Will Russia’s hypersonic missile test relaunch Cold War-style arms race?

Russia announced on Monday that it had launched a hypersonic missile from a nuclear submarine for the first time – one of the Zircon class missiles President Vladimir Putin and his military officers see as potential game-changers. 

A still from video footage distributed by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on October 4, 2021, showing a new Zircon hypersonic cruise missile being launched by a submarine in the Barents Sea. AP

It is pitch black in the video when, suddenly, after about ten seconds, a bright light appears and shoots upwards in the sky. For the Russian government, the flash of light signals the world's first ever successful launch of a hypersonic missile from a submarine.

The missile “hit its target”, the defence ministry said in a statement on Monday, adding that the hypersonic weapon was fired from the Severodvinsk nuclear submarine in the Barents Sea.

“This was a show of force that fits in with Russia’s approach, which is to relaunch the strategic arms race,” said Alexandre Vautravers, a defence and security expert and editor-in-chief of specialist publication the Revue Militaire Suisse. 

Zircon is a hypersonic missile, capable of exceeding Mach 5 (6,174 kilometres per hour). That means it can “hit any target at a distance of 1,000 km”, Putin noted at a speech in December 2018 when he confirmed that Russia was developing this new generation of weapons. 

Hypersonic weapons can also be guided as they fly – unlike traditional ballistic missiles, which cannot change course in mid-flight. That means this type of weaponry is likely to be much more effective against moving targets such as warships. The Zircons are “first and foremost anti-ship missiles, although they can also be used to strike targets on land”, said Gustav Gressel, an expert on Russian military issues at the European Council on Foreign Relations. 

Russia started working on the Zircons in the early 2010s and has conducted several tests over the past five years. 

But Monday’s launch from a submarine marks a significant breakthrough. This kind of weapon is usually carried on the stealthiest possible vessels, and in Russia’s case “that’s submarines, because the country doesn’t have adequate technology for long-range stealth bombers capable of avoiding American radar systems”, Vautravers pointed out. 

If Russia ever engages in a military confrontation against NATO forces, submarines are the “only part of the Russian navy that would stand a chance of surviving” against US and NATO military might, Gressel said. Russia has developed a “real sense of paranoia about the US”, he continued, and that motivates Moscow to always think about what would happen in the event of a conflict. 

Restarting the arms race? 

Weapons like hypersonic missiles are a particular boon for Russia right now because Western powers have been underinvesting in strategic missiles, Vautravers noted: “Europe and the US have continuously delayed the modernisation of their strategic weapons systems over recent years – and their technology sometimes dates back to the 1990s.” 

In light of this, it looks on the face of it like Russia has a head start in the arms race thanks to its launch of a hypersonic missile – which many analysts think of as the weapon of the future – from a nuclear submarine.

“Russia is the only country that’s demonstrated its ability to use these weapons in an operational manner; the US has also carried out tests but from launchers designed specifically for this kind of missile [instead of from an operational vessel like a submarine]; and there is absolutely no reliable data on the progress of the Chinese programme in this field,” Gressel said. 

Nevertheless, Gressel continued, one should not overestimate Russia’s capacity: “You have to overcome two main obstacles in order to be able to operate hypersonic missiles: you have to make them fly without disintegrating, and you have to show that you can guide them from a distance so they can hit moving targets – and the Russians have shown that their missiles can fly, but there is no evidence that they can adjust those missiles’ trajectory mid-flight.” 

The videos released by the Russian defence ministry after each “successful” launch just focus on the launches and “only show rather blurry images”, Gressel added. “I’d like to know how big the target it hit was, and whether it was a fixed target or a moving target.” 

The US does not yet have a definite cause for concern. But if Russia demonstrated total mastery of this technology, that could be a game-changer. At present, American efforts to develop a missile defence shield – dating back to the “Star Wars” programme launched by then President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s – have failed to produce a defence system “capable of launching all the missiles already in existence; such a system would be even less effective against hypersonic missiles”, Vautravers said. 

In the event that Russia demonstrates its mastery of hypersonic missile technology, Vautravers said, the US would have to choose whether to focus on its anti-missile defence system or to make hypersonic missiles a new priority of its own. If Washington pursued such a course, Vautravers concluded, that would “restart the arms race at a global level”. 

This article was translated from the original in French.