With the dust barely having settled on its current roster, the Kremlin is already planning its next generation of hypersonic weapons.
At a conference held late last week, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu listed the development of additional hypersonic weapons as one of the Russian defense sector’s top ongoing priorities: “additional procurement of hypersonic and high-precision long-range weapons was organized, based on the calculations of the Armed Forces General Staff, together with the Ministry of Industry and Trade,” he said. “Today, we will discuss proposals on funding sources, as well as the condition of the production capabilities for fulfillment of this task.”
According to Shoigu, this matter is being supervised directly by Russian President Vladimir Putin: “The matter of development and commissioning of high-precision long-range weapons is under special monitoring by the president of the Russian Federation. We must report on the progress in this field to the head of state in April.”
It is unclear specifically which hypersonic weapons are currently being worked on, or how soon they are expected to enter service. Judging from the content of Shoigu’s press statement and the lack of clarifying details from external sources, it appears that these new weapons projects are still in their early stages of development.
In 2018, Putin unveiled a slew of hypersonic weapons and delivery systems at his annual state-of-the-nation address: these include the Kinzhal missile system, Avangard boost-glide vehicle, and Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile. Kh-47M2 Kinzhal is an air-launched, nuclear capable ballistic missile boasting a maximum range of 3,000 km and top speed up to Mach 12 when launched from a Tu-22M3 bomber. Avangard is a hypersonic boost-glide missile system that first entered service in 2019. That missile combines a high-performance ballistic missile with an unmanned glider vehicle. Finally, the 3M22 Tsirkon is a winged, hypersonic anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile that travels at reported speeds of over Mach 8 and can maneuver mid-flight. Additionally, RS-28 Sarmat is a liquid-fueled, heavy intercontinental ballistic missile that is potentially compatible with Avangard hypersonic glide vehicles.
Though it’s safe to assume that Russia’s new hypersonic weapons are not any of the ones listed above, they could be variants or close derivatives. After all, given that these platforms are still in their youth, Russia may not want to abandon them so quickly without at least a few direct successors. For instance, reports emerged in 2019 of a potential miniaturized Kinzhal, or “Kinzhal-like,” missile, small enough to be mounted on Russia’s new fifth-generation Su-57 air superiority fighter. It was likewise reported that a hypersonic variant of the R-37 long range air-to-air missile, the “R-37M,” is being developed for the Su-57, Su-35S, the latest MiG-31 variants, and potentially for the upcoming MiG-41 next-generation stealth interceptor. The Kremlin’s new hypersonic weapons could also be completely fresh platforms, meant to sustain Russia’s current technical edge in hypersonic armaments over the North Atlantic North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) into the coming decades. If so, then these would be long-term projects that likely will not enter service anytime in the foreseeable future.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.