Russia’s Hypersonic Missile Threat to the U.S. National Command Authority
Hypersonic missiles are defined as missiles with a velocity of Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound) or above. The main limit on hypersonic speed is materials technology. For the purpose of this analysis, ordinary strategic nuclear ballistic missiles, although they have hypersonic speed, will not be treated here. What will be discussed are new weapons -- maneuvering hypersonic "aeroballistic" missiles, hypersonic boost-glide vehicles, and powered hypersonic cruise missiles. These constitute the new capabilities that are generally referred to as “hypersonic missiles." Russia has achieved an enormous advantage in hypersonic weapons while, on the other hand, the U.S. is playing catchup. Unlike U.S. programs, all Russian hypersonic weapons are apparently nuclear-armed or nuclear-capable.
The Russians are also well ahead of the U.S. in ordinary strategic ballistic missiles because they have been modernizing while we have not done so since the 1990s. In the case of ICBMs, our Minuteman force is vintage 1970. In 2012, Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology Corporation General Designer Yuri Solomonov said, “Strategic nuclear weapons developed by the Russian defense sector are 10-15 years ahead of what the West or the East may do.” This appears to be an understatement. Ordinary nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, if they carry missile defense countermeasures and maneuvering R.V.s, have many of the advantages of hypersonic missiles except against the most time urgent targets.
Hypersonic missiles are difficult to build because hypersonic flight generates an enormous amount of heat which persists for a long time compared to ordinary ballistic missiles where only the re-entry vehicle must be protected against extreme heat and only for a short period of time. Hypersonic missiles have significant military advantages over subsonic and even supersonic cruise missiles. They can reach their targets much faster, which is very important in dealing with the most time urgent and relocatable targets. This allows rapid responses to actionable intelligence and, as has recently been discussed in the Russian press, a surprise nuclear attack on critical U.S. national command authority targets. Bomber bases are in the same category because the survivability of even alert bombers depends on adequate time to get them airborne and outside the blast radius of the nuclear weapons targeted against their bases. The same would be true for nuclear-capable fighter aircraft bases even if these aircraft were put on alert. (If they are not alert, they are vulnerable to even ordinary subsonic missiles.)
Russian hypersonic missile programs announced by the Russian government or reported in state media include:
- The KH-32, an already operational near hypersonic nuclear-capable cruise missile (reported maximum speeds ranging from Mach 4 to Mach 5), with a range of 1,000-km.
- The already operational Iskander-M and the improved Iskander-M nuclear-capable “aeroballistic” missiles with a reported maximum range of 700 to 1,000-km.
- A now operational “high-precision hypersonic aircraft missile system” called the Kinzhal, which is capable of “delivering nuclear and conventional warheads in a range of over 2,000-km.” The Chief of the Russian Aerospace Force (Air Force) called it an “aeroballistic missile.” It is reportedly a derivative of the Iskander-M. In 2018, the Deputy Russian Defense Minister Yuri Borisov said that ten Kinzhals are operational on the Mig-31 fighters and TASS, the main official Russian news agency, reports that an "aeroballistic missile," obviously the Kinzhal, will be carried by the Su-34 long-range strike fighter. State-run TASS and Sputnik News report that the Backfire bomber will also carry the Kinzhal.
- A smaller version of the Kinzhal to be carried by the Su-57 fighter aircraft.
- The Avangard nuclear-armed intercontinental hypersonic boost-glide vehicle which Putin characterizes as, "A real technological breakthrough," which he said, "has been successfully tested." TASS says it has a two-megaton warhead. In June 2018, President Putin said it was in serial production. The Russians have said that it will be operational in 2019.
- The Tsirkon (Zircon) powered nuclear-capable hypersonic cruise missile which Putin says has a range of over 1,000-km and a speed of Mach 9. A retired Russian admiral says the range is 2,000-km. It will be operational in a few years, perhaps sooner.
In addition to these hypersonic missile programs, Russia is reportedly developing the KH-MT a “ram-jet powered hypersonic design apparently intended for internal carriage [on the Tu-95MSM bomber].” There are reports that the Russian nuclear-powered cruise missile, the 9M730 Burevestnik, one of Putin’s nuclear superweapons, is a hypersonic missile. This is possible but much more difficult to build than a subsonic or a supersonic nuclear-powered cruise missile. In February 2019, President Putin spoke about Russia deploying two types of ground-launched hypersonic missiles within two years. A Russian press report suggested that Russia may develop an intermediate-range ground-launched missile which combines a new first stage rocket with the Kinzhal maneuvering missile as its second stage. There may be other Russian hypersonic missile programs under development that have not been reported in open sources.
Hypersonic missiles are very difficult to intercept because of their speed and maneuverability. Kinetic interceptors will require high speed and maneuverability to intercept them, and they must be tracked at long distances. Flying depressed trajectories with considerable atmospheric flight or trajectories entirely in the atmosphere makes them difficult to detect and track by fixed ground-based radars. The much higher trajectories of ordinary ballistic missiles allow radar detection and tracking at much longer ranges. Hypersonic missiles generally reduce the area that can be defended by any defense site even if it had the capability to intercept hypersonic missiles. It also allows early warning radar coverage to be evaded.
The speed and relatively low-altitude of Russian nuclear-armed hypersonic missiles make them useful for a surprise attack against the U.S. national command authority because the U.S. has very few hard and deeply buried hardened bunkers, resulting in a potentially vulnerable U.S. national command authority. Absent deep and hardened underground bunkers, protecting the national command authority depends upon getting the President airborne and out of a targetable area before the attack arrives. If adequate time is not available from early warning systems, this will not happen. The survivability against a nuclear attack of alert bombers and alert nuclear-armed fighter aircraft depends upon the amount of warning time available. The Russians may see the destruction of the U.S. national command authority in a pre-emptive nuclear strike as a means to win a nuclear war because it could delay any U.S. decision to retaliate until after the main Russia nuclear attack arrives or even prevent a U.S. decision to retaliate or its execution. Absent the low-yield Trident missile, Russian nuclear hypersonic missiles may be able to eliminate the entire force of U.S. low-yield nuclear-capable bombers and fighter bombers with a hypersonic attack.
Roger McDermott, a noted British expert on Russia, has observed that “if these systems [Russian hypersonic missiles] do include stealth technology, the U.S. and its allies will face a serious long-term existential threat to their existing air defenses." This is clearly true, but the keyword is "if." Supersonic stealth is clearly possible. We have two operational supersonic stealth fighters. Hypersonic stealth is clearly very difficult to achieve because of the extreme conditions of hypersonic flight and the need to give priority to aerodynamics and heat resistant materials. However, hypersonic missiles, even without stealth, will have great capability against even very advanced air defenses and NATO air defenses are not all that capable since they include few advanced surface-to-air missiles. Continental U.S. air defenses are even weaker. The key factor is that hypersonic missiles get to their targets much faster than anything else. (At any target range a hypersonic missile will fly a shorter distance than a ballistic missile and, hence, get to the target faster).
General John Hyten, then-commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, has warned about the threat posed by Russian hypersonic weapons if the U.S. does not counter them. He said that hypersonic weapons would allow Russia to attack globally with little or no warning. General Hyten noted that a hypersonic missile “disappears and we don’t see it until the effect is delivered.” While with a ballistic missile, General Hyten stated it would take 30 minutes to strike a target, with a hypersonic weapon “it could be half of that.”
What General Hyten is saying is that after booster burnout of a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle or other hypersonic missiles (all types of hypersonic missiles require rocket boosters), we will lose track of them. They can evade attack confirmation by existing U.S. early warning radars. If we don’t get radar tracking data, we don’t know where the missiles will impact until they do or just before they do. His reference to 30 minutes is the approximate time of flight of an ICBM or a SLBM flown to ICBM range (i.e., about 10,000-km). A reduction in warning time to 15 minutes (or less in the case of the Russian Tsirkon powered cruise missile and the Kinzhal “aeroballistic” missile) and the elimination of attack confirmation and the lack of information about target location by early warning radars, seriously puts at risk the U.S. national command authority.
The threat to our national command authority undercuts our nuclear deterrent potential. It may allow a large ICBM and/or SLBM attack to arrive before any U.S. decision to retaliate, even assuming the nuclear hypersonic missiles do not so decimate the chain of command that no decision is possible in a relevant time frame or even at all. This could easily become the Russian theory of victory in a nuclear war. If President Putin thinks he can win one, he may start one. Putin is a risk taker. That does not mean he will get up some morning and decide to launch a nuclear strike. It does mean he may gamble that he can grab a piece of NATO territory and deter any meaningful NATO response by the threat of nuclear escalation, which is a key part of Russian military doctrine.
Not only has U.S. defense policy prior to the Trump administration given Russia its current monopoly on hypersonic missiles, we apparently have given them a monopoly on defenses against hypersonic missiles. Until recently, we have simply not significantly invested in countering them because we were not viewing the near peer threat seriously and put a priority on cutting defense spending. We do not now have defenses against hypersonic weapons. Moreover, we are apparently not playing catchup in this arena because the Pentagon's F.Y. 2020 budget request has only $157 million for hypersonic missile defense. The urgency for defenses against hypersonic missiles clearly suggests we should be doing more than this.
Hypersonic missiles (as defined above) have substantial advantages in defense penetration. This factor only comes into play if advanced defenses exist, and they are numerous as they are in Russia and China. Russian hypersonic missiles have not been developed to attack U.S. strategic missile defenses. Currently planned U.S. strategic missile defenses do not require the Russians to have hypersonic missiles to penetrate them. The highest officials of the Russian Federation have repeatedly stated that existing Russian capabilities can easily penetrate U.S. strategic missile defenses. The U.S. government has said the same thing countless times. Indeed, the Pentagon’s summary of its F.Y. 2020 missile defense budget request talks only about the need to defend against rogue states and does not even mention Russia or China. The main reason for Russian hypersonic missiles is nuclear surprise attack.
Defending against Russia would require massive missile defenses including space-based sensors and interceptors. Even with the revised Trump administration programs, the U.S. currently plans only 64 interceptor missiles for strategic missile defense. While the SM-3 Block 2A naval missile defense interceptor, according to the 2019 Missile Defense Review, has the potential to intercept ICBMs, the capability of the system is apparently limited to rogue state threats. In light of the shortage of U.S. warships, it is unlikely that many Aegis destroyers would be devoted to homeland defense and the system itself is unlikely to have good capabilities against sophisticated Russian strategic ballistic missiles with advanced countermeasures. The upgrades to the DG-51 Flight 3 will be very useful for missile defense but to deal with a major attack by Russian strategic ballistic missiles, the interceptor missiles will have to be upgraded with multiple kill vehicles.
Hypersonic missiles are dramatically more important in the theater attack role against heavily defended theater targets and Aegis cruisers and destroyers (which have advanced air defenses and some missile defense capability) protecting carrier strike groups. In an anti-ship role, Russian hypersonic missiles will have a large advantage over U.S. subsonic cruise missiles. This is important because Russia has advanced land-based and naval air defenses. The advantage posed by hypersonic missiles will be particularly important regarding the defeat of terminal ship defenses.
Russia claims that its new and soon to be operational S-500 missile/air defense system is capable of intercepting hypersonic missiles. Russia has said the same for its now widely deployed S-400 system. These claims could very well be true, particularly for the S-500. However, the capability is likely limited to the nuclear-armed missiles. There is no indication in open sources that the Russians have tested hit-to-kill versions of their new high capability SAM systems against either very high speed ballistic or hypersonic weapons.
The S-400 and S-500 systems are reportedly nuclear-capable and these systems were designed to fight against the U.S. The S-500 would certainly have a greater capability against hypersonic missiles than the S-400 because the S-500 is designed to intercept ICBMs. The Russians are planning to deploy these systems in large numbers. Early reports indicated an intent to deploy ten battalions of S-500, and recent reports speak about deploying regiments, which is about the same number. TASS has stated that the S-500 will replace the S-400 in the 56 battalions which will be deployed.
Ironically, the capability of hypersonic missiles to penetrate advanced air defenses (which Russia and China have) is potentially much more important to the U.S., but we don't have them while the Russians do. The S-400 is being sold to China. The Chinese may very well upgrade it and turn it into their major missile defense asset.
Russia is well ahead of us in both hypersonic missiles and hypersonic missile defenses. We are two years away from having our first hypersonic missile and even further away from active defenses against hypersonic missiles. Our hypersonic missiles are conventional only while Russian missiles are dual-capable. This represents a major disparity which will continue until U.S. policy changes. This creates a grave threat to the U.S. national command authority and, hence, our ability to deter nuclear war.
Protecting the U.S. national command authority and key strategic missile and bomber bases against Russian ballistic and hypersonic missile attack is critical. Ideally, this should be combined with the construction of deep and hardened underground facilities to protect our nuclear command and control, but this is unlikely because of the cost. At a minimum, resumption of nuclear command and control flights commanded by a general officer should be undertaken.
Dr. Mark B. Schneider is a Senior Analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy. Before his retirement from the Department of Defense Senior Executive Service, Dr. Schneider served in a number of senior positions within the Office of Secretary of Defense for Policy including Principal Director for Forces Policy, Principal Director for Strategic Defense, Space and Verification Policy, Director for Strategic Arms Control Policy and Representative of the Secretary of Defense to the Nuclear Arms Control Implementation Commissions. He also served in the senior Foreign Service as a Member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff.
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