Putting the Russian Hypersonic Threat in Perspective

Main Image Credit A KH47M2 Kinzhal quasiballistic massile being carried by a Mikoyan MiG-31K interceptor. Courtesy of kremlin.ru / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

The threat posed by Russian hypersonic missiles, though real, should not be overstated. Indeed, what is likely to be a rather limited arsenal of hypersonics may have greatest value for Russia as a peacetime competitive tool if its eventual size and military effects are exaggerated in the West.

The recent announcement by the Russian Federation that it has tested the hypersonic 3M22 Zircon cruise missile from one of its Gorshkov-class frigates has been met with understandable concern. The Zircon, which can also be launched from the Russian navy’s newest Yasen-class submarines, reportedly travels at speeds of Mach 8, leaving defenders with very limited warning times and thus significantly complicating efforts at integrated air and missile defence. Plans to equip platforms across the Russian surface fleet with the UKSK Vertical Launch System from which the Zircon is fired raise the possibility that the Zircon could be made a universal feature of Russian surface and subsurface platforms, much like the Kalibr missile has been over the last several decades. In conjunction with the Avangard hypersonic boost glide vehicle and the hypersonic air-launched KH47M2 Kinzhal quasiballistic missile, this development would seem to portend a significant Russian lead over the West in high-speed long-range strike capabilities. This could problematise Western power projection by holding assets such as maritime platforms at risk, and could drastically complicate any effort at missile defence of national territory. Upon closer examination, however, a more nuanced picture emerges in which Russian hypersonic capabilities – while certainly potent – are perhaps more useful as a psychological tool than as a military asset.

While Russia’s efforts to develop long-range precision strike capabilities are noteworthy, they have been constrained by a number of factors. First among these is the capacity limitations of Russia’s defence industrial sector, which is hampered by issues including poor financial management, corruption and the added costs of import substitution, which became necessary due to the emplacement of strategic controls by Western countries after 2014. For example, the Voronezh-based Elektropribor factory, which manufactures key components of the Kinzhal, is on the verge of bankruptcy. According to the most recent publicly available reports, in the first half of 2017 NPO Novator was able to produce 60 3M-54 Kalibr missiles for the Russian military. This is a limited number relative to the demands of a modern strike campaign: consider, for example, that the US expended 288 Tomahawk missiles in 1991 during the relatively short Operation Desert Storm. Moreover, the Kalibr, while relatively new, is not as sophisticated as a hypersonic missile such as the Zircon, which requires expensive special-purpose materials to withstand extreme temperatures in flight and utilises a complex scramjet engine. The production of the Zircon on a large scale is thus unlikely, given Russia’s industrial limitations. This is already on display to some extent with regards to other high-profile hypersonic missiles such as the Kinzhal. As of 2018, only 10 MiG-31 interceptors had been converted to the MiG-31K configuration which is capable of launching the Kinzhal, with the eventual aspiration being to field a very limited number of these aircraft. While this may in part reflect the fact that other platforms such as the Tu-22M3M can launch the missile, it likely also points to the fact that only a limited number of these assets will be available, necessitating only a limited number of launch platforms.

Russian hypersonic capabilities are perhaps more useful as a psychological tool than as a military asset

As such, given the structural limitations of Russia’s defence sector and the costs inherent to producing missiles like the Zircon, it may be expected that they will not be produced in large numbers and that slower missiles like the Kalibr will remain the mainstay of Russia’s long-range strike capability. There are also military considerations which might limit the utility of Russia’s hypersonics, most notably the limitations of Russia’s surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. This may constrain the use of hypersonic missiles against mobile targets. For example, Russia’s Liana constellation of PION and LOTOS electronic intelligence satellites is yet to be completed, while only one of its Persona electro-optical satellites is operational. The dwindling Russian fleet of IL-38N maritime patrol aircraft will similarly limit Russian surveillance options at sea. Given the critical importance of timely air- and space-based surveillance to the effective use of hypersonics – particularly if they are launched from platforms such as submarines which cannot track targets at very long ranges with their own sensors – this is a major limitation. Of course, against fixed ground installations that cannot move, this may matter less.

This is not to say that hypersonics pose no threat. A limited number of hypersonic missiles, if effectively used, could act as a force multiplier for the Russian military. Russia’s hypersonic capabilities might, for example, be used in a breaching role by targeting air and missile defence radars and key command nodes in NATO’s air and missile defence system in order to open the way for strikes by Russia’s larger arsenal of older and slower missiles. Alternatively, hypersonic missiles might be reserved for targets such as aircraft carriers, given their operational and symbolic importance. If properly cued by appropriate sensors, even a limited force of hypersonics could pose a real threat to an even more limited number of key capital ships at sea and operational points of failure like command nodes on land. What we should not expect, however, is for future Russian forces to field large numbers of hypersonic missiles, or for these missiles to be the mainstay of the Russian precision strike threat.

A limited number of hypersonic missiles, if effectively used, could act as a force multiplier for the Russian military

Hypersonics might also serve a more subtle role in Russian strategic thinking – namely psychological and economic warfare. Since the fall of the USSR, Russian military theorists have written of the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) as a case study in what they call reflexive control. While of dubious military utility, the initiative set off a political firestorm in the USSR, raising the spectre of losing the nuclear arms race or being forced into bankruptcy by an arms race it could not win. It is entirely possible that the publicity accompanying Russia’s hypersonic missiles is an attempt to emulate the SDI’s strategic success, at once buttressing Russia’s image as a world power and potentially forcing Western planners to adopt exorbitantly expensive countermeasures against a perceived hypersonic threat. It may be of vital importance, then, to contextualise the threat so as not to reinforce this strategy.

To be clear, countermeasures against hypersonics are needed. However, these countermeasures ought to be adopted with an understanding that hypersonics are a limited part of a larger, primarily subsonic Russian strike threat, and that strategic overreaction may carry its own costs. Rather than planning an expensive wide-area defensive system to defend NATO territory against large numbers of hypersonic missiles, Western approaches to counter hypersonics ought to emphasise the judicious defence of key points against a numerically limited hypersonic threat, coupled with wider-area defence against more conventional cruise and ballistic missiles. Anticipating which high-value targets would represent military or political points of failure if effectively attacked with hypersonics will be vital to developing critical asset lists and defended asset lists ahead of time. Moreover, disrupting the kill chain on which hypersonic capabilities depend by targeting Russia’s limited sensor systems and eliminating launch platforms, as well as passive defence – building resilience into key military and civilian infrastructure – will be critical to mitigating the threat posed by hypersonics at an acceptable cost.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Sidharth Kaushal

Research Fellow, Sea Power

Military Sciences

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