Russia, the United States, China, and India are the prime movers behind the current development and testing of hypersonic cruise missiles. These missiles are intended for launching high-precision non-nuclear strikes against a range of targets and carrying them out in significantly less time than strikes conducted with existing cruise missiles.

This state of affairs dictates, at a minimum, that the governments of these states will devote considerable effort to assessing the emerging threat posed by hypersonic weapons in all spheres of warfare and creating semi-strategic and technical protections from these systems.

The development of intercontinental-range hypersonic weapons is especially alarming. For instance, many Russian officials and experts believe that hypersonic weapons deployed by the United States will drastically increase the effectiveness of the global strike concept and give Washington a capability to deliver a disarming non-nuclear strike against Russia’s Strategic Nuclear Forces.

The Development of Hypersonic Systems in the USSR and Russian Federation

The first Russian engineering projects regarding flight tests of hypersonic aircraft date back to the late 1970s and early 1980s and were most likely related to the Albatross missile system project. Intensive work in this area, just as in many others, was prompted by information regarding the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which was announced by then president Ronald Reagan in 1983. SDI called for the development and deployment of strategic missile defense of space-, air-, sea-, and ground-based targets from a mass-scale Soviet ballistic missile attack.

The Soviet Union responded to SDI with a number of symmetric and asymmetric steps; Albatross—referred to in later publications as Project 4202—was among the latter. While the project’s goals and technical characteristics remain outside the attention of the news media, some Russian sources have recently started publishing analyses on this subject.1

According to accounts in Russian defense publications and journals, the development of such a missile complex was conducted based on government order No. 173-45, issued on February 9, 1987. The complex’s development was carried out by the NPO Mashinostroenia (NPOmash) Design Bureau under the leadership of Gerbert Yefremov. In theory, the complex’s design was relatively simple: At boost phase, the UR-100N UTTKh (SS-19) intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) would launch a so-called hypersonic gliding vehicle (HGV) to an altitude of 80 to 90 kilometers, after which the HGV would make a low-angle turn toward the earth’s surface and accelerate at a descending trajectory, gliding to intercontinental range at hypersonic speed, or five times the speed of sound. An HGV armed with a nuclear weapon would supposedly make rapid cross-range maneuvers to circumvent ground-based U.S. missile defenses.

The first Albatross missile flight tests were reportedly conducted in 1991–1992, and additional tests took place in 2001 and 2004.2 UR-100N missiles with an HGV were launched from open-roof silo missile launchpads, as the size of the HGVs prevented the roofs from closing.

The HGVs reportedly were also supposed to be part of the payload on a three-stage solid-propellant missile, first on the universal ICBM jointly developed by the Dnepropetrovsk-based NPO Yuzhnoye and the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology, and later on the Topol-M ICBM after the failure of the initial joint venture. HGVs can also reportedly be deployed on the new Sarmat heavy missile.

The American and Chinese Projects

It is rather striking that details regarding U.S. and Chinese research and development efforts remain fairly limited.

The United States conducted its first full-scale intercontinental hypersonic aircraft flight tests in 2010.3 The tests involved the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2) glider, which Lockheed Martin began developing in 2003, as well as Boeing’s X-51A hypersonic cruise missile.

The HTV-2 test flights were only partially successful. During the first flight, the glider reached a speed of Mach 20—twenty times the speed of sound—before starting to spin uncontrollably. During the second flight, in 2011, the HTV-2 successfully separated from the booster and entered the mission’s glide phase but again lost contact with control about nine minutes into the flight and burned up.

Likewise, the first X-51A flight conducted in 2010 was also only partially successful. Although it managed to reach a speed of Mach 5, the vehicle was directed to self-destruct after missile instability and communication problems emerged. The next two flights failed: The 2011 mission proved unsuccessful due to an engine inlet failure. In 2012, the craft lost control seventeen seconds into the flight and proceeded to disintegrate and crash into the Pacific.

Only the fourth test was fully successful. The X-51A was launched from a B-52 aircraft after reaching a speed of Mach 5.1 and an altitude of 18.2 kilometers. The flight lasted six minutes, allowing the missile to travel a distance of 426 kilometers.4

The testing of each U.S. hypersonic aircraft may be continued.

Meanwhile, China has conducted six tests of its hypersonic WU-14 missile in a span of just under two years, starting in 2014.5  The WU-14 is a hypersonic gliding vehicle launched by a ballistic missile that, according to reports, may carry both conventional and nuclear weapons. During one test, the aircraft demonstrated a high degree of maneuverability that would enable it to penetrate the enemy’s missile defenses, which suggests that the Chinese aircraft almost fully replicated the design and flight pattern of the Russian Albatross HGV.

The Albatross Project’s Special Features and Their Assessments

Analyzing technical details of the aforementioned projects is beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, I will focus on some of their characteristics in light of both heightened public interest in these projects and stepped-up levels of expert analysis on the subject.

Upon reentry, the Albatross HGV’s flight velocity significantly decreases, according to available information, and an HGV can become vulnerable to the U.S. Patriot anti-aircraft missiles. The missile and HGV flight trajectory were probably chosen to reduce the likelihood of a strike by space-based missile defenses systems that were part of the original SDI.

The most advanced of the U.S. space-based missile defense projects, known as Brilliant Pebbles, was envisioned to launch hundreds of small spacecraft into orbit, after which the spacecraft would kinetically destroy ballistic missiles as they exited the relatively dense atmospheric layers. Further, they would have been tasked with neutralizing low-orbit Soviet satellites.

The altitudes of HGV launches’ missile trajectories had to be significantly decreased to circumvent the danger to HGVs with low-angle trajectories posed by Brilliant Pebbles. Incidentally, the Topol-M, Yars, and Bulava ICBMs succeeded in doing that, but their trajectories didn’t allow the missiles to reach the maximum range. In addition, they required an extra supply of energy, having lost some of their throw weight. Furthermore, some energy was spent protecting the missile body from the lasers and other weapons that were envisioned by SDI. Some experts, however, can’t quite grasp these details. For instance, they criticize the Bulava missile for losing too much of its throw weight while comparing Bulava with missiles that lack protection from space weapons.

At present, there is no available information on how Albatross, or Project 4202, HGVs are protected from ground-based missile defenses when they decelerate during the last segment of their trajectory. There could many options for just such protection—one of which the United States could adopt for its hypersonic missiles. For instance, after detaching from a launch vehicle, an HGV could continue its flight at a slightly lower altitude, staying at 40–60 kilometers until it practically reaches the target. (Such a flight path would avoid adding to the thermal load significantly and would not drastically reduce the HGV’s velocity.) When it is almost to the target, the HGV would then start its near-vertical descent, which would also reduce the risk of being struck by ground-based missile defenses. It’s quite possible that these methods of missile defense penetration are also part of Project 4202.

How Real Are the Threats?

Based on this brief overview, it is possible to assess the threats potentially posed by hypersonic weapons, specifically the potential threats to Russia’s security in the context of a disarming, non-nuclear strike against strategic nuclear installations and command centers. This threat is mentioned in Russia’s military doctrine and, as was already noted, deploying hypersonic weapons hypothetically could increase the effectiveness of such a strike.

Of course, Russia’s military and defense establishment needs to be prepared to deflect real threats well before they actually emerge. The United States possesses more than 4,000 air- and sea-launched cruise missiles, but specific calculations reveal the infeasibility of a disarming strike with existing cruise missiles.6 First, such a move would encounter an inevitable retaliatory strike by the Strategic Rocket Forces. And second, for the same reason, it seems absurd to believe that the Pentagon might opt for a disarming strike against Russian targets using hypersonic weapons even if the Americans produce thousands of them, which is unlikely due to their prohibitive cost. Nevertheless, this issue requires additional consideration.

The United States apparently intends to use its hypersonic weapons against certain particularly dangerous targets that are capable of quick location changes, but solving this problem doesn’t require the large-scale deployment of such weapons. The situation is somewhat analogous to European and global U.S. missile defense systems, which are capable of intercepting individual and serial ballistic missile launches and pose no threat to Russia’s nuclear deterrent capability.

Some overly excited Russian experts suggest that hypersonic missiles, even in small numbers, are capable of striking high command centers in both the Moscow region and other known sites that are home to the country’s leading political figures. Similar fears existed during the Soviet era in connection with U.S. space shuttle flights, when it was alleged that a U.S. spacecraft might abruptly descend upon Moscow and deliver a nuclear strike against Soviet leaders.

These fears, however, remained groundless for at least two reasons. First, such a strike would disable the central command, leaving huge quantities of both strategic and non-strategic nuclear weapons with no central supervision. Such a situation would have unpredictable consequences that might also affect the United States. Second, Soviet Strategic Nuclear Forces reserves boasted high survivability—thus, a retaliatory strike would have been launched in any event.

For the same reasons, the United States is not planning to launch any hypersonic weapon strikes against Russian high command centers. Besides, some of the sites are well protected against nuclear strikes, let alone high-precision non-nuclear ones.

Conclusion

Against a backdrop of incredible strides in science and technology in recent years, equally momentous developments are to be expected in the military and space sphere. Yet the very important potential threats associated with new types of weapons call for realistic, not fanciful, scenarios.

It’s important to remember that scientists and independent experts, not just government officials, have an essential role to play in evaluating and articulating realistic threats to their countries’ security.

At this juncture, trilateral consultations on hypersonic weapons involving Russia, the United States, and China could prove very helpful. They would allow the parties to formulate a more accurate understanding of the appropriate scale and costs of deploying hypersonic weapons.

Over time, it is conceivable that such consultations could help persuade policymakers in these three countries to take more seriously the need to reach agreement on minimizing or removing the destabilizing impact of all types of long-range, high-precision delivery systems of non-nuclear weapons.

Such a move is overdue but would be an important step forward in maintaining strategic stability and reducing the degree of tensions among the world’s leading nuclear powers.

Notes

1 A. Raygorodetsky, “Proekt MBP “Albatros” (SSSR)” [Albatross ICBM project (USSR)], Dogs of War, August 15, 2011, http://www.dogswar.ru/oryjeinaia-ekzotika/raketnoe-oryjie/4945-proekt-mbr-qalbatros.html; A. Ramm and D. Korneyev, “‘Albatros’ mirovoy revolutsii” [Albatross of the worldwide revolution—part I], Voenno-Promyshlennyy Kuryer 36 (September 23, 2015), http://www.vpk-news.ru/articles/27160; and A. Ramm and D. Korneyev, "Gipersmert' na podkhode"  [Hyperdeath is approaching], Voenno-Promyshlennyy Kuryer 11 (March 25, 2015), http://www.vpk-news.ru/articles/24407.

2 Raygorodetsky, “Proekt MBP.”

3 “V SSHA provalilis' ispytaniya vtorogo giperzvukovogo apparata” [The second hypersonic aircraft tests failed], Lenta.ru, August 12, 2011, https://lenta.ru/news/2011/08/12/htv2/.

4 “Samaya bystraya raketa v mire” [The fastest missile in the world], Uznayvse.ru, accessed August 8, 2016, http://www.uznayvse.ru/interesting-facts/samaya-byistraya-raketa-v-mire.html.

5 V. Shukla, “China Successfully Tests Hypersonic Nuclear Missile Wu-14,” ValueWalk, June 15, 2015, http://www.valuewalk.com/2015/06/china-tests-wu-14-amid-us-tensions/.

6 D. Akhmerov, E. Akhmerov, and M. Valeyev, “Po-bystromu ne poluchitsya: mogushchestvo neyadernykh krylatykh raket illyuzorno” [It can’t be done the fast way: the power of non-nuclear cruise missiles is illusory], Voenno-Promyshlennyy Kuryer 40 (October 21, 2015), http://www.vpk-news.ru/articles/27617.