Vladimir Putin’s Russia has effected a critical leap forward before 2020 unfolds. Well might the President boast that Friday’s deployment of its first hypersonic nuclear-capable missiles puts his country in “a class of its own”. The only country with hypersonic weapons, the Avangard glide vehicle, which can fly at 27 times the speed of sound, is indubitably a technological breakthrough comparable to the 1957 Soviet launch of the first satellite.
More than 60 years later, the Kremlin has achieved yet another milestone in nuclear missile technology. If Mr Putin’s hstoric announcement is any indication, Russia’s new generation of nuclear weapons can hit almost any point in the world and evade a US-built missile shield, though some western experts have questioned how advanced some of the weapons programmes are.
Concordant with the traditional praxis of secrecy, the Kremlin has not disclosed where the missiles have been located. That major point of detail is not usually hushed up in Kim Jong-un’s North Korea. However, the strategic missile forces chief, Gen Sergei Karakaev, has said that the Avangard had been put on duty with a unit in the Orenburg region in the southern Ural mountains.
By all accounts, it has been a carefully calibrated endeavour. Putin had unveiled the Avangard and other prospective weapons systems in his state-of-the-nation address in March 2018, saying its ability to make sharp manoeuvres on its way to a target would render missile defence useless.
“It heads to target like a meteorite, like a fireball,” he had said at the time. The Avangard had been designed with new composite materials to withstand temperatures of up to 2,000 degrees C and can be reached while travelling at hypersonic speeds. The missile can carry a nuclear weapon of up to 2 megatons. In the context of military diplomacy, it appears to be the Kremlin’s counter-blast against the Pentagon.
Putin has said that Russia had to develop the Avangard and other weapons systems because of US efforts to develop a missile defence system that he claimed could erode Russia’s nuclear deterrent. Moscow has scoffed at US claims that its missile shield isn’t intended to counter Russia’s missile arsenals.
On Friday, President Putin noted for the first time that Russia was leading the world in developing a new class of weapons, unlike in the past when it was catching up with the US. Though the US is yet to convey its response in this season of jollity, suffice it to register that Mr Putin has effectively threatened Trumpian America with an arms race. It is bound to add to his worries as the impeachment proceedings get under way in the Senate.