By Meng Xiangqing
The Russian Defense Ministry recently announced the deployment of its first batch of Avangard hypersonic missiles to combat duty, while the speed of Kh-47M2 Kinzhal (Dagger) and 3M22 Zircon (Tsirkon) missiles will be flying at a hypersonic speed,10 times faster than the speed of sound, bringing the Russian military into a hypersonic era.
The development of hypersonic weapon system is also a priority for the US in order to enhance its long-range assault capability in the future, but US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper admitted that it would take years before the US master hypersonic capability.
Moscow recently released a series of latest progress on its hypersonic weapon development for considerations including countering Washington’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty), boosting the national morale, etc.
First, it is a significant military countermeasure against Washington’s exit from INF Treaty. The Trump administration officially quit the treaty this year, which put Russia in front of a series of new challenges. According to a Russian export, if the US deploys intermediate-range missiles in Europe, it will take only 15-17 minutes for them to strike the Russian territory. Against this background, the Russian deployment of the hypersonic missile system constitutes one of the countermeasures against America’s military moves.
Second, the deployment of the weapon system further boosts the Russian public confidence. Russia’s military expenditure has been falling in recent years, which is interpreted, especially by western public opinions, as a sign of its economic difficulty. Against such a background, the announcement of the series of major breakthroughs in hypersonic weapon systems is to assure its people and demonstrate that Russia’s military modernization is well on track despite the shrinking military expenditure.
Third, it is a major diplomatic initiative. It’s known to all that two of the three pillars of the US-Russia/US-Soviet nuclear disarmament have collapsed, leaving only the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which will be due to expire early in 2021. Russia’s intense announcement of new weapons, especially hypersonic weapon systems, imposes pressure on the US and forces it to the negotiating table on the renewal of the incumbent treaty.
The military gap between Moscow and Washington has widened after the end of the Cold War, and Moscow surpassing the latter in hypersonic weapon development is attributed to several reasons.
First, although the US was the first country to develop hypersonic weapons, it has experienced several setbacks and failures, even explosions, which have seriously shaken its confidence and resulted in the reduction of input in that field. On the contrary, Russia has taken the development of this kind of weapons as a priority all the time.
Second, the Russians have a keener sense of crisis than Americans. Their disparity in conventional military power after the Cold War is so immense that hypersonic weaponry offers an opportunity for Russia to outstrip the US at the curve. It is committed to this kind of weapon as a trump card of great deterrence.
Third, the US has too long a battle line and too massive military expenditure.
Arms race of any kind will bring a slew of impacts on international security situation, and the two major powers’ development of hypersonic weapon equipment will stimulate other countries to catch up too, thus forming a new round of competition among major countries.
In the meantime, hypersonic weapon equipment is likely to tilt the regional power balance. For instance, the US and Russia take a leading position in the world regarding a number of high-tech weapon equipment, leaving other regions far behind. Such an imbalance will prompt other countries and regions to develop new weapon equipment in other aspects, bringing new uncertainties to regional security.
(The author Senior Colonel Meng Xiangqing is the professor and director of the Institute of Strategy under PLA's National Defense University.)