The Avangard Threat: Is It a Game Changer?
During the First World War, both sides dug trenches resulting in long periods of stagnation along the entire front. Defensive capabilities had overtaken offensive capabilities, preventing large scale mobile warfare. This is until factors including the introduction and mass use of the tank were implemented, changing the course of the war. In the missile arena, since the use of V2 rockets during the Second World War, offensive capabilities have overtaken defensive capabilities. Unlike the game-changing introduction of the tank, there has been no riposte to the strategic missile. Over time, technological advances have increased range, accuracy and proliferation of missiles, with little to no ability to counter them at a strategic level.
Missiles and delivery systems have continued to evolve alongside Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) technology, but it’s clear that the offensive missile is winning this race. The U.S. has pumped billions of dollars into the Ground-based Midcourse Defence (GMD) which, during controlled testing conditions since 1999 has only resulted in 10 successful intercepts out of 18 tests. The GMD was designed with strategic defense in mind, but as yet it has not been proven to be effective against ICBMs, which are extremely fast moving, let alone missiles with countermeasures such as MARVs and MIRVs.
The next step forward in ABM countermeasures in the Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV) such as the Avangard, recently tested by Russia and scheduled for deployment this year. The Avangard HGV is designed to separate from the missile and maneuver and glide through the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds to evade missile defenses. The last successful test was in December 2018 where the Avangard was launched atop an SS-19 ICBM. President Putin stated, “it heads to target like a meteorite, like a fireball”. While this concept sounds scary as it’s intended to do, is it a game changer? At a strategic level, the answer is ‘no.’ At a theatre level such as the European continent, the answer is ‘potentially,’ but this depends on deployment and the response and cohesiveness of NATO.
Let’s examine the strategic level first. Rest assured, the U.S. and Russia still have the capability for Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) as they did during the Cold War. The speed of an ICBM, even without countermeasures makes it difficult to intercept and in the event of a global nuclear war between Russia and the U.S., there would be hundreds launched against targets. For the ICBMs fitted with MIRVs and MARVs, there would be multiple targets to attempt to intercept which would be futile. While the Avangard HGV purportedly provides an impressive capability, it doesn’t add anything new to alter the strategic situation.
There has been talk of the Avangard HGV having the ability to avoid missile defense radar coverage. Whether it can or cannot do this remains to be seen; however, the fact that the Avangard is launched atop a missile makes it immediately detectable by Space-Based Infrared Surveillance (SBIRS) satellites. Any strategic attack on the U.S. would entail multiple missile launches regardless of whether or not the payload could evade radar detection. The U.S. would have ample time to retaliate with its ground and air-based deterrent, not to mention its secure submarine based retaliatory capability. For all the billions of dollars spent on ICBM defense by the U.S., offensive capability still owns the day. The introduction of the HGV is not a strategic game changer, but it does provide the Russians with an additional countermeasure element in the event of some unforeseen breakthrough in ABM technology in the decades ahead.
The theatre level is where things get slightly more complicated. Cold Warriors will remember the deployment of the SS-20 IRBM and the threat it posed to Europe. They will also remember the U.S. response to this being the Pershing II MRBM and the resulting controversy and public protests against its deployment in Western Europe. The new SS-20 is alleged to be the RS-26 which is potentially in breach of the INF Treaty. Russia states that the RS-26 is a mobile ICBM while some analysts claim that it is, in fact, an IRBM due to its range being below 5,500 km when fitted with specific payloads. This range would cover the entire landmass of Europe but be unable to strike the continental U.S., posing a risk to the cohesion of the NATO alliance.
With the ability to strike any target within Europe using mobile IRBMs and not the continental U.S., Europeans and Russia alike may calculate that the U.S. will not come to their aid if they are threatened with a nuclear strike. Both parties may question whether the U.S. is willing to sacrifice New York for Warsaw, for example. This is reminiscent of Cold War thinking, but the difference is that NATO is not facing a threat such as the Soviet Union and the alliance may not possess the strength and cohesion it once had due to isolationist sentiments made by President Trump, including harsh criticism of allies regarding defense spending and cozy relations between Turkey and Russia.
The deployment of IRBMs is destabilizing enough, but with the added element of potentially being fitted with the Avangard HGV, the threat increases significantly. The introduction of the Aegis Ashore BMD system in Romania and pending introduction in Poland is designed to intercept medium and intermediate-range missiles, but this capability would be neutralized if the Avangard works as advertised. Any Russian strike against NATO targets in Europe could occur in minutes with little warning. This scenario would aid a potential Russian so-called “escalate to de-escalate” strategy if Russia was to launch an invasion against the Baltic states.
One such scenario could involve Russia deploying multiple RS-26 missiles fitted with the Avangard across Western Russia. The range of these missiles would encompass all of Europe. Within this scenario Russian troops invade the Baltic States of Estonia and Latvia, pushing through defenses rapidly and taking control of the nations. Simultaneously, President Putin makes a statement that the RS-26 is fitted with the Avangard and a nuclear warhead that he is prepared to use against European bases if there is any move against his troops taking control of the Baltic states. The U.S. in this scenario, knowing that the Aegis system is ineffective against the Avangard and knowing that the RS-26 does not pose a threat to the continental U.S., demands Russia withdraw its troops but fearing a nuclear exchange, does not make a concerted effort to mount an operation across the Atlantic. The result is twofold in the first instance, the Crimea style annexation of two NATO member states into Russia and the end of NATO. While this scenario has many variables, the introduction and deployment of INF range missiles with HGVs would be extremely destabilizing and prone to resulting in serious miscalculations.
So where to from here? For all the bluster and effort spent on ABM technology, deterrence owns the day. The key to avoiding miscalculation is to be steadfast regarding the cohesiveness of the NATO alliance. Public statements and rumors centered on the possibility of the U.S. leaving NATO and consistent critical rhetoric by the President of the United States towards allies will only exacerbate the chances of miscalculation and the horrendous war that could result from this. Deterrence relies on strong signaling that there would be severe repercussions to an act of aggression. NATO must signal to Russia that if attacked, member countries will respond as a united force. The U.S. must signal to Russia that any use or threat of nuclear weapons against a NATO member, regardless of range or capability will result in a strategic nuclear response.
If allowed to, the Avangard has the potential to alter the landscape. United and strong allies are the only answer to this threat. The NATO alliance has and will continue to have differences, but like a marriage, it will require work and effort to keep it together in times of hardship and strain. The end of NATO is the ultimate prize for would-be aggressors. Let’s not enable them to win without a fight.
Adam Cabot has a Masters in International Relations and is currently researching Russian nuclear strategy.