On 27 December 2019, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu informed president Vladimir Putin that the new Avangard hypersonic delivery system had become operational.
At a meeting a few days earlier with his national command, Putin boasted that, whereas since World War II the Soviet and then Russian armed forces had been lagging behind the United States and its allies in emerging military technologies, Russia was now leading the development of the new class of hypersonic weaponry.1 Putin was specifically referencing his country’s new portfolio of novel hypersonic missiles, which the Russian president enthusiastically refers to in almost all his major speeches on national security. In early January 2020, he personally attended naval exercises in Crimea that included the Navy’s launching of the hypersonic Kinzhal (“Dagger”) missile by MiG-31K fighter jets.2
Although these systems can target the US mainland, they do not appreciably augment the threat to the United States presented by Russia’s large arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which already travel at hypersonic speeds and can overwhelm US missile defences. By contrast, shorter-range hypersonic delivery systems could radically increase the challenge of defending NATO due to their amplifying the most threatening dimensions of Russia’s theatre-level politico-military strategy. In July 2018, Michael Griffin, undersecretary of defence for research and engineering, emphasised the tactical impact of hypersonic weapons since “these sorts of weapons bring to theater conflicts or regional conflicts … [v]ery quick response, high speed, highly maneuverable, difficult to find and track and kill.”3
Russia’s Growing Striking Power
Putin has overseen, with great enthusiasm, the equipping of the Russian military with hypersonic weapons.4 He and other Russian national-security officials see hypersonic weapons as providing their country with critical strategic and operational capabilities. The Russian armed forces are developing several types of hypersonic delivery systems, of variable speeds and ranges, capable of carrying either conventional or nuclear warheads at many times the speed of sound.
At the strategic level, being able to deliver nuclear warheads thousands of kilometres at hypersonic speed can circumvent US ballistic missile defence (BMD) weapons that could be used against Russia’s nuclear deterrent. Indeed, Moscow’s hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) programme began as a means of overcoming the Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative (aka “Star Wars”), intended to build a global missile-defence shield. Although US BMD ambitions have been considerably scaled back since the Cold War, Washington’s decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2001 renewed Russian commitment to HGV development. At the regional level, the Russian military sees hypersonic cruise and ballistic missiles armed with conventional or nuclear munitions as able to overwhelm tactical air and missile defences and destroy high-value targets such as military command, control and transportation facilities, incapacitating the adversary’s response capabilities. At the tactical level, hypersonic systems could allow the generally weaker Russian air and naval forces to carry out decisive pre-emptive strikes against advanced US warships and other NATO military systems. The Russian Navy plans to revitalise many aging warships by converting them into hypersonic delivery platforms, and the Air Force may well do the same with its aircraft.
Russia is pursuing two types of strategic hypersonic delivery weapon. The first category consists of “boost-glide” vehicles that are lifted to a height of some 100 kilometres, in the upper atmosphere but well short of low-earth orbit, by an ICBM. The nose then falls off the missile at a predetermined height, which releases a glider that descends to earth at many times the speed of sound, even without a separate propulsion system. Though probably flying slower than a warhead descending from space, a glider—unlike a typical re-entry vehicle flying a more predictable ballistic trajectory—can conduct evasive manoeuvres on the way down, which makes it more difficult to intercept.
At the operational and tactical level, the Russian Navy and Air Force aim to employ hypersonic ballistic and cruise missiles, carrying conventional or nuclear munitions, against high-value targets, such as aircraft carriers. Their high speed would give defenders little time to respond. In March 2018, the Russian defence ministry released a video of a MiG-31BM supersonic fighter, based in Russia’s Southern Military District, launching a hypersonic air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM), the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal, at a ground target.5 The Kinzhal entered service in 2018 and can reportedly reach a speed of Mach 10, fly over 2,000km, and conduct evasive manoeuvres at any time after launch to overcome air, missile and ship defences.6 Russian sources describe the Kh-47M2 as a variant of the land-based Iskander-M ballistic missile, which has a stated range of only 500km but which some Western analysts think can fly further. The Kinzhal’s declared 2,000km range may include the combat radius of the plane conveying the missile, since Russian sources state that the Kinzhal’s range will exceed 3,000km when launched from a Tu-22M3 Backfire bomber, which can carry several of these missiles, due to the longer range of the bomber compared to a fighter plane and the possibilities for in-flight refuelling and one-way flights.7 Although the MiG-31 has been the main carrier of the missile, the Russian defence industry plans to equip its new fifth-generation Su-57 stealth fighter with a similar if smaller ALBM, to fit within the Su-57’s smaller internal weapons bay; the plane will also deploy shorter- (300km) range hypersonic air-to-air missiles.8
Meanwhile, the Russian Navy is equipping its submarines, cruisers, destroyers, frigates and other warships with the 3C14 universal vertical launch platform, which can potentially fire multiple subsonic, supersonic or hypersonic anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles.9 Through the BrahMos Aerospace joint venture, formed by Russia’s NPO Mashinostroyeniya rocket design bureau and India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation, the two countries have been manufacturing BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles for use by their armed forces as well as for possible export to other countries. The Russian-Indian joint venture has planned to develop the BrahMos-II, a hypersonic cruise version of the missile.10 The Russians are currently developing the engine, propulsion technology and seeker, while the Indians are developing the guidance, software, airframes and fire-control systems.11
Russia has also designed a wholly indigenous hypersonic system, the3M-22/3K-22 Tsirkon (“Zircon”) anti-ship and land-attack cruise missile. The Tsirkon has a stated range of 400km and employs Scramjet technology, which mixes fuel with oxygen drawn from the air, to attain sustained hypersonic speed. It belongs to the same technological family as the Russian-Indian supersonic version of the BrahMos, though the exact relationship between the two missiles is unclear.12 The Russian Navy will employ the Tsirkon on some of its larger warships, including the nuclear missile cruisers Pyotr Veliky and Admiral Nakhimov as well as the Project 22350 Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates, Project 20380 Steregushchy-class corvettes and Project 885 Yasen-class attack submarines.13 The Tsirkon is compatible with the Kalibr-ready launch systems on some of these vessels.14 Furthermore, the Russian Navy has since announced that its Project 21631 Buyan-M-class and Project 22800 Karakurt-class corvettes will be equipped with a smaller version of the Tsirkon, which may carry a smaller warhead or less fuel. While Russian shipbuilders have struggled to produce new cruisers, they have had more success in building corvettes. Russian military experts see hypersonic missiles as a naval equaliser that will enable these smaller vessels, reinforced by submarines (which can most easily escape detection and catch defenders unawares) and land-based aircraft, to defeat larger foreign warships attempting to attack Russian territory.15
In addition to these new hypersonic weapons, the Russian armed forces already target NATO members with a wide variety of other theatre-range strike systems, including ballistic and cruise missiles launched from planes, ships and ground-based platforms that can operate in the country’s Western Military District. These include the intermediate-range land-based missiles developed in violation of the now defunct Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. After a late start, Russia’s drone technologies are also improving. All these strike systems present an enormous anti-access/area-denial barrier designed to keep NATO forces from reinforcing countries like Poland, Romania and the Baltic republics along Russia’s borders. Iran and other non-NATO countries have also been acquiring ballistic and cruise missiles that they could use against European territory or, more probably, NATO forces deployed in their vicinity. Given the proximity of European targets to these Russian strike platforms, even these non-hypersonic systems could critically decrease the Alliance’s early warning and response time, saturate its defences, and paralyse its reaction capacity by destroying critical transportation, storage and command-and-control assets.
Enhancing Western Defences
Due partly to its extensive network of foreign bases, the US military did not make development of offensive hypersonic delivery systems or other conventional long-range fires a priority until recently. This has changed. The Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) “supports efforts across DOD and the Services to deliver a hypersonic capability in the mid-2020s.”16 Warning that possible “adversaries, such as Russia and China, have recognized the value of hypersonic weapons to offset United States military capabilities and hold United States forces at risk”, the US Congress fully funded the Air Force’s two prototype hypersonic weapons, the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon and the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon. Congress also established a Joint Hypersonics Transition Office to integrate the air force, navy and army programmes in this area (the services are already collaborating on several shared designs); various hypersonic propulsion and thermal-protection research projects; and a university consortium to support the academic and technical research to deploy effective weapons.17 The US Navy is eyeing replacing the venerable but subsonic Tomahawk land-attack missile on surface vessels and especially submarines with a hypersonic version better able to overcome improving Russian and Chinese air defences.18 Despite the new urgency within the US military to field offensive hypersonic weapons, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper recently stated that it will be years before the Pentagon has such systems in operation.
Besides developing a countervailing capability, the United States is seeking means of defence against hypersonic attacks, which would also represent a novel US military capability.19 For example, the Pentagon is considering the construction of a network of space-based sensors to identify missile launches earlier in their flights, giving the defender more time to respond to an impending attack and overcoming the line-of-sight limitation of terrestrial radars. The defence department, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is also reviewing various industry designs for more rapid interceptors able to exploit this faster data-collection capability.20 The department is also considering directed energy weapons (like lasers), upgraded ship radars, and placing electronic emitters on interceptors to destroy the incoming hypersonic delivery vehicles’ navigation, communication and other critical electronic subsystems.21 The US Congress recently boosted the budget for both the Missile Defense Agency’s Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor programme (formerly known as the Space Sensor Layer and now seemingly focused on providing continuous coverage for homeland defence as a lower layer within the National Defense Space Architecture, especially from fast-flying cruise missiles) and the Hypersonic Defense Regional Glide Phase Weapon System (devoted primarily to countering theatre-level threats).22 Other options under consideration include building a giant mirror in space to make objects flying at hypersonic speeds more visible.23
Enhancing collective defences against hypersonic weapons and other air, sea, land, space and cyber-domain threats was a major theme of the December 2019 NATO summit in Watford, UK. Having a robust spectrum of national and Alliance capabilities that could contribute to a range of domains and scenarios is critical given the rapidly evolving international threat environment. This requires Multi-Domain Command and Control (MDC2): “the ability to seamlessly analyse, fuse, and share what was once domain-centric information into a single C2 system”.24 The summit communiqué—the so-called London Declaration—emphasised the need for the Alliance to manage all major dangers to transatlantic security: “We are adapting our military capabilities, strategy, and plans across the Alliance in line with our 360-degree approach to security”.25 Elaborating on the substantial increase in defence spending and military forces in recent years, especially among the European members, the declaration continued: “We have taken decisions to improve the readiness of our forces to respond to any threat, at any time, from any direction”. At a NATO Engages event on the sidelines of the summit, British defence secretary Ben Wallace said that the Alliance was “now looking at the ways in which new and emerging technologies will continue to change the threat landscape, from hypersonic missiles, reducing our decision-making time in the face of an attack, to quantum computing …”26
Ensuring such comprehensive and robust protection is critical for underpinning NATO’s collective defence and Article 5 mutual security guarantees. At present, European air and missile defences consist overwhelmingly of a poorly integrated hodge-podge of legacy national short- and medium-range systems with dangerous capability gaps and limited flexibility. Building effective defences against existing and emerging strike systems in diverse domains will require the more comprehensive and resilient networking of genuinely interoperable allied sensors and effectors (i.e. interceptors), both within national militaries and among allied forces. In 2017, NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for Defence Investment, Camille Grand, said that “the critical element” of NATO’s ballistic missile defence efforts was interoperability.27 Enhancing the interoperability of existing systems to detect, track and simultaneously engage threats can generate synergies and cost less than buying new assets. Furthermore, a more scalable and adaptable architecture that can extend across multiple domains of war would provide more resilient layered protection for European populations, territory, and forces on deployment, such as in the Middle East. In particular, an effective NATO missile-defence network would also protect US forces deployed in, or deploying to or through, European territory as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence to generate a credible deterrent to Russian and Iranian threats as well as reassure vulnerable partners, wherever they are located, in a rapidly changing global threat environment. As the technology advances, this architecture could ideally be extended to address an array of emerging threats in the outer- and cyber-space dimensions.
Poland as Pioneer
Building a network of space-based sensors to complement the planned US architecture will not be on the European defence agenda any time soon. Realistically, the most feasible—and still very worthwhile and valuable—non-US NATO contributions will need to be terrestrially based. Poland’s national missile-defence programme represents a pre-eminent model for other allies to emulate. Its homeland defences against missile threats consist of batteries of the latest Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) surface-to-air interceptors and AN/MPQ-65 engagement radars. The country is also developing an indigenous short-range air- and missile-defence system. Furthermore, Poland’s fleet of sophisticated F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, which some analysts describe as the most advanced flying network platform ever constructed as a combat aircraft, will provide additional sensors for these layers. In support of NATO, Poland hosts one of the Alliance’s two US-operated Aegis Ashore Ballistic Missile Defence System with Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA interceptors. This sophisticated system will help shield Europe and North America from long-range ballistic missile strikes from Russia, Iran or other potential aggressors.
Due to the urgency of responding to the heightened Russian threat following Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea, Poland also secured a special US government waiver to acquire the pioneering US-made Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System (IBCS) even before the Pentagon had completed its testing programme in anticipation of its own procurement. The next-generation IBCS represents the first truly multi-domain battle-control system. It provides a flexible foundation for the US Army’s future command, control and communications network for air- and missile-defence engagements. It fuses the service’s radars, interceptors and battle-management and related systems based on a network-enabled, Modular Open Systems Approach to give defenders all the information they need to counter threats in multiple domains. Importantly, the system can tell soldiers when not to expend interceptors as well as when and how to do so. Due to its versatile open-systems architecture, the IBCS is a cost-effective force multiplier that supports incremental upgrades, sustained cost-savings and NATO-based standardisation by allowing any country—using newly purchased and often existing legacy hardware, software and training—to connect disparate missile-defence sensors and effectors with US and other armed forces possessing the system. The system has been tested against attacks from drones, manned aircraft, and cruise and ballistic missiles. Regarding hypersonic threats, by “extending the battlefield” and bolstering sensor fusion, the IBCS could facilitate the “shoot-look-shoot” opportunities, inside and above the atmosphere, that are likely to be needed to hit rapidly manoeuvring hypersonic delivery systems.
By following the Polish layered missile-defence model, additional countries could help build a formidable, seamless, integrated and optimised NATO-wide conglomerate of network-enabled plug-and-play sensors and interceptors. The IBCS provides a natural upgrade path for countries already possessing Patriot systems or the F-35. This construct would generate a single common missile threat picture—derived from multiple sensors based on the ground, in the air and at sea—and select the best available effectors from any platform to negate multiple simultaneous threats. This IBCS-centred layered structure would make the diverse NATO national sensors and shooters more internationally compatible, innovative, cost-effective and effective. NATO members could renew their existing command, control, communications and intelligence networks without the cost of purchasing entirely new systems. They could also make their national forces more complementary with each other’s air, missile and hypersonic defences as well as those with the key NATO partners whose support will prove critical in meeting the vast number of current and emerging security challenges.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.