“Military and political aspects of construction and the development of the armed forces of the Russian Federation at the modern stage”), A.A. Kokoshin, “Perspektivy razvitiyavoyennoy tekhnosfery i Budushcheye voyn i neboyevogoprimeneniya voyennoy sily” (“Development prospects of military technosphere and the future of wars and noncombat employment of military force”), V.I. Ostankov, “Kharakter sovremennykh voyennykh konfliktov i yego vliyaniye na voyennuyu strategiyu” (“The nature of modern military conflicts and its effect on military strategy”), A.A. Korabel’nikov, “Vzaimosvyaz’ voyennoy strategii, operativnogo iskusstva i taktiki v sovremennykh usloviyakh” (“Interrelation between military strategy, operational art and tactics in modern conditions”), S.R. Tsyrendorzhiyev, “Osnovy kontseptsii obosnovaniya perspektivnogo oblika silovykh komponentov voyennoy organizatsii Rossiyskoy Federatsii” (“Concept basis of justification of the perspective face of power military organization components of the Russian Federation”), Ye.A. Derbin, “O sovershenstvovanii strategicheskogo rukovodstva oboronoy Rossii” (“About Improvement of the strategic leadership of Russian defense”), T.S. Goreslavskiy, “Torgovlya vooruzheniyami kak instrument politicheskogo vliyaniya na mezhdunarodnoy arene” (“Weapons sales as a tool of political impact on the international scene”), V.P. Kozin, “Osobennosti negativnogo otnosheniya SShA k dogovoram v oblasti kontrolya nad vooruzheniyamii perspektivnaya reaktsiya Rossii s tochki zreniya ukrepleniya yeye natsional’noy bezopasnosti i strategicheskoy stabil’nosti” (“Peculiarities of the US negative attitude to agreements in the field of arms control and perspective reaction of Russia from the point of view of its national security and strengthening strategic stability”), V.P. Baronov, “Bioterrorizm kak odno iz novykh napravleniy v budushchikh voynakh” (“Bioterrorism is one of new directions/areas in future wars”), S.V. Aksenov, “Obespecheniye ustoychivosti gruppirovki strategicheskikh yadernykh sil v usloviyakh informatsionnogo protivoborstva” (“Ensuring of the strategic nuclear forces grouping sustainability in the conditions of information warfare”), V.G. Kazakov, “Razvitiye operativnogo iskusstva i taktiki Voyenno-vozdushnykh sil v sovremennykh usloviyakh” (“The development of operational art and tactics of the Air Force in modern conditions”), Vestnik, No 2 (67), 2019, pp.6–72.

[58] V.V. Gerasimov, “Razvitiye voyennoy strategii v sovremennykh usloviyakh. Zadachi voyennoy nauki,” Vestnik, No 2 (67), 2019, pp.6-11.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Author’s emphasis. Ibid.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Dave Johnson, “General Gerasimov on the Vectors of the Development of Military Strategy,” Review of Speech by General Gerasimov at the Russian Academy of Military Science, Moscow, March 2, 2019, NATO Defense College, Russian Studies Series 4/19,, March 30, 2019.

[65] Maren Garberg Bredesen, Karsten Friis, “Missiles, Vessels and Active Defence: What Potential Threat Do the Russian Armed Forces Represent?” The RUSI Journal,, Vol.165, Issue 5–6, 2020.

[66] Ibid.

[67] V.B. Zarudnitskiy, “Kharakter i soderzhaniye voyennykh konfliktov v sovremennykh usloviyakh i obozrimoy perspektive,” Voyennaya Mysl’, No.1, 2021, pp.34.44.

[68] This is the Russian term for the US concept of multi-domain operations.

[69] Zarudnitskiy, “Kharakter i soderzhaniye voyennykh konfliktov v sovremennykh usloviyakh i obozrimoy perspektive,” Op.Cit.

[70] Ibid.

[71] V.V. Kruglov and A.S. Shubin, “O vozrastayushchem znachenii uprezhdeniya protivnika v deystviyakh,” Voyennaya Mysl’, No.12, pp.27–34.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Ibid.

[74] Author’s emphasis. Ibid.

[75] M.P. Stepshin and A.N. Anikonov, “Razvitiye vooruzheniya, voyennoy i spetsial’noy tekhniki i ikh vliyaniye na kharakter budushchikh voyn,” Voyennaya Mysl’, No.12, 2021, 35–43.

[76] Ibid.

[77] Ibid.

[78] Ostankov, “Kharakter sovremennykh voyennykh konfliktov i yego vliyaniye na voyennuyu strategiyu,” Op.Cit.

[79] Vladimir Ostankov, “Ustrasheniye giperzvukom,” Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer,, May 28, 2019.

[80] A.A. Kokoshin and V.I. Bartenev, “Problemy vzaimozavisimosti bezopasnosti i razvitiya v strategicheskom planirovanii v Rossiiskoi Federatsii: ot tselepolaganiya k prognozirovaniyu,” Problemy prognozirovaniya, No. 6, 2015, pp.6–17; M.Yu. Ksenofontov, “Teoreticheskie i prikladnye aspekty dolgosrochnogo rognozirovaniya,” Problemy prognozirovaniya, No. 2, 2002, pp.1–30.

[81] Ostankov, “Ustrasheniye giperzvukom,” Op.Cit.

[82] Ibid.

[83] Author’s emphasis. Ibid.

[84] Author’s emphasis. Ibid.

[85] Ibid. Oleg Odnokolenko, “Armii Sirii nuzhna tol’ko pobeda,” Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye,, November 20, 2015; “Turetskiy seyner vynudil rossiyskiy storozhevik otkryt’ ogon’ v Egeyskom more,”, December 13, 2015,; Vladimir Slipchenko, Voiny novogo pokolenia – Distantsionnye i bezkontaktnye, Olma-Press, Moscow, 2006, p. 94; S. G. Chekinov and S. A. Bogdanov, “Evoliutsia sushchnosti i soderzhania poniatia voina v XXI stoletii,” Voyennaya Mysl, No. 1, 2017, pp.36–37;

Aleksei Nikolskiy, “Siriiskaia pobeda GLONASS,” Vedomosti, March 1, 2017.

[86] “Hypersonic Weapons: Background and Issues for Congress,” Op.Cit.

[87]Po tu storonu sverkhzvuka voyennyye konstruiruyut giperzvukovoye oruzhiye,” Op.Cit.

[88] Underlying assumptions among Western analyses, including governmental, based on arguing that Moscow’s military modernization marks a significant shift in national defense policy, is thoroughly redressed in Bettina Renz, Russia’s Military Revival, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018.

[89] Gerasimov, “Razvitiye voyennoy strategii v sovremennykh usloviyakh. Zadachi voyennoy nauki,” Op.Cit.

[90]Voyennaya doktrina Rossiyskoy Federatsii,”, December 30, 2014.

[91] Gerasimov, “Razvitiye voyennoy strategii v sovremennykh usloviyakh. Zadachi voyennoy nauki,” Op.Cit.

[92] The term nepriyemlemyy ushcherb (unacceptable damage) in Soviet and Russian military thought was normally associated with nuclear deterrence. In recent years, reflecting Russia’s increasingly credible conventional military capability, the term has evolved to include a conventional application. Ostankov used the term in his article in Vestnik in this conventionally applicable sense.

[93] Ostankov, “Kharakter sovremennykh voyennykh konfliktov i yego vliyaniye na voyennuyu strategiyu,Op.Cit; Kruglov and Shubin, “O vozrastayushchem znachenii uprezhdeniya protivnika v deystviyakh,” Op.Cit; Stepshin and Anikonov, “Razvitiye vooruzheniya, voyennoy i spetsial’noy tekhniki i ikh vliyaniye na kharakter budushchikh voyn,” Op.Cit.

[94] S.I. Makarenko and M.S. Ivanov, Setetsentricheskaya voyna – printsipy, tekhnologii, primery i perspektivy, Monografiya – SPb: Naukoyemkiye tekhnologii, St. Petersburg, 2018, pp. 149–150.

[95] Anan’yev, A.V, Filatov, S.V, “Obosnovaniye neobkhodimosti sozdaniya mezhvidovogo razvedyvatel’no udarnogo kompleksa bespilotnykh letatel’nykh apparatov malogo klassa dlya aviatsionnogo formirovaniya,” Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily: Teoriya i Praktika, No.13, 2020.

[96] Another option is submarines, but they have limitations too. As for satellites, Russia has yet to deploy suitable satellites for this purpose in useful numbers. Locating mobile land targets at long-ranges (for example hypersonic missile launchers) is another challenging issue.