What Putin’s new hypersonic weapon means for America

Russia retains growing capability in boutique war-fighting areas. That said, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s newest missile system is designed to grab American attention far more than it is to advance Russia’s nuclear destructive capability.

I note this in light of Russia’s apparently successful Avangard hypersonic weapons test on Wednesday. The Avangard is a hypersonic warhead re-entry vehicle that is designed to outpace and outmaneuver U.S. missile defense systems. Announcing that the Avangard will now be deployed with frontline units, Putin pledged that U.S. missile defense systems are now impotent. That’s because the Avangard would supposedly allow nuclear warhead re-entry vehicles to escape any kind of U.S. interceptor vehicle. The extension of Putin’s confidence is that Russia can now match or overmatch the U.S. in a full-scale nuclear conflict.

But Putin is only half right. While the Avangard is an impressive program that outmatches any hypersonic system in the U.S. military, Russian nuclear targeting, logistics, and strike capabilities remain inferior to America’s (although the targeting element is improving). That’s largely because Russian fleet ballistic missile submarines are too loud, Russian strategic bomber aircraft are too old, and Russian military professionalism is too unpredictable. In turn, the U.S. would likely be victorious in a nuclear war with Russia, even if the costs of that war to the U.S. civilian population would be utterly horrific.

The Avangard system does allow Putin to send a message to the U.S. that he remains committed to resourcing a near-peer warfighting threat to America. While Putin publicly blames U.S. missile defense systems for his development of Avangard, he knows full well that those defense systems were never a threat to Russia’s nuclear capability in the first place. In the event of war, the Russians could overwhelm U.S. defense systems, which are designed to deal with small-scale attacks from evolving nuclear threat actors such as North Korea and Iran). Yet Avangard-type platforms do enable Russia and China (which is also actively developing its own hypersonic reentry vehicle system) to threaten the U.S. in other areas.

Over the next decade expect Moscow and Beijing to use their existing hypersonic technology to develop greater non-nuclear standoff strike capabilities against key U.S. assets such as major military command headquarters or aircraft carriers. The next secretary of defense must demand high-priority returns on investment from U.S. defense contractors working to counter these threats.

Ultimately, the Avangard is a tanglble reminder that Russia and China are America’s two primary adversaries. They must be deterred with U.S. military capability and command skill.

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