Newly-unveiled ‘super weapons’ signal Russia’s willingness to produce innovative solutions to emerging military threats. These offer insights into both Russia’s defence-industrial capabilities and the challenges they pose for NATO and its allies.
In his address to the Federal Assembly in March 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed the existence of five major nuclear-capable weapons programmes. Dubbed Putin’s superoruzhie (‘super weapons’), these new systems signalled Russia’s determination to produce innovative solutions to emerging military threats, principally those emanating from the US. Four of the systems unveiled by Putin can be described as strategic in so far as they are all long-range weapons (i.e. possessing a range greater than 5,000 km). Only one of the ‘super weapons’ – the Kinzhal – is a sub-strategic system (i.e. with a range of less than 5,000 km). However, at around the same time as Putin’s announcement, more details emerged of another novel sub-strategic system, the Tsirkon hypersonic ship-launched missile.
This chapter examines the development of the six new Russian weapons systems. The first section provides a brief description of each of the systems, and the second examines how each of these systems might be expected to be used by the Russian military. The third section examines what the ‘super weapon’ programmes tell observers about Russian defence-industrial capabilities. The final section considers what these developments might mean for the US and its allies.
The ‘super weapons’
The inclusion of the RS-28 Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) (NATO reporting name SS-X-29 or SS-X-30) in Putin’s speech in 2018 was no surprise to analysts. The super-heavy, liquid-fuelled ICBM has been under development by the Makeyev Rocket Design Bureau since 2009. The Sarmat is expected to replace the Soviet-era RS-36M Voevoda (SS-18 ‘Satan’) in the Uzhurskaya and Dombarovskaya divisions of the Strategic Missile Forces of the Russian Federation (RVSN). Successful launch tests were carried out in 2020 and by February 2021 preparations were under way for flight tests at the Severo-Yenisei test site. According to the commander of the Strategic Missile Forces, Colonel-General Sergey Karakaev, the new missile should enter service in 2022 with the 62nd Missile Division based at Uzhur (Krasnoyarsk region), where the construction of new facilities to house the missile is under way.
The Sarmat should perform much the same functions as the RS-36M it is envisaged to replace. It will be much larger than other Russian ICBMs, such as the RS-24 Yars (SS-29), as well as their US counterparts. It should be capable of carrying a range of different payloads, including a mixture of re-entry vehicles and decoys to overcome ballistic missile defences. The most notable differences between the Sarmat and its predecessors are its claimed long range (reportedly up to 18,000 km) and its ability to attack via a fractional orbit to approach targets, raising the possibility of it being able to approach the US via the South Pole, thereby bypassing existing missile detection and defence systems. The Sarmat may also carry the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) in the future.
The Avangard missile system combines the old and the new: the old in the form of a Soviet-era RS18A (SS-19 ‘Stiletto’) ICBM, and the new in the form of the Yu-71 HGV. The Avangard system emerged after the Soviet-era Albatross research project to develop an HGV was resurrected following the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002. After a number of unsuccessful tests during the 2010s, several successful tests took place over the course of 2015–16. The most recent test took place in December 2018 after President Putin’s ‘super weapons’ announcement in March of that year. The first two Avangard systems were placed on active duty at the end of 2019. Russian officials have also expressed the hope that enough Avangard systems will be produced to fully equip two missile regiments (approximately 18–20 missiles in total) by the end of the GPV 2027 state armament programme.
The novelty of the Avangard lies in the fact that it does not, like conventional ICBM re-entry vehicles, follow a ballistic trajectory outside the earth’s atmosphere for the majority of its flight. Instead, the HGV spends most of its journey travelling at high speed in the upper atmosphere. While the hypersonic aspect of the Avangard is often emphasized by commentators, it does not in fact travel as fast as a conventional ballistic missile. The operational utility of the system is instead derived from its ability to manoeuvre while in the atmosphere, enabling it to evade interception by existing missile defence systems.
The existence of the Poseidon nuclear-armed, unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) was first revealed publicly in November 2015, when broad details became available after photographs were taken of programme schematics in a Ministry of Defence meeting. Initially known as the ‘Oceanic Multipurpose System Status-6’ – or simply as ‘Status-6’ – it was characterized as a large, autonomous (i.e. crewless) and fast (i.e. with a reported speed of around 70 knots) nuclear-tipped torpedo. After the system was renamed as the Poseidon in 2018 by a public poll, Putin and other defence officials steadily revealed more information about both the system and its intended role. According to Putin, the Poseidon is a multipurpose UUV that ‘can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads, which enables them to engage various targets, including aircraft [carrier] groups, coastal fortifications and infrastructure’. It is also powered by a miniature nuclear reactor, giving it an unlimited range (in practical terms). The Poseidon is also reported to be capable of diving to depths of up to 1 km, rendering it safe from existing manned submarines.
The first Poseidon weapons will be carried and launched by the K-329 Belgorod nuclear-powered submarine, currently under construction at Russia’s vast Sevmash shipyard in Severodvinsk that specializes in the construction of nuclear-powered submarines. The Belgorod was scheduled to begin sea trials in 2021. Further vessels are expected to be built over the course of the decade, with the Northern and Pacific Fleets each envisaged to eventually receive two vessels capable of launching the Poseidon.
The Poseidon may be capable of performing several functions beyond assuring a nuclear second-strike capability. According to Dara Massicot and Edward Geist, alternative roles might include serving as a test bed for nuclear-powered UUV technologies, enabling the Russian navy to develop systems that could ‘easily outrun the fastest manned submarines and stay at sea for months or even years’. If sufficient advances are made in the development of artificial intelligence (AI) or underwater communications, the Poseidon has the potential to ‘inaugurate an ominous new era of autonomous undersea warfare’.
Of the four strategic systems unveiled by Putin in 2018, the least is known about the 9M730 Burevestnik [Petrel] (SSC-X-9 ‘Skyfall’) ground-launched, nuclear-powered cruise missile. When Putin publicly revealed the programme in 2018, he stated that the novelty and operational utility of the Burevestnik is in its unlimited (in practical terms) range, which would enable the missile to evade any adversary’s air defence systems. The missile might also be much more difficult to detect, principally because its unlimited range would permit it to fly at low altitudes throughout its journey. By contrast, the range of other, conventionally-powered, cruise missiles – such as those included in both the US-made Tomahawk and Russian-made Kalibr families of missiles, which are powered by turbojets or turbofans – is curtailed, the longer that they fly at low altitudes.
If Russia has successfully developed a nuclear-powered cruise missile, it will be the first of its kind in the world.
The technical barriers to attaining such a capability are, however, considerable. If Russia has successfully developed a nuclear-powered cruise missile, it will be the first of its kind in the world. Because of the considerable engineering challenges associated with building a miniaturized nuclear propulsion unit, it is possible that serious obstacles have been encountered since the suspected accident at the Nyonoksa naval missile test range in August 2019.
The 9-S-7760 Kinzhal [Dagger] air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) was the only sub-strategic system unveiled by Putin in 2018. It is a modified variant of the 9M723 Iskander ground-launched ballistic missile, but is launched by the MiG-31K missile carrier – a modified version of the MiG-31 Foxhound interceptor. The MiG-31K is used to launch the missile at high (i.e. supersonic) speed, thereby boosting the speed of the Kinzhal. The Kinzhal, therefore, like the Iskander, follows an aero-ballistic flight profile. According to Putin, the Kinzhal eventually reaches a speed of Mach 10 and is capable of manoeuvring throughout all phases of its flight trajectory. It is reported to possess a range of around 2,000 km from the point of release from the MiG-31K. It has also been reported that the Kinzhal will be launched from the supersonic Tu-22M3M Backfire bomber that is under development and, further in the future, the Su-57 Felon fifth-generation fighter aircraft.
The Kinzhal differs from the strategic systems described above both in range and in likely mission. As a theatre weapon, it is capable of being fitted with both nuclear and conventional warheads, and therefore of being used in a broader range of missions. Russian media reports have suggested that the Kinzhal would be used for anti-ship missions, as well as strikes on US ballistic missile defence facilities. It is also plausible that it was designed to attack time-sensitive or other high-value targets at intermediate range without violating the now-defunct Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty (which prohibited the deployment of ground-launched intermediate-range ballistic missiles). Several recently-published journal articles by Russian military scholars have mentioned other possible roles for the Kinzhal. These include non-nuclear strategic deterrence (as well as ‘signalling’ missions before the nuclear threshold is crossed), or serving as a tool to disrupt multi-domain operations by the enemy through pre-emptive strikes at the infrastructure critical for such operations (e.g. airfields).
The 3M22 Tsirkon [Zircon] (SS-N-33) ship-launched hypersonic anti-ship missile was not mentioned by Putin in his 2018 address to the Federal Assembly, although details of the programme were revealed soon afterwards. As with the Kinzhal, it is likely that the Tsirkon is a dual-capable system that is designed to strike high-value targets on land and at sea, such as carrier air groups. Available information suggests that it is a hypersonic missile, but at the ‘low hypersonic’ end of the speed range, with the highest announced speed being Mach 9. The Tsirkon is reported to be capable of hitting targets at a range of 500–1,000 km, although tests have so far been confined to distances of 450 km against land and sea surface targets, with reported top speeds of around Mach 7.
Developed by the Mashinostroyeniya NPO (design and engineering bureau), part of the Tactical Missiles Corporation JSC (joint stock company), the Tsirkon is likely to comprise two elements. A solid fuel booster (possibly two-stage) is used for the first part of its flight, taking the missile from the point of launch to a high altitude (potentially exoatmospheric) from where it follows a semi-ballistic ‘skip-glide’ trajectory towards its target. Once the target is within range, a detachable warhead – perhaps with its own engine to maintain terminal speed – is used to destroy the target, either with a warhead or with kinetic energy. A similar two-stage concept is employed with the 3M54/3M54E anti-ship cruise missiles of the Kalibr family. In this respect, it is unlikely that the Tsirkon is a ‘pure’ hypersonic cruise missile (i.e. one that uses a scramjet for the entirety of its flight profile). Instead, it is more likely to be an aero-ballistic missile, like the Kinzhal. So far, the Tsirkon has only been tested in launches from the Admiral Gorshkov frigate. It has been suggested that the missile will be tested from Yasen M-class nuclear-powered guided missile submarines in the future.
What does the Russian military want to achieve with these weapons?
It is likely that each of the different ‘super weapons’ will have been designed to perform distinct functions. Precisely what those functions are, though, remains unclear.
The purpose of the four main strategic systems is perhaps easiest to divine. Maintaining strategic nuclear forces that can deliver assured retaliation – that would cause unacceptable damage to any adversary – is of paramount importance to policymakers in Moscow. As a result, considerable effort has been made in modernizing Russia’s strategic nuclear delivery systems over the past decade. The need to upgrade Russia’s strategic arsenal – both now and in the future – is motivated by two fears. First, that Russia’s Soviet-era weapons might not be able to guarantee penetration of emerging US missile defence systems that were, according to Putin, designed ‘primarily for countering strategic arms that follow ballistic trajectories’. Second, US efforts to develop long-range precision conventional weapons, such as the Prompt Global Strike programme, generated growing concern in Moscow over the survivability of Russia’s strategic arsenal.
The development of novel strategic systems is therefore seen as vital to ensuring Russia’s ability to penetrate current and future US missile defence systems (as well as those of other potential adversaries) and to guarantee a second-strike capability for the foreseeable future. The ‘super weapons’ revealed by Putin in 2018 are not first-strike weapons – with the sole exception of the Sarmat, which will replace the existing SS-18. The relatively wide range of systems under development suggests that Russian officials view a diverse range of capabilities as a crucial component of successful nuclear deterrence.
A second potential reason for developing new strategic systems might be that they could be traded away in future strategic arms negotiations. The extension of the New START Treaty in February 2021 (to February 2026) means that there is now a five-year window in which both sides can seek a better negotiating position for any prospective successor treaty. Some of the ‘super weapons’ – especially those that remain at the development stage and that have uncertain prospects for success, such as the Burevestnik or Poseidon – could therefore be sacrificed before they even enter service, if doing so would deliver concessions from the US in other areas.
The development of novel strategic systems is seen as vital to ensuring Russia’s ability to penetrate current and future US missile defence systems (as well as those of other potential adversaries) and to guarantee a second-strike capability for the foreseeable future.
While much of the political and military planning in Russia is focused on seeking a balance of power in strategic nuclear systems, the development of the two sub-strategic ‘super weapons’ is driven by a sense of inferiority in other areas. Fears that Russia might be vulnerable to a sudden and decisive US naval or aerospace blitzkrieg are surely important factors in explaining the emphasis on the development of theatre-level hypersonic missiles such as the Kinzhal and Tsirkon. Rather than developing these capabilities for passive purposes (e.g. to defend against carrier-based forces that might be threatening Russian territory), it is likely that they represent a step towards Moscow being able to threaten the territory of potential adversaries (i.e. the US and its NATO allies) with similar capabilities to those that Russian defence planners have long feared.
Speaking at the Academy of Military Science a year after Putin’s speech announcing the ‘super weapons’ programmes, the chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, made it clear that Russia was developing capabilities that would enable Russian forces to ‘seize and maintain the initiative […] destroy key decisive points of the enemy, such as C2 [command and control] nodes and launchers designed to strike Russia [and to] use surprise, decisiveness and continuity of action [using] hypersonic missile systems’. Gerasimov concluded his remarks by stating that ‘to answer a threat we need to create a threat’. These remarks demonstrate quite firmly that the new weapons are unlikely to be envisaged for use in a passive fashion. Instead, military planners are intent on developing capabilities that will enable Russia to strike early, fast, and with precision in any future military conflict. The possession of such a capability could, as Gerasimov stated earlier in 2017, ‘allow [Russia] to leave nuclear deterrence in favour of conventional deterrence’.
In this respect, the emergence of hypersonic, dual-capable, sub-strategic weapons is perhaps of much greater importance than the strategic systems revealed by Putin. After all, the new weapons will, once they are deployed, give Russia’s military a much broader range of options to choose from in the event of any future conflict. By reducing the pressure on Moscow to resort to either the large-scale use of conventional forces or even nuclear weapons, planners may be able to develop capabilities that form part of a broader doctrine of ‘active defence’. As Gerasimov stated, ‘acting quickly we must pre-empt our adversary with preventive measures, identify his vulnerabilities in a timely manner, and create the threat that unacceptable damage will be inflicted’.
What do the new weapons tell us about Russian defence-industrial capabilities?
The development of the ‘super weapons’ that are analysed in this chapter provides at least three important insights into the Russian defence industry and its capacity for innovation.
First, it shows the utility of reanimating and adapting older Soviet-era designs. Several of the systems described here were either conceived in the late Soviet period (e.g. Avangard) or are incremental adaptations of older systems (e.g. Kinzhal).
Second, the new weapons reveal the ability of Russian designers to integrate old and new technologies to produce new capabilities. The Kinzhal, for instance, integrates two established technologies – the MiG-31 and the Iskander – to produce a genuinely new capability. Elsewhere, the fact that the Tsirkon appears to be an aero-ballistic missile rather than a ‘pure’ hypersonic cruise missile is unlikely to make it any easier to deal with at the tactical or operational level. In both cases, Russian designers have shown an ability to identify shortcuts to innovation that are based on the creative application of existing capabilities rather than on the more costly – and riskier – development of technologies from scratch. In this respect, Russian designers are clearly pragmatic enough to avoid the trap of letting the best be the enemy of the good.
Third, the Russian defence industry continues to prove adept at creating a wide range of new designs. Beyond the ‘super weapons’ discussed here, a multitude of new systems emerge from design bureaux and manufacturers with great regularity. These include new autonomous platforms and systems utilizing AI, as well as more traditional platforms and weapons used across all domains of warfare. The ability of the defence industry to innovate at a rate that is appreciably higher than in the civilian economy is largely because Russia’s national innovation system is geared overwhelmingly towards funding military–scientific innovation.
Nor is there any reason to think that this is unsustainable in a financial sense. Comments in February 2021 by former defence minister Sergey Ivanov (now serving as special presidential representative for environmental protection, ecology and transport), suggested that around one-fifth of the annual state defence order (GOZ) budget for research and development (R&D) was absorbed by work on the ‘super weapons’ during his time in office at the defence ministry (2001–07). Given that the GOZ R&D budget expanded significantly after Ivanov left his position, it is unlikely that the development costs of these systems will have been so onerous as to prevent the development of other systems.
Western reactions to the emergence of new Russian capabilities tend to veer between the two extremes of over-reaction and contempt. This has been no different in the case of the ‘super weapons’ programmes unveiled by Putin in 2018. Some observers have pointed to the hypersonic missile ‘gap’ that has apparently opened up between Russia (and China), on the one hand, and the US and its allies on the other. Other observers have disparaged some of the more unconventional designs. The Burevestnik and the Poseidon, for example, have been described as either technically unfeasible or militarily ‘ridiculous’. The truth probably lies somewhere in between these two extremes. The new weapons are unlikely to change the nature of warfare or to entirely upset existing Western military plans. But they will pose new challenges that will require proportionate and carefully calibrated responses. Two observations stand out as important when considering how to respond to the new systems.
First, the strategic ‘super weapons’ do not radically change the nature of Russia’s strategic nuclear capability. After all, the fact that ballistic missile defence is not designed to deal with the Russian arsenal means that nothing has fundamentally changed in the nature of the strategic nuclear balance between the US and Russia. Both sides are just as capable of destroying the other as they were before Putin’s announcement in March 2018.
Where perhaps the greatest changes will be observed is in Russia’s sub-strategic conventional and nuclear strike capabilities. In this respect, Tsirkon and Kinzhal add a genuinely new string to the Russian bow. Nevertheless, while Russian advances in this sphere should not be underestimated, it remains the case that there are important capability gaps that mean the new weapons might not have the utility that some analysts fear.
While Russian advances in this sphere should not be underestimated, it remains the case that there are important capability gaps that mean the new weapons might not have the utility that some analysts fear.
Most important is the fact that Russia’s ‘battle network’ – or ‘kill chain’ – linking ‘sensors’, which deal with target acquisition and tracking, on the one hand, and the hypersonic ‘shooters’, on the other, are underdeveloped. In practical terms, this means that faster missiles might not result in a substantially greater probability of destroying an enemy aircraft carrier, for example, than older and slower missiles. For as long as this weak link persists, Russia’s hypersonic weapons will not represent a revolutionary threat, at least not to moving targets (fixed targets are another matter).
Second, Western planners should avoid the temptation to match Russian capabilities. In many respects, the new weapons have emerged as ‘asymmetric’ and relatively low-cost responses to Western – and primarily American – conventional superiority. Specifically, the strategic systems are designed to circumvent ballistic missile defence, while sub-strategic systems appear designed to counteract US dominance in aerospace and naval power. Consequently, attempting to develop and deploy like-for-like systems may be wasteful. Instead, it may be more prudent to focus on capabilities that disrupt and degrade the enabling military infrastructure – e.g. C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) and other kill chain systems – that give the new weapons such potential.