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Russian Fear of U.S. Hypersonic Missiles Threatens New Arms Race

While conflict between the United States and Russia over
Ukraine has raised talk of a new Cold War, another feature of that era
has also begun to re-emerge — the missile race.

A new arms rivalry between Russia and the United States is
heating up as the two major military powers rush to develop a new class
of hypersonic, non-nuclear missiles that can strike any target on the
globe within one hour of launch with devastating accuracy.

The United States is leading the chase for the new weapons,
which Russia firmly believes poses a significant threat to its own
nuclear missile forces. 

“Russia considers this trend as a path to obtaining
[non-nuclear] means of depriving Russia of its deterrent capability,”
Dr. Eugene Miasnikov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Arms
Control, Energy and Environmental Studies told The Moscow Times.

Russia’s sensitivity to threats to its nuclear deterrence
could lead it to mistake a hypersonic missile launch as the opening
moves of a larger attack, some analysts say, arguing that the weapons
are so destabilizing that their mere development could spark a nuclear
war between major powers.

Hypersonic Weapons 101

Hypersonic missiles are being developed in the United States
as part of the Conventional Prompt Global Strike program, a loosely
defined Department of Defense initiative to develop the capability
to accurately hit targets with non-nuclear intercontinental missiles
in record time.

The idea has its roots in U.S. post-9/11 counter-terrorism
strategy, when the United States decided it needed the capability to hit
targets as soon as they had been located.

To date, a reported $1 billion has been spent on the
Conventional Prompt Global Strike program. A few billion dollars more
would likely be needed to attain true hypersonic capability, according
to James Acton, a senior associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The most prominent example of hypersonic weapons currently in development are so-called “boost-glide” weapons.

These are missiles that, instead of arcing into space before
coming down on their target, are fired at a shallow trajectory that
barely exits the atmosphere. After reaching a hypersonic speed,
the missile’s warhead is released and glides the rest of the way to its
objective.

As the weapon begins to glide, its relatively shallow angle
of approach makes it extremely difficult to track and defend against —
a detail Russia’s leadership finds troubling. 

Russian Answer

While hypersonic weapons are still in the development phase,
they have already raised the prospect that Russia might pull out
of Cold War nuclear arms treaties with the United States.

President Vladimir Putin in 2013 warned that the hypersonic
missile development “could negate all previous agreements on the
limitation and reduction of strategic nuclear weapons, thereby
disrupting the strategic balance of power.”

Nuclear arms control agreements between Russia and the United States have only gotten shakier since then.  

In July of last year, amid the tensions of the Ukraine
crisis, Washington suggested Moscow had violated the 1987
Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which bans an entire
class of nuclear missiles.

In October, Putin told Serbian newspaper Politika that he
considered Western sanctions over Ukraine an attempt to “blackmail
Russia” and that the West should “remember the risks that a spat between
major nuclear powers incurs for strategic stability,” news agency
Reuters reported.   

Little information is available on the state of Russia’s
domestic hypersonic program, but the head of Russia’s Tactical Missiles
Corporation, Boris Obnosov, said last year the company is working with
dozens of firms to implement a development program for a hypersonic
missile. The Tactical Missiles Cooperation produces many of Russia’s
guided missile systems.

Another piece of the Russian hypersonic puzzle may have been
unveiled last week, when President Vladimir Putin signed an order
uniting Russia’s largest defense contractor, the Almaz-Antey air-defense
concern, with several smaller military space firms.

Though not directly related to the development of hypersonic
missiles, the move might signal a greater focus on developing defense
against the weapons.

Almaz-Antey did not respond to a request for comment.

Moscow’s Fears

The United States seems so far to have failed to allay
Moscow’s fears that the missiles are being developed to target Russia
rather than terrorist hideouts, said Carnegie’s Acton.

Moscow has already worked hypersonic missiles into its
long-standing grievances against the United States — including NATO
expansion and the placement of missile defense systems in Europe.

“My biggest concern is that Russia will mistake a U.S.
[hypersonic] attack against a neighboring state as an attack against
Russia,” said Acton.

Because the weapons do not follow ballistic trajectories,
but glide and maneuver their way to the target, it is possible that
Moscow would become confused about the missile’s objective and believe
Russia was the intended target. This would lead to a serious escalation
of international tensions, and possibly provoke a counterattack.

But now is a bad time for dialogue. In recent weeks
prominent U.S. politicians have advocated arming Kiev against
Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, raising the specter of a
proxy war between the two former Cold War enemies.

Miasnikov said that so long as both sides remain at odds,
any developments in the U.S. hypersonic program will be construed
in Moscow as a threat.

In any case, the weapons will be inexorably linked
to U.S.-Russia bilateral relations because the way Russia perceives them
to threaten its nuclear forces.

The Pentagon should work to better understand what it needs
the weapons in question for, and present Russia with concrete proposals
to mitigate the risk in deploying them, according to Acton.

For Moscow’s part, “[it] should respond to such an offer constructively,” he said.

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