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An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at 2:10 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, U.S., August 2, 2017.
US Air Force/Senior Airman Ian Dudley/Handout via REUTERS
Ballistic missiles are hard to intercept—hypersonic weapons are nearly impossible.
ARMS RACE

Russia is ready to deploy hypersonic weapons the US can’t defend against

By Steve Mollman

Russia conducted a hypersonic weapons test today, and Vladimir Putin is clearly excited about it. Speaking from a defense ministry control room after watching a live feed of the demonstration, the Russian president boasted to his military leaders that the intercontinental, nuclear-capable weapon is “invulnerable to intercept by any existing and prospective missile defense means of the potential adversary.”

What’s more, the Avangard system, as it’s called, will be deployed to Russia’s armed forces in 2019. “It’s a big moment in the life of the armed forces and in the life of the country. Russia has obtained a new type of strategic weapon,” Putin said.

Hypersonic weapons are highly maneuverable, allowing them to easily evade missile defense systems. US military leaders have conceded the point. In late March, John Hyten, commander of US Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “We don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us.”

Earlier that month, Putin unveiled nuclear-capable hypersonic weapons in a two-hour speech, warning, “I want to tell all those who have fueled the arms race over the last 15 years… You have failed to contain Russia.”

Putin said today that no other country has hypersonic weapons. In August, however, China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic weapon of its own.

The US is the other big player in hypersonic weapons, but it’s more focused on developing them to deliver conventional, not nuclear, warheads—a trickier task that requires more precise targeting to be effective.