By MILAN VARDA
Hypersonic weapons are a new phenomenon in the world of contemporary militaries. The United States, Russia and China are some of the powers that have been pursuing the development of these weapons for more than a decade. However, the Russian Avangard is the first hypersonic weapon that has been deployed. The argument offered here is that Avangard is likely not a product of strategic reasoning, but rather of Russian status-seeking. This post will first briefly overview what hypersonic weapons are, and it will then explore why Russia is producing the Avangard.
In the simplest terms, hypersonic weapons are weapons that move at hypersonic speeds, all while maintaining the ability to manoeuvre. Weapons with hypersonic speed (defined as above Mach 5 or 6125 km/h) have existed in the forms of ballistic missiles, the weapons that fly into space and then fall onto the target since the 1950s, with strategic systems of intercontinental range usually surpassing Mach 20. However, these new systems are spending the entirety of their flight path in the atmosphere all while remaining capable of conducting significant manoeuvres. This, in turn, makes them far less prone to interception.
There are essentially two true types of hypersonic weapons: hypersonic cruise missiles and hypersonic gliders. It is important to note that some weapons fall into the grey zone (said to be hypersonic weapons, without actually being so), notably quasibalistic missiles, which Russia has used during the war in Ukraine. Those weapons are similar to regular ballistic missiles, albeit within the atmosphere and with the significant ability to manoeuvre in the midcourse and terminal phases of the flight, but are not true hypersonic weapons. Hypersonic cruise missiles, like Russian Zircon, are, upon rocket acceleration, propelled by a scramjet-type jet engine throughout their entire flight. Meanwhile, hypersonic gliders are boosted by a rocket to hypersonic speeds after which they manoeuvre by gliding through the atmosphere. Russian Avangard is a strategic nuclear hypersonic glider that has since 2018 entered serial production, albeit with slow procurement. But what is the actual added value of creating such a weapon and introducing it to Russia’s strategic nuclear forces?
According to the Russian official narrative, which is also accepted by numerous Western analysts, Avangard has been created as a response to the US leaving the ABM treaty in 2002. While the US has left the treaty to create antiballistic defences to hedge against potential ballistic attacks by rogue states, this has greatly worried Russia. ABM treaty has been the backbone of strategic nuclear arms control, as one having more antiballistic missiles would lead to the adversary making more nuclear missiles to beat the defences, thus making the strategic nuclear balance unstable. The ABM treaty has led to nuclear stability, but the US withdrawal from the treaty has made the system less stable. Potential massive US procurement of highly effective ABM systems could be a genuine threat to Russian security, as Russia would be unable to deter a notional nuclear or conventional aggression. In order to beat American missile defences, Russia has developed a system that as of 2023 cannot be intercepted with any, the Avangard. With it, the reasoning goes, Russia can ensure its security.
Avangard is not necessary for ensuring Russian security. Of the current US systems, only the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) can intercept ballistic missiles of the intercontinental range, but even under ideal conditions in tests, the efficiency is only 55%. Furthermore, due to their exorbitant costs, the US has procured only 44 interceptors. Given that Russia has over 1600 strategic warheads deployed, GMD’s capabilities with regard to Russia are negligible. This is exacerbated by the fact that all post-Cold War Russian ICBMS have decoys and other measures that significantly lower the efficiency of ABMs. But what of the future?
Perhaps it would make sense to develop hypersonic gliders, to hedge (Carter 1974) against a hypothetical major leap in US ABM quality and quantity. It is worth noting that the newest versions of SM 3 – Block IIA missiles (currently very few in numbers), which can be based on American destroyers and cruisers, as well as Aegis Ashore systems in Poland and Romania, have been successful at ICBM interception in recent tests. Their current efficiency is unknown, but it is likely not higher than that of GMD given that SM3 is a smaller missile. While few in number currently, potential inventory could go to hundreds by the mid-2040s. This could not possibly be enough to prevent the mutually assured destruction, even if assuming the unattainable 100% ABM efficiency. Regardless, going even further into the future, the US could hypothetically create cheap, numerous and efficient systems. As such, perhaps developing technology like the Avangard, to hedge against such a scenario, could be a rational, although unseasonable decision. However, the production of Avangard, even in small numbers, is certainly not a rational decision as each hypersonic weapon is extremely expensive to create. Since these systems will not be needed for strategic nuclear deterrence in any foreseeable future, their production is of completely irrational cost, especially considering the emerging economic woes and the funding that the conventional military desperately needed.
Since the loss of its superpower status due to the fall of the USSR, which Putin considers the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, Russia has had a history of pursuing a great power status (Neumann 2015), ranging from intervening in Syria (Freire and Heller 2018) to organizing the Russia-Africa Summit. Many Russians claim that Russia simply “has to be a great power, or it will be nothing” (Neumann 2008). Avangard is no exception to this pursuit, as Russia seeks to prove its status by beating the West in creating an exotic technology. Putin touts this as the greatest technological breakthrough since the Sputnik launch. Obviously, these achievements are far different but meant to reminisce with the past, when the USSR could compete with and sometimes even surpass the USA. Putin speaks of the Avangard mythically, by claiming that Avangard strikes like a meteorite. He claims the Avangard to be something that will make the West “”, a clear sign of seeking equal superpower status. In general, Russian Avangard is something that has a great symbolic value, far greater than negligible strategic benefits. Despite the lack of strategic necessity and significant costs, its utility as a status-booster, for foreign and especially domestic audiences is truly magnificent.
This post has explored the purpose of the Avangard, claiming that it is a tool for status-boosting rather than cementing nuclear parity.
Carter, Barry. 1974. “Nuclear Strategy and Nuclear Weapons”. Scientific Americam 230 (5): 20–31.
Freire, Maria Raquel and Regine Heller. 2018. “Russia’s Power Politics in Ukraine and Syria: Status-seeking between Identity, Opportunity and Costs”. Europe-Asia Studies 70 (8): 1185–1212.
Neumann, Iver B. 2008. “Russia as a great power, 1815-2007”. Journal of International Relations and Development 11 (2): 128–151.
Neumann, Iver B. 2015. “I Remember When Russia Was a Great Power”. Journal of Regional Security 10 (1): 5–15.
Milan Varda is a Junior Researcher and PhD Student at the University of Belgrade – Faculty of Political Science. He is very passionate about using serious games for choosing an optimal strategy, forecasting, and as a tool for teaching. His search is centred around critical approaches to global governance, peace, and security. More specifically, he is interested in how identity and collective memory impact the strategic decisions of great powers. His doctoral research explores how the ontological insecurity of the Russian Federation has led to the invasion of Ukraine.
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