Image by Natalie Wu
By Anthony Ross
(00:00) Later this year, somewhere in Southern Russia, a camouflaged hatch slides open to reveal a deep, dark well. Seconds later, a column of smoke and fire erupt from this newly revealed portal, as if the forces of hell were attempting to pass into the mortal coil. A heartbeat passes before an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) emerges from the flames and flies toward the blue sky. Contained within the missiles cargo hold are six devices, each carrying a two-megaton nuclear warhead. The hatch did release hell, but a hell of man’s own creation.
The ICBM in this scenario is carrying Avangard – the first nuclear-armed hypersonic weapon deployed by any nation and the product of intensifying security competition between former Cold War foes. It is sleek in design, equipped with groundbreaking avionic equipment, and capable of traveling at more than twenty-seven times the speed of sound. While it sounds like an object of science fiction, it is a very real device with very real implications for global security. Avangard represents what is perhaps the single greatest development in offensive nuclear capabilities this century, and with it, a heightened chance that the world may be faced with atomic fire caused by accident, miscalculation, or madness.
(00:02) By now, the ICBM is well out of sight and is preparing to ignite its second stage. People in Norfolk, Virginia, meanwhile, are settling in for a quiet evening.
In order to understand why Avangard is a true revolution in offensive capabilities, and why its scheduled deployment by Russian missile forces later this year represents a paradigm shift in the balance of nuclear war planning, it is important to first understand what a hypersonic weapon is and why Russia, or any nation for that matter, is interested in delivering nuclear weapons at speeds many times faster than sound.
Broadly speaking, a hypersonic weapon is a device which can deliver a nuclear or conventional payload at speeds that exceed five times the speed of sound. This includes everything from more familiar weapons, like cruise and ballistic missiles, to more novel concepts like the hypersonic boost glide vehicle (HGV), a class of weapons to which the Avangard belongs. Multiple HGV’s can be loaded atop an ICBM and launched above the atmosphere before the HGV is released for its supersonic descent back to Earth’s surface. Rather than falling back to the ground like a standard ballistic missile, however, Avangard “pulls up” after initial reentry into the atmosphere, performing what is known as an atmospheric skip. This maneuver co-opts Earth’s gravity, allowing the vehicle to reach hypersonic speeds.
Such feats were, until recently, completely implausible. The speed and stability of strategic weapons were constrained by the immense heat produced by friction within the atmosphere. Over the past decade, advances in aerodynamics, composite materials, and computing have allowed nations like the United States and Russia to overcome the challenge of extraordinary friction and the heat it generates. Both nations have been developing test vehicles for the last twenty years with varying success. Avangard is the first design to make it out of the prototype phase.
Development and testing of Avangard (also known as Objekt-4202) was officially announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin in July of 2018, alongside several other nuclear delivery systems. Avangard, as well as a new hypersonic ICBM, an underwater nuclear capable drone, and a medium range air-launched missile also capable of traveling at hypersonic speeds, are Russia’s answers to their perceived existential problem of U.S. missile defense.
(00:06) The ICBM is now well into its second stage. All systems are nominal.
Vladimir Putin has been very transparent about the logic behind the creation of these ridiculously volant doomsday weapons: developing hypersonic weapons like Avangard completely undermines America’s missile defense shield, and thereby destabilizes any assurance of safety. The Russians believe that the presence of American missile defense networks in Europe, Asia, and the U.S. mainland is proof that the United States is attempting to re-write the rules of mutually assured destruction by developing the capability to shoot down Russian nukes. To Vladimir Putin, the logic is simple: if America believes it can survive nuclear retaliation, then America is more likely to use its nuclear weapons against Russia. Avangard’s hypersonic capabilities solve the problem of American missile defense by being so fast and unpredictable that no current interceptor can destroy it.
(00:07) The ICBM has killed its second stage engines and less than a minute later releases its payload fairings, revealing the smooth bodies of six Avangard’s. The vehicles complete their final atmospheric checks and subsequent guidance calculations before separating from the ICBM in a dispersed pattern. Early warning radars all over the world begin to warn of a Russian ICBM launch.
Avangard isn’t just fast – it’s maneuverable as well. Avangard, like most HGV’s, does not fly along predictable parabolic angles like a traditional ballistic missile. The advanced avionics of the system allows it to make rapid course corrections even while traveling at six miles per second. This enables Avangard to evade interception by flying in a way which traditional ballistic missiles cannot. For instance, upon reentry, the Russians allege that Avangard could conduct a sort of hypersonic juke, allowing it to hit a target parallel to its initial re-entry angle. To a radar technician, Avangard is surely going to miss its target, when, in reality, it is performing a diversionary maneuver. Its speed and unpredictable flight behavior make Avangard exceedingly difficult to track, making it even harder to confirm if a radar system has picked up a genuine target or a false alarm. Avangard also glides at altitudes which are too low for missile interceptors to target, rending Avangard completely invisible during wide swaths of its flight time.
Here lies the true danger of Avangard: it is a device without precedent. It is faster, stealthier, and smarter than any other nuclear-capable weapons platform. Quite simply, Avangard and systems like it are the perfect contemporary offensive weapon – stealthy, impossibly fast, and capable of wide scale destruction. It is without question that Avangard will be but the first of many similar weapons to come. With it, the world must make a drastic departure from long-held strategic certainties that, with the exception of the deployment of American missile defenses, have remained unchanged since the end of the Cold War.
By the time early warning radars would notice an attack was underway, the President would have less than ten minutes to decide on a response. This drastically reduces – if not totally eliminates – the period that can be used to confirm the validity of an attack. Time to confirm whether an early warning was legitimate or not saved the world from nuclear annihilation in 1960, 1967, 1979, and many more times since then. We might not be so lucky if wartime leaders were pressured to make a decision in less than six minutes. This short decision-making window helps make the case for American nuclear planners to adopt what is known as a launch on warning posture. Simply put, launch on warning (or LOW as it’s called by nuclear policy wonks) is a policy under which America would launch a retaliatory strike when it receives warning of an incoming attack. Current policy would wait for initial confirmation of a nuclear detonation before retaliating. The speed of Avangard draws a curtain of doubt over the ability to retaliate while waiting for confirmation of a strike since it would likely be just seconds between the first detonation and many of America’s own nuclear assets being destroyed by hypersonic warheads. Switching to launch on warning policy would ensure that America was able to respond to very fast nuclear weapons like Avangard, but it would also increase the risk of a launch precipitated by a false alarm. Launch on warning is accompanied by the possibility that a full nuclear exchange could be caused by a faulty satellite, a computer glitch, or a solar storm.
(00:15) By now, a single Avangard intended for the Norfolk Naval Station is beginning to pull up from its initial sub-atmospheric descent. Bathed in fire, its guidance computer quickly maneuvers the sleek body upward, toward the inky blackness of outer space. American radar struggles to track the HGV as the homeland missile defense system prepares for a doomed attempt to intercept the glider.
Russia is not the only nation working on hypersonic weaponry. The United States and China are both working to field hypersonic weapons that can deliver conventional explosive and nuclear munitions. While Russia will be the first to do so later this year, there can be little doubt that an American nuclear HGV is on the horizon and with it a Chinese HGV, followed by an Indian HGV and so on. When there is no reputable defense against a weapon, the next best option is to possess your own terrifying version of it.
(00:18) Avangard has now reached its maximum speed and is barreling toward its intended target at twenty-seven times the speed of sound. American missile defense interceptors are completely powerless to stop the hypersonic warhead as it darts through the sky, entirely silent.
The next decade will likely see the rise of hypersonic weapons for a wide variety of uses, both strategic and tactical. New weapons systems have been built in the past without apocalyptic implications, but the emergence of weapons that have no contemporary defensive countermeasure, and whose unparalleled speed leaves no time to ponder an effective response, is truly an unprecedented event. The Russians may have found a cost-effective answer to American missile defense, but doing so has introduced a strategic uncertainty that could prove more dangerous than any American missile defense battery.
(00:20) Avangard is now fifty miles away from Norfolk and will arrive in under ten seconds. It will incinerate the naval station and level much of the surrounding area. There was no time to activate emergency air raid sirens, and the sound of Avangard would not arrive in Norfolk until many seconds after it has already detonated detonated. Twenty minutes have passed since lift-off.
Anthony Ross is a junior at the University of Oregon where he studies Political Science and Anthropology. He has worked in a variety of fields from congressional campaigns to prison education. A native Oregonian, his interests include hiking, conflict studies and 90’s hip-hop.