Normally inured to the fire and brimstone of Russian state TV, international audiences perked up their ears last month when a Sunday evening news show singled out a handful of locations in the United States that could be the targets for annihilation by Russia’s new hypersonic weapons.
“For now, we’re not threatening anyone,” said the TV host Dmitry Kiselyov, who some label Russia’s chief propagandist. However, Russia worries that the United States, after having withdrawn from an important arms control treaty that regulated missile deployment, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, might again station intermediate-range missiles in Europe. “But if such a deployment takes place, our response will be instant,” Kiselyov said.
The segment came days after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual address to the nation on Feb. 20, in which he warned that Russia would be forced to deploy hypersonic weapons that can travel over five times the speed of sound. Given their speed and agility, the United States is currently unable to defend against them.
On Feb. 26, Gen. John Hyten, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the U.S. nuclear missile arsenal, sounded the alarm, telling Congress that Russia’s coveted hypersonic weapons aren’t covered by any nuclear arms treaty.
Nuclear winter is awful to contemplate, but experts caution against buying too much into Russia’s hype. For one thing, two of the locations Russia singled out as targets for these missiles—Fort Ritchie in Maryland and Fort McClellan in California—have been closed for about 20 years. And while hypersonic weapons sound like a breakthrough, the reality is more complex.
“Fundamentally, I don’t think they change much in terms of strategic balance and military capability,” said Pavel Podvig, a nuclear weapons expert and senior research fellow at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research.
While designed to fly at Mach 5 or higher, hypersonic missiles are worrisome not so much for their speed as for their moves. Hypersonic weapons currently in development are not necessarily faster than ballistic missiles that already exist, said Ian Williams, the deputy director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It’s how they fly which is more the concern,” he said. Unlike conventional ballistic missiles, hypersonics have a much greater ability to maneuver as they hurtle toward their target, which could help them foil current missile defenses and slam shut an already very tight response window.
“Their speed, accuracy, maneuverability, and unusual altitude can decrease warning and decision time, and increase the ability to strike nuclear-related targets with conventional weapons,” said Kingston Reif, the director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association.
There are two basic types: a hypersonic cruise missile powered by a high-speed engine and a hypersonic glide vehicle, which is launched high by a rocket before uncoupling and sailing down toward its target. Russia is developing two types of missiles and one glider, all capable of deploying both conventional and nuclear warheads. Putin said last year the glider is already in production, and Williams, citing the fact that it has been given a NATO designation, suggested that Russia’s Zircon missile may already be deployed.
Some say the focus on a new delivery vehicle is misplaced.
“I don’t really care if I get nuked by a subsonic or a hypersonic nuclear missile,” said James Acton, the co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It’s more the being nuked that counts.” Deterrence, he said, was for now essentially the only U.S. defense against nuclear attack.
The missiles’ potential use in conventional warfare has some U.S. analysts more alarmed because they could deliver a lightning strike. “These kinds of newer capabilities at least open the prospect of a surprise first strike that would be very debilitating to U.S. forward forces,” Williams said.
But because the new weapons can carry both nuclear and conventional arms, using them conventionally to target the United States, as Putin suggested, is immensely risky. If Russia launched an armed, hypersonic glider, and U.S. decision-makers were in the dark over the glider’s flight path and capabilities, it would be risking a retaliatory nuclear strike, said Michael Kofman, a research scientist with the CNA think tank.
“Nobody in their right mind really takes that risk,” Kofman said.
In part, the missiles serve to shore up things at home as much as cow rivals abroad. After years of Western sanctions and a gloomy economic outlook, new weapons are a soapbox for Putin to stand on.
“They don’t really have a lot of other good news stories to talk about in the last two years,” Kofman said.