Putin built a hypersonic arsenal, while the Pentagon slept

In the course of his lengthy annual address to the Russian Federal Assembly this year, President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinFeehery: Impeachment fever bad for Democratic governing vision Taliban travels to Moscow after Trump declares talks dead Russians tune out Vladimir Putin MORE excoriated the United States for abandoning the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty while asserting that “the work on promising prototypes and weapon systems that I spoke about in my Address last year continues as scheduled and without disruptions.” 

Putin went on to say that Russia had entered serial production of the Avangard hypersonic glide system, which was to be deployed later in 2019. He added that the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, which he asserted was “of unprecedented power,” was in the test stage, as was the Peresvet laser missile and air-defense weapon, likewise to be deployed this year. He noted that the Kinzhal hypersonic ballistic missile, having undergone operational testing, “proved [its] unique characteristics during test and combat alert missions while the personnel learned how to operate them.” Finally, he asserted that the Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile “of unlimited range,” and the Poseidon nuclear-powered unmanned underwater vehicle, were successfully undergoing tests.

Since Putin’s speech in February, the work on at least one of those systems has suffered rather serious “disruption.” Despite Putin’s assertion that Burevestnik missile testing was going well, it was that very missile that Western analysts believe was being tested when a nuclear explosion, first reported earlier this month, killed seven scientists and forced an initial evacuation order for at least one nearby village because of potential exposure to deadly radiation. 

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Failures in the early or even later stages of systems development are not uncommon. Moreover, the Russians have a high tolerance for test failures; this is not always the case with respect to American weapons development. In any event, Moscow is moving ahead with the development of its other nuclear armed systems and is certain to continue testing the Burevestnik. 

As the Pentagon itself acknowledges, the United States lags behind both Russia and China in hypersonic weapons development and is only at the starting gate when it comes to defenses against these systems. It is not as if the Department of Defense (DOD) had no hypersonic programs. As the DOD’s comptroller earlier this century, I supported and approved funding for hypersonic research. The Pentagon culture tends to reflect an inbuilt inertia that militates against the introduction of new systems until there is no alternative, which is now the case.

Russia is almost certain to introduce almost all of its new hypersonic weapons well before they will appear in the American arsenal, and before the United States has developed defenses against them. In doing so, it will lessen the effectiveness of America’s ballistic missile defenses, which are not geared to targeting — much less shooting down — hypersonic systems, especially cruise missiles such as the Burevestnik. As long as Washington has no means of defending against strategic hypersonic systems, it will be forced to resort to mutual assured deterrence (MAD), which anti-ballistic missile defenses were meant to supersede. 

Putin has always resented Washington’s 2002 withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty although, at the time, he did not protest the American action as vociferously as he does today. Moscow has always feared the American missile defense program because it gives the United States the advantage of eliminating both Russia’s first- and second-strike capabilities while preserving its own ability to strike Russia targets at will. 

Instead, Russia, like the Soviet Union before it, prefers an arms-control regime that equalizes its strategic nuclear capabilities with those of America, despite the vast disparity in the two nations’ economic power and production potential. The Kremlin has favored arms control for another reason as well: Washington has a far better record of adhering to its treaties than Russia does. Indeed, despite all his carping about America’s withdrawal from the INF Treaty, it was Russia that had been violating that treaty for years. The United States simply chose to look the other way.

Moscow currently is unwilling to renew and expand the 2011 New START agreement, due to expire in 2021, to include its new hypersonic weapons. At a minimum, it is using those weapons as a bargaining chip, to reach an agreement that limits if not eliminates those weapons in exchange for a new ABM Treaty. Unless the Pentagon bureaucracy truly awakens from its usual torpor and radically accelerates its development of both offensive and defensive hypersonic capabilities, the United States will be forced to default to MAD as its only other deterrent option. It thus will have enabled Putin to achieve his long-held objective: to undermine the U.S. strategic defense program that President Ronald Reagan first envisaged three decades ago.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.