Vladimir Putin’s video “show and tell” today of Russia’s new hypersonic missile system may have left you wondering, “who cares?” Don’t we all have enough missiles to kill each other a hundred times over?
Well, yes, but this new class of missile is important because it poses the capability of defeating present day strategic missile defense systems. That “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) thing President Reagan used to bankrupt the former Soviet Union.
It is also likely that this “reveal” was aimed at NATO. Putin has bristled over the deployment of missile defense systems in western Europe, claiming they posed a threat to Russia. In his Thursday remarks he addressed NATO saying “you have failed to contain Russia.” It also demonstrates that, after negotiating three rounds of Strategic Arms Limitations Treaties (SALT) with the United States in the 1960’s, 70’s and 90’s, Russia has continued to develop new missile technology designed to avoid the spirit, if not the letter, of those treaties. China is also said to be close on the heels of such capability. This should surprise no one. Aviation Week: U.S. hypersonics lag behind Russia, China
The current crop of missiles nuclear capable nations like the U.S., China, Russia and others would use to deliver a nuclear weapon are all ballistic. North Korea is madly (apt choice of word) trying to develop a ballistic nuclear weapons system. Ballistic missiles fly high, fast and straight to their targets—like a rifle bullet—with cruising speed of about 15,000 mph. The new hypersonic class of missile Putin claims to have tested and deployed is launched from under the wing of a fighter jet and, flies at ten times the speed of sound (about 7,600 mph) but with the capability to alter its flight path and take intelligent evasive action, making it much harder to shoot down.
By the way, I’ve been following all this because my current novel, High Ground, tells of a small Maine town caught in the backdraught of a clandestine corporate effort to develop anti-satellite weapons launched from existing F-15 fighter jets. Blinding the opposition’s military satellites would be the first salvo in any conventional or nuclear war.
Nuclear or anti-satellite, a weapon aboard a fighter would naturally be harder to detect at launch since it would not use a large stationary ground-based pad and could be fired from under the wing of almost any military aircraft. Such aircraft could also be much close to target, severely reducing time from launch to impact. While submarine-based nuclear missiles are also mobile and harder to detect, they are also ballistic.
You may recall that Russian aircraft have recently been testing close approaches to U.S. air space and aircraft, perhaps in an effort to map how close they can come before eliciting a response.
Early last year, the Department of Defense advised U.S. leadership of these emerging developments, prompting inclusion of more funds into the FY 2019 budget for development and testing of American versions which are currently not projected to be ready before 2022.
Existing U.S. plans call for a small suite of hypersonic systems, with different applications, including the possible development of a hypersonic vehicle capable of manned flight.