Hypersonic missiles are defined as missiles with a velocity of Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound) or above. The main limit on hypersonic speed is materials technology. For the purpose of this analysis, ordinary strategic nuclear ballistic missiles, although they have hypersonic speed, will not be treated here. What will be discussed are new weapons -- maneuvering hypersonic "aeroballistic" missiles, hypersonic boost-glide vehicles, and powered hypersonic cruise missiles. These constitute the new capabilities that are generally referred to as “hypersonic missiles." Russia has achieved an enormous advantage in hypersonic weapons while, on the other hand, the U.S. is playing catchup. Unlike U.S. programs, all Russian hypersonic weapons are apparently nuclear-armed or nuclear-capable.
The Russians are also well ahead of the U.S. in ordinary strategic ballistic missiles because they have been modernizing while we have not done so since the 1990s. In the case of ICBMs, our Minuteman force is vintage 1970. In 2012, Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology Corporation General Designer Yuri Solomonov said, “Strategic nuclear weapons developed by the Russian defense sector are 10-15 years ahead of what the West or the East may do.” This appears to be an understatement. Ordinary nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, if they carry missile defense countermeasures and maneuvering R.V.s, have many of the advantages of hypersonic missiles except against the most time urgent targets.
Hypersonic missiles are difficult to build because hypersonic flight generates an enormous amount of heat which persists for a long time compared to ordinary ballistic missiles where only the re-entry vehicle must be protected against extreme heat and only for a short period of time. Hypersonic missiles have significant military advantages over subsonic and even supersonic cruise missiles. They can reach their targets much faster, which is very important in dealing with the most time urgent and relocatable targets. This allows rapid responses to actionable intelligence and, as has recently been discussed in the Russian press, a surprise nuclear attack on critical U.S. national command authority targets. Bomber bases are in the same category because the survivability of even alert bombers depends on adequate time to get them airborne and outside the blast radius of the nuclear weapons targeted against their bases. The same would be true for nuclear-capable fighter aircraft bases even if these aircraft were put on alert. (If they are not alert, they are vulnerable to even ordinary subsonic missiles.)
Russian hypersonic missile programs announced by the Russian government or reported in state media include:
-The KH-32, an already operational near hypersonic nuclear-capable cruise missile (reported maximum speeds ranging from Mach 4 to Mach 5), with a range of 1,000-km.
- The already operational Iskander-M and the improved Iskander-M nuclear-capable “aeroballistic” missiles with a reported maximum range of 700 to 1,000-km.
- A now operational “high-precision hypersonic aircraft missile system” called the Kinzhal, which is capable of “delivering nuclear and conventional warheads in a range of over 2,000-km.” The Chief of the Russian Aerospace Force (Air Force) called it an “aeroballistic missile.” It is reportedly a derivative of the Iskander-M. In 2018, the Deputy Russian Defense Minister Yuri Borisov said that ten Kinzhals are operational on the Mig-31 fighters and TASS, the main official Russian news agency, reports that an "aeroballistic missile," obviously the Kinzhal, will be carried by the Su-34 long-range strike fighter. State-run TASS and Sputnik News report that the Backfire bomber will also carry the Kinzhal.
- A smaller version of the Kinzhal to be carried by the Su-57 fighter aircraft.
- The Avangard nuclear-armed intercontinental hypersonic boost-glide vehicle which Putin characterizes as, "A real technological breakthrough," which he said, "has been successfully tested." TASS says it has a two-megaton warhead. In June 2018, President Putin said it was in serial production. The Russians have said that it will be operational in 2019.
- The Tsirkon (Zircon) powered nuclear-capable hypersonic cruise missile which Putin says has a range of over 1,000-km and a speed of Mach 9. A retired Russian admiral says the range is 2,000-km. It will be operational in a few years, perhaps sooner.
In addition to these hypersonic missile programs, Russia is reportedly developing the KH-MT a “ram-jet powered hypersonic design apparently intended for internal carriage [on the Tu-95MSM bomber].” There are reports that the Russian nuclear-powered cruise missile, the 9M730 Burevestnik, one of Putin’s nuclear superweapons, is a hypersonic missile. This is possible but much more difficult to build than a subsonic or a supersonic nuclear-powered cruise missile. In February 2019, President Putin spoke about Russia deploying two types of ground-launched hypersonic missiles within two years. A Russian press report suggested that Russia may develop an intermediate-range ground-launched missile which combines a new first stage rocket with the Kinzhal maneuvering missile as its second stage. There may be other Russian hypersonic missile programs under development that have not been reported in open sources.
Hypersonic missiles are very difficult to intercept because of their speed and maneuverability. Kinetic interceptors will require high speed and maneuverability to intercept them, and they must be tracked at long distances. Flying depressed trajectories with considerable atmospheric flight or trajectories entirely in the atmosphere makes them difficult to detect and track by fixed ground-based radars. The much higher trajectories of ordinary ballistic missiles allow radar detection and tracking at much longer ranges. Hypersonic missiles generally reduce the area that can be defended by any defense site even if it had the capability to intercept hypersonic missiles. It also allows early warning radar coverage to be evaded.
The speed and relatively low-altitude of Russian nuclear-armed hypersonic missiles make them useful for a surprise attack against the U.S. national command authority because the U.S. has very few hard and deeply buried hardened bunkers, resulting in a potentially vulnerable U.S. national command authority. Absent deep and hardened underground bunkers, protecting the national command authority depends upon getting the President airborne and out of a targetable area before the attack arrives. If adequate time is not available from early warning systems, this will not happen. The survivability against a nuclear attack of alert bombers and alert nuclear-armed fighter aircraft depends upon the amount of warning time available. The Russians may see the destruction of the U.S. national command authority in a pre-emptive nuclear strike as a means to win a nuclear war because it could delay any U.S. decision to retaliate until after the main Russia nuclear attack arrives or even prevent a U.S. decision to retaliate or its execution. Absent the low-yield Trident missile, Russian nuclear hypersonic missiles may be able to eliminate the entire force of U.S. low-yield nuclear-capable bombers and fighter bombers with a hypersonic attack.
Roger McDermott, a noted British expert on Russia, has observed that “if these systems [Russian hypersonic missiles] do include stealth technology, the U.S. and its allies will face a serious long-term existential threat to their existing air defenses." This is clearly true, but the keyword is "if." Supersonic stealth is clearly possible. We have two operational supersonic stealth fighters. Hypersonic stealth is clearly very difficult to achieve because of the extreme conditions of hypersonic flight and the need to give priority to aerodynamics and heat resistant materials. However, hypersonic missiles, even without stealth, will have great capability against even very advanced air defenses and NATO air defenses are not all that capable since they include few advanced surface-to-air missiles. Continental U.S. air defenses are even weaker. The key factor is that hypersonic missiles get to their targets much faster than anything else. (At any target range a hypersonic missile will fly a shorter distance than a ballistic missile and, hence, get to the target faster).
General John Hyten, then-commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, has warned about the threat posed by Russian hypersonic weapons if the U.S. does not counter them. He said that hypersonic weapons would allow Russia to attack globally with little or no warning. General Hyten noted that a hypersonic missile “disappears and we don’t see it until the effect is delivered.” While with a ballistic missile, General Hyten stated it would take 30 minutes to strike a target, with a hypersonic weapon “it could be half of that.”
What General Hyten is saying is that after booster burnout of a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle or other hypersonic missiles (all types of hypersonic missiles require rocket boosters), we will lose track of them. They can evade attack confirmation by existing U.S. early warning radars. If we don’t get radar tracking data, we don’t know where the missiles will impact until they do or just before they do. His reference to 30 minutes is the approximate time of flight of an ICBM or a SLBM flown to ICBM range (i.e., about 10,000-km). A reduction in warning time to 15 minutes (or less in the case of the Russian Tsirkon powered cruise missile and the Kinzhal “aeroballistic” missile) and the elimination of attack confirmation and the lack of information about target location by early warning radars, seriously puts at risk the U.S. national command authority.
The threat to our national command authority undercuts our nuclear deterrent potential. It may allow a large ICBM and/or SLBM attack to arrive before any U.S. decision to retaliate, even assuming the nuclear hypersonic missiles do not so decimate the chain of command that no decision is possible in a relevant time frame or even at all. This could easily become the Russian theory of victory in a nuclear war. If President Putin thinks he can win one, he may start one. Putin is a risk taker. That does not mean he will get up some morning and decide to launch a nuclear strike. It does mean he may gamble that he can grab a piece of NATO territory and deter any meaningful NATO response by the threat of nuclear escalation, which is a key part of Russian military doctrine.