Vladimir Putin says Russia is the only country in the world that can deploy hypersonic weapons
ABC Nerws Online, 25 December 2019
President Vladimir Putin claims Russia is the only country in the world that can deploy hypersonic weapons, which places it ahead of its arch-foe, the United States, for the first time in modern history.
Mr Putin told top military officials that for the first time in history Russia is no longer playing catch-up, but is now leading the world in developing an entirely new class of weapons.
The Russian leader noted that during Cold War times, the Soviet Union was behind the US in designing the atomic bomb and building strategic bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
"Now, we have a situation that is unique in modern history, when they are trying to catch up to us," he said.
"Not a single country has hypersonic weapons, let alone hypersonic weapons of intercontinental range."
This time last year Mr Putin oversaw tests of a hypersonic glide vehicle — projectiles which are launched via rocket then glide to their targets — which he labelled a "great success".
Anything that flies greater than the speed of sound (Mach 1) is supersonic. Hypersonic refers to Mach 5 and above.
Mach numbers are used because the speed of sound in air varies with pressure, temperature and other atmospheric conditions, but Mach 1 is a little faster than 1,000 kilometres per hour at high altitude.
Mach 5, therefore, refers to speeds greater than 5,000kph, which would theoretically reduce a flight between Sydney and London to a mere matter of hours.
Top fighter aircraft can exceed Mach 2 and the fastest aircraft ever to enter military service, America's SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, could cruise at Mach 3.2.
'It's not ok to play a draw': Putin
The Kremlin has made military modernisation a top priority.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said the military this year has received 143 warplanes and helicopters, 624 armoured vehicles, a submarine and eight surface warships.
He said that the modernisation of Russia's arsenals will continue at the same rapid pace next year, with 22 intercontinental ballistic missiles, 106 new aircraft, 565 armoured vehicles, three submarines and 14 surface ships to enter duty.
Mr Putin said NATO's presence near its western borders and the US withdrawal earlier this year from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty were some of Russia's top security threats.
He argued that because of this strategic context, Russia must have the best weapons in the world.
"It's not a chess game where it's OK to play to a draw," he said.
"Our technology must be better. We can achieve that in key areas and we will."
This strategic imperative was picked up by a US Congressional research paper on hypersonic weapons from September, which noted that if Washington didn't respond, it would mean American missiles could "simply be intercepted" in time.
"Russia thus seeks hypersonic weapons, which can manoeuvre as they approach their targets, as an assured means of penetrating US missile defences and restoring its sense of strategic stability," the paper said.
Putin says its missiles travel at Mach 20
Mr Putin said that the first unit equipped with the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle is set to go on duty this month, while the air-launched Kinzhal hypersonic missiles already have entered service.
The Russian leader first mentioned the Avangard and the Kinzhal among other prospective weapons systems in his state-of-the-nation address in March 2018.
He said then that the Avangard has an intercontinental range and claimed it could fly in the atmosphere at a speed of 20 times the speed of sound, which amounts to 24,696 km/h.
That means the weapon could reach any target on Earth in less than an hour.
Mr Putin noted that the weapon's ability to change both its course and its altitude en route to a target makes it immune to interception by the enemy.
"It's a weapon of the future, capable of penetrating both existing and prospective missile defence systems," he said Tuesday.
The Kinzhal, which is carried by MiG-31 fighter jets, entered service with the Russian air force last year.
Mr Putin has said that the missile flies at Mach 10 (12,348 km/h), has a range of more than 2,000km and can carry a nuclear or a conventional warhead.
The military said it is capable of hitting both land targets and navy ships.
Australia is helping the US play catch-up
The Pentagon and the US military services have been working on the development of hypersonic weapons in recent years, and Defence Secretary Mark Esper said in August that he believes "it's probably a matter of a couple of years" before the US adds the technology to its arsenal.
He has called it a priority as the military works to develop new long-range fire capabilities.
The US's 2018 National Defence Strategy noted that hypersonic weapons were central to ensuring the country would "be able to fight and win the wars of the future”.
September's congressional research paper also noted that the Pentagon has requested about $US2.6 billion ($3.6 billion) for hypersonic-related research in 2020.
US officials have also talked about putting a layer of sensors in space to more quickly detect enemy missiles, particularly the more advanced hypersonic threats.
The administration also plans to study the idea of basing interceptors in space, so the US can strike incoming enemy missiles during the first minutes of flight when the booster engines are still burning.
The US last tested a hypersonic aircraft prototype in 2011 — reaching speeds of Mach 20 — but it crashed into the sea three minutes after launch.
It has conducted further tests of hypersonic weapons and hypersonic vehicles in the years following, and since 2007 Washington has collaborated with Canberra on hypersonic flight research.
Australia has seven hypersonic wind tunnels, some of which are capable of testing speeds of up to Mach 30.
The last successful Australian test was in July 2017, which explored the flight characteristics of a Mach 8 hypersonic glide vehicle.
Asked to comment on Mr Putin's remarks, a spokesman for the US Defence Department, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Carver, said on Tuesday in an email: "We have seen the reporting but have nothing to add concerning Russia's claims."
India, France, and Germany are also exploring hypersonic defence technology but none of them have deployed such technologies thus far.