Russia may be on the brink of creating an entirely new class of military capability, as they push further ahead in the latest arms race. According to recent reports, they may have successfully tested what are known as hypersonic missiles and could be ready to deploy them by 2020.
The weapons are basically missiles that can fly over five times the speed of sound – roughly 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) per hour – but without losing any maneuverability. That feat means they will be able to dodge current air defense systems and hit any target on the planet within an hour.
The one being developed by Russia is known as Avangard, a hypersonic glide vehicle that skips along the upper atmosphere to strike pretty much any position.
This is clearly of supreme advantage, and as such all of the world’s main military superpowers – Russia, the US, and China – are racing to produce hypersonic weapons. However, they are not alone in this endeavor: It is thought that both France and India are also attempting to develop their own versions too, with other nations likely on the same path.
Recent reports suggest that Russia and the United States are not quite pursuing the same technology. While the US military has been working to create hypersonic missiles with standard warheads, the Russians are thought to be working towards nuclear-armed hypersonic weapons. This might seem a fairly arbitrary distinction to make, after all they can still travel and change direction at astonishing speeds to hit their target, but it does make a significant difference.
This is because if the Russians are indeed focusing on making them nuclear, it means the weapons do not need to be as accurate. If a standard hypersonic missile like the one the US is developing is off by a few hundred meters, they will miss the target. On the other hand, if a nuclear hypersonic weapon is off by a similar distance, the target will still be obliterated.
The precision of their weapons affects how difficult they are to produce. So while the US military is still thought to be perfecting their high-precision weapons, many think that Russia is well on its way to manufacturing cruder, but potentially more devastating, devices. And if the Russians are to be believed, then this could be as early as 2020.
None of this has gone unnoticed by the US government. Last year, they increased their funding to DARPA for their hypersonic program by 136 percent to a hefty $256.7 million, in the hope of speeding up the production of their own weapons.