Russian President Vladimir Putin sent the West his most powerful message yet in his address to the Federal Assembly on March 2. No one has weapon systems like Russia’s, and its military technology far outstrips the competition. It has done what the United States, a country known for its huge and hugely wasteful defense budget, has failed to do. Russia is better positioned for the breakthroughs that return a bigger bang for its buck.
Here is a cursory look at the systems that are about to change contemporary warfare.
The RS-28 Sarmat is the most powerful MIRVed ICBM and is almost completely invulnerable to ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems because of its unusually short boost phase. The weapon weighs roughly 200 tons at takeoff. It can hit any target at a distance of 15,000 km and carries 15 reentry vehicles, each with a 750 kt yield. The warhead can launch decoys to baffle US missile defense radars. It can reach the continental US (CONUS) by flying over the South Pole – the first ground-based strategic missile to use this longer route instead of passing over the North Pole. Russia will deploy these weapons in 2019-2020. The heavy ICBMs based in the heart of Russia, in places like Saratov or Nizhny Tagil for instance, are beyond the reach of any US missile defense system. No weapon can hit them at the boost phase of their flight.
No one in the world but Russia has a nuclear-tipped cruise missile powered by a light nuclear reactor. Its range is unlimited. This is the first time this weapon has been mentioned publicly. No announcements about this missile have ever appeared in the media. It was tested in secret. The missile flew at a low altitude over the Atlantic, around the southern tip of South America, made a U-turn, and flew north over the Pacific to the CONUS. It can approach its target unnoticed and attack it unexpectedly from any direction. For instance, it can strike the US from the Caribbean Sea where there are no missile defenses at all. This is a strategic nuclear weapon which is admissible under the New START. Once it is operational, all US BMD systems – such as the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers based on the Aegis system, the Aegis Ashore sites in Poland and Romania, and the ground-based launchers in Alaska and California – become useless. All those efforts at BMD will have gone down the drain. Just imagine how much money the US has spent on something that will serve no purpose! The debut of this strategic cruise missile that includes a nuclear reactor will be quite a shock for the Americans, comparable to when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957.
On March 1, the world learned about the Kinzhal – the missile system operationally deployed on Dec. 1, 2017 in Russia’s Southern Military District. Launched from a standoff position at high altitude, the Kinzhal is carried by a modified MiG-31 interceptor. It has an operational range of 2,000 km.
Another wonder weapon is the Avangard hypersonic gliding maneuverable reentry vehicle, which can fly at speeds of over Mach 20. Launched from Russia, it can reach Washington in 15 minutes. There is no way to predict from what direction the reentry vehicle is arriving. That vehicle, moving in a cloud of plasma "like a meteorite," is impossible to intercept. The in-flight temperature is 1,600-2,000 degrees Celsius. This highly maneuverable weapon has been tested and can be installed on practically any ICBM. Mass production using composite materials has already begun. It does not matter if the US has air defenses or not. This weapon renders them all useless.
The details about the mobile lasers are classified, but the turret can rotate 360 degrees and the system can be used against air and ground targets.
The president confirmed the imminent deployment of a nuclear-tipped, nuclear-powered, underwater unmanned vehicle (UUV) called Status-6. Its operational range is up to 10,000 km. The UUV can travel at a speed of up to 85 kilometers per hour (roughly 56 knots) at a depth of 1 km. No anti-submarine warfare system can detect it. It can carry a 100 megaton warhead that can strike the US Atlantic or Pacific coasts, producing a radioactive tsunami.
This is a revolution. These weapons are going to change modern warfare and the balance of power. The new US Nuclear Posture Review that was released in late January mentioned at least three weapons to be targeted at Russia. It claimed that nuclear supremacy was the goal. One month has passed and that document is already no longer relevant. Now the US needs a new strategy, one designed for a country that is lagging behind, not leading.
It’s important to note that these weapons do not violate the New START or any other international agreement. All the efforts to gain unilateral advantage over Russia have led nowhere. If one probes this issue a bit further, it’s easy to see that the debut of the new weapons was prompted by the US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2001. Back then President Putin warned that that was a mistake, but no one listened. You reap what you sow.
The message is clear. Despite all the tensions and differences that divide the great powers, this is the time for arms-control talks and the US has more to gain from a successful outcome than Russia. The policy of containment is no longer viable. Today Moscow has the advantage and can demand reasonable terms. In his address, the Russian president reminded us that the most important goal is to make people’s lives better by achieving technological breakthroughs in all areas. To do that, one needs a period of calm, during which external threats are kept at bay. That’s what the weapons are designed for. Not an arms race, but creating the proper environment for a high-tech economy to thrive.