The Kremlin offered up a late Christmas gift on Wednesday, unveiling brand new footage of a hypersonic missile test conducted that same day. The “Avangard” missile platform is a boost-glide vehicle that is deployed from the tip of an ICBM before gliding back to earth in a controlled descent at speeds in excess of Mach 5, and if Moscow is to be believed, as quickly as Mach 20.
That speed, in conjunction with the platform’s controlled maneuverability during its descent, makes the missile just about indefensible utilizing existing missile defense systems employed by the United States (or any other country for that matter). The threat posed by hypersonic technology (and current technology’s inability to intercept them) has been a point of both great emphasis and concern within the American military apparatus in recent months, with billions allocated to contractors like Lockheed Martin in hopes of fielding hypersonic platforms of our own as Russia’s and China’s speed toward entering active service.
Putin himself addressed the Russian people regarding the announced success of the test, though it’s worth noting that the video the Kremlin released doesn’t necessarily substantiate those claims.
“On my instructions the industrial enterprises and the Defense Ministry have prepared for and carried out the final test of this system,” Putin said through Russia’s state-owned TASS. “The test was completely successful: all technical parameters were verified.”
The test, which is said to be the platform’s last before the missile is entered into combat service next year, was shown in a film that was immediately distributed wide across multiple Russian-backed media outlets in what has become a common bit of weapons-industry marketing for Russia in recent months. Their efforts to secure the interests (and they hope, the funds) of foreign governments has been at the forefront of Russia’s media campaigns for months, in hopes it can inject funding into their defense apparatus amid international sanctions and a stalled economy.
“Starting from next year, in 2019, a new intercontinental strategic system Avangard will enter service in the Russian army and the first regiment in the Strategic Missile Troops will be deployed,” Putin added.
The video released does indeed show a missile being launched from an underground silo… but notably, that’s all it shows. Although the Kremlin announced that the missile covered some 3,700 miles before successfully destroying its intended target, there’s no evidence to suggest that this actually occurred. As North Korea demonstrated time and time again, getting airborne is just the first problem a new missile has to contend with before it enters operational service. Surviving re-entry and effectively hitting a target is another bag of questions entirely.
Russia does have a great deal of experience with ICBMs and survivable reentry vehicles — but none have had to contend with speeds nearly as high as the Kremlin claims the Avangard is capable of managing. Whether or not this platform can hit Mach 20 is yet to be proven, of course, but even if it can… all that speed won’t do much good if the warhead breaks apart before it finds its target.