Putin Announces Early ‘New Years Gift’ Of Successful Hypersonic Glide Vehicle Test (Updated)

Russia has released multiple videos of a recent test of its nuclear-capable Avangard hypersonic boost-glide vehicle, offering the best imagery publicly available so far of the complete weapon system. The Kremlin says this combination of vehicle and booster rocket is now in serial production and the Russians still plan to deploy the first examples operationally in 2019.

Russian forces conducted the test, meant to be operationally representative, from a silo at Dombarovsky Air Base near the country’s border with Kazakhstan on Dec. 26, 2018. The Avangard vehicle then successfully struck a designated target area at the Kura range on the Kamchatka Peninsula, which the Kremlin regularly uses as a proving ground for strategic weapons, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), according to statements from Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s Ministry of Defense. There is no independent confirmation that the test met its objectives.

“This is a great success and a big victory. This is a wonderful, excellent gift for the country for the New Year,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a meeting after the test, which he personally oversaw. “It was a hard and time-consuming work which required breakthrough solutions in principal areas, and all this was done by our scientists, designers, and engineers.”

Dombarovsky has hosted operational tests of strategic weapons in the past, being home, in part, to an active division of the 31st Missile Army of the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces. In 2004, an improved R-36M2 ICBM blasted off from one its silos during a test, for example.

The two videos of the Avangard launch, shot from different angles, show the silo door opening and the rocket lifting off. There is still no publicly available imagery of the hypersonic vehicle itself.

The new clips do appear to confirm that the weapon system is using a refurbished rocket booster from the Soviet UR-100N UTTKh ICBM. In March 2018, Russia announced that it would put the still-in-development RS-26 Rubezh ICBM, which it had originally expected to carry the Avangard, on hold indefinitely in order to refocus resources into the development and fielding of the hypersonic weapon.

Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces only have a limited number of UR-100N UTTKh missiles still in operational service, but acquired a number of deactivated boosters from Ukraine in the early 2000s. Independent Ukraine had inherited these weapons after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, but subsequently deactivated the silos and missiles.  

The modified UR-100N UTTKh carrier rocket for Avangard also appears to use a payload shroud similar to the SHS-2 on the Strela space launch vehicle. Strela uses a modified rocket booster from a UR-100NU ICBM.

The Strela space launch vehicle, which combines a modified rocket booster from a UR-100NU ICBM and the SHS-2 payload shroud., Roscosmos

The longer shroud likely reflects the overall length of Avangard. This is undoubtedly longer than the UR-100N UTTKh’s original payload bus, which carried six multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) nuclear warheads.

As we at The War Zone have noted in the past, substituting the UR-100N UTTKh for the RS-26 as the carrier for the Avangard vehicle makes good sense as a way to get the high-tech weapon into service faster. Hypersonic boost-glide vehicles eliminate a significant number of vulnerabilities traditionally associated with ICBMs, which typically have readily detectable signatures and follow predictable flight paths.

Existing U.S. space-based early warning systems would be able to spot the plume of the missile launch, but the United States has no effective means of tracking Avangard, which is reportedly capable of rapid and frequent course changes along a flatter trajectory, during its mid-course flight. The U.S. military’s existing ballistic missile defense shield has no way of engaging the actual Avangard vehicle, either. Of course, at present, those defensive systems are in no way capable of undermining Russia’s overall nuclear deterrent capabilities, either.

All of this reduces the required capabilities of the booster rocket component of the system to the sole job of getting the hypersonic boost glide vehicle to the appropriate initial speed and altitude. The speed of the weapon itself also mitigates some of the delay in using the liquid-fueled UR-100N UTTKh, which reportedly takes around 25 minutes to prepare for launch.

A standard UR-100N ICBM sits in its silo., Sergey Kazak/TASS

As such, using the existing UR-100s, a known system that has been in service since 1975, is a pragmatic choice. Of the various new strategic weapons that Putin highlighted in a state-of-the-union style speech in March 2018, the Avangard boost-glide vehicle appears to be, by far, the most mature.

The RS-28 Sarmat, a new heavy ICBM that is also known as the SS-X-30 Satan 2, recently suffered a new setback. The Poseidon nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered long-range torpedo/unmanned underwater vehicle and the Burevestnik nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered ground-launched cruise missile, are both still very much under development.

On Dec. 25, 2018, an unnamed Russian defense industry source told state-run news outlet TASS that underwater trials of Poseidon had just begun using an unnamed nuclear-powered host submarine. The Kremlin says it has also been flight testing Burevestnik, but it remains unclear whether the test weapons have a functioning nuclear-powered propulsion system yet.

Putting Avangard into service on top of UR-100s is also a cost-effective decision, both in terms of production and sustainment, with existing knowledge bases and logistical networks to support the booster rocket.  This is important since Russia’s persistent economic woes contributed to the RS-26 program ending up on hold and cancelation of the Barguzin rail-mobile ICBM program entirely. Limited funding and other defense industrial resources have also threatened a variety of other Russian strategic and non-strategic military modernization efforts. It remains to be seen just how rapidly the Kremlin can actually get its new hypersonic weapon into service and to what degree.

That being said, using the existing rocket boosters gives the Kremlin perhaps the best chance of getting Avangard into service in the very near term. Russia would be free to re-boot the RS-26 program in the future when sufficient funds are available. It could also seek to adapt road-mobile RT-2PM2 Topol-M and RS-24 Yars IBCMs to carry the new warhead to expand its hypersonic weapons capacity without the development of entirely new missiles.

Regardless, Just having units equipped with the UR-100N-based Avangard system would likely change the strategic calculus of its potential opponents, chiefly the United States. American military officials have been sounding the alarm all year about the growing threat of hypersonic weapons from both Russia and China. U.S. officials have warned about limited defensive options, as well as the lack of comparable U.S. systems that might be able to better hold these new weapons at risk and deter their use. The U.S. military has also initiated a program, known as Glide Breaker, to explore ways to physically intercept boost-glide weapons.

The Kremlin is well aware of this reality and with Russia-U.S. relations at a recent low point, the Russians are almost certainly eager to be able to further challenge the United States with a new class of operational strategic weapon. “We will continue to work according to the plans that were designed for this system and other promising systems for equipping the army and the fleet,” Putin declared at the Dec. 26, 2018 meeting.

We’ll have to wait and see whether the Russians can actually field some level of operational capability with Avangard in the new year. If nothing else, the latest test shows that the Kremlin is still very committed to that goal.

Update: 2:50pm EST—

Our good friend and Aviation Week‘s defense editor Stephen Trimble has spotted an interesting detail in a report on the Avangard test from Russia’s state-run Channel One television network. A previously unseen computer-generated rendering shows the complete weapon system launch three total hypersonic boost-glide vehicles, which would then be able to strike independent targets.

A computer-generated image showing multiple hypersonic boost-glide vehicles separating from the top of the complete Avangard weapon system., Russia Channel One

There have been reports that this could be the case in the past, but previous computer renderings had only shown a single hypersonic vehicle inside the missile’s payload shroud. There is so no official pictures of the vehicle or the actual payload configuration.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com