A missile test at the Dombarovsky airbase in southeastern Russia (screenshot)
Moscow is developing a new, ultra-high speed strategic attack vehicle similar to China’s hypersonic weapon, according to military analysts.
However, unlike high-profile strategic bomber flights and large-scale nuclear war games that U.S. military commanders have called provocative, details about the Russian hypersonic vehicle remain one of Moscow’s closely held military secrets.
The Russians have been developing the new Yu-71 vehicle for several years and conducted the most recent flight test in February, according to an article published this month in Jane’s Intelligence Review.
A Pentagon spokeswoman declined to comment on the Russian hypersonic test.
The unsuccessful flight test was believed to have been released into near space from atop an SS-19 missile that was launched from the Dombarovsky missile base in eastern Russia. The vehicle is part of Moscow’s secret Project 4202 missile program, the Jane’s report says.
Jane’s concludes that Russia over the past five years has stepped up the secret program as part of efforts to defeat U.S. missile defenses that were designed to counter predictable ballistic targets.
Hypersonic vehicles, however, are very difficult to track and target because they move in unpredictable ways at speeds of up to 7,000 miles per hour.
Mark Schneider, a former Pentagon official who closely monitors Russian strategic weapons programs, said Moscow’s development of glide-strike vehicles and maneuvering warheads are high-priority programs.
Unlike China’s hypersonic weapons, which include the recently flight-tested Wu-14, the Russian program has been mentioned publicly by senior Russian officials, indicating its importance.
“Both are reportedly nuclear-oriented and the Chinese program seems more successful,” Schneider said, adding that Russian tests were reported to have been failures.
“The Russian program was clearly described as strategic in nature,” he added. “The Obama administration talks about the Chinese threat, but very little about the Russian threat, so our only sources of information are the Russian press.”
Project 4202 could produce a small number of glide vehicles by the end of the decade that may be equipped with nuclear warheads, the Jane’s report says.
“A test launch from the Dombarovsky missile division site in February 2015 suggests that Russia is actively pursuing the development of a hypersonic glide vehicle that could potentially expand the long-range strike capabilities of its Strategic Rocket Forces,” the report says.
Pavel Podvig, a co-author of the Jane’s report, said it is difficult to gauge the significance of the Russian hypersonic program.
“It seems like a system in search of a mission,” said Podvig, a Geneva-based researcher. “Even if it works, which is still a rather big if, it won’t give Russia any substantially new capability.”
The new maneuvering high-speed weapon is billed as a means of defeating missile defenses, but Moscow’s concerns about missile defense are highly exaggerated, he said. The new system also could “seriously damage arms control efforts,” Podvig added.
Disclosures about Russian hypersonic weapon program follow China’s confirmation that it conducted a fourth flight test of its Wu-14 hypersonic glide vehicle earlier this month. U.S. officials said the latest Wu-14 engaged in a series of extreme high-speed maneuvers during the latest flight test June 7 in western China.
The United States is also developing an advanced hypersonic missile that is expected to be part of its conventional Prompt Global Strike program—a non-nuclear weapons system that will be capable of precisely hitting targets any place on earth in minutes.
The Jane’s report said the Russian hypersonic program is a high priority for Moscow’s political and military leaders.
The Yu-71 may be deployed at a missile site near Yasny, in the east-central province of Orenburg near the border with Kazakhstan.
Earlier hypersonic weapons tests were conducted in the 1980s in apparent response to the Reagan administration’s strategic defense initiative.
More recent suspected flight tests of the hypersonic weapons included a 2001 flight test of a Yu-70 vehicle from an SS-19 missile.
Another Yu-70 test likely was carried out in 2004 when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was developing “new hypersound-speed, high-precision new weapons systems that can hit targets at intercontinental distance and can adjust their altitude and course as they travel.”
Suspected flight tests of the newer Yu-71 likely took place in December 2011, in September 2013, at an an unknown date in 2014, and on February 26 in Dombarovsky.
The Dombarovsky base was identified as a likely deployment site for the Yu-71 in Russian government construction documents that identified the work as part of Project 4202.
The article says the “primary purpose is the development of a missile system that can effectively penetrate existing missile defense systems.”
Unlike U.S. plans for hypersonic missiles to deliver conventional warheads, “Russia appears to be considering the option of deploying its hypersonic system in a nuclear, as well as conventional, configuration,” the Jane’s report said.
“This would give Russia the ability to deliver a guaranteed small-scale strike against a target of choice; if coupled with an ability to penetrate missile defenses, Moscow would also retain the option of launching a successful single-missile attack.”
Up to 24 with new hypersonic payloads could be deployed at Dombarovsky by 2020 to 2025.
By that date, Russia will be deploying a new ICBM known as the Sarmat that would be capable of carrying the Yu-71.
The report says Moscow may seek to exploit its hypersonic weapons to gain leverage in arms control talks with the United States as a way to seek limits on U.S. missile defenses and the Prompt Global Strike program.
Prompt Global Strike vehicles are not covered by the 2010 New START arms treaty with Russia.
U.S.-Russian military relations and arms talks were curtailed following Russia’s military annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea last year and continued covert arming of pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
A review of open-source Russian news reports and military writings reveal that work on hypersonics has been discussed publicly on several occasions in the past several years.
Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin was quoted in reports from state-run news agencies in July 2014 saying that Russia needs to build precision-guided hypersonic arms.
He urged Russia’s missile manufacturers to carry out rearmament efforts, “especially the tasks of mastering precision weapons and hypersonic technology.”
In May of last year, Boris Obnosov, director of the Tactical Missiles Corp., said a hypersonic missile prototype would be built by 2020.
“We have drawn up this program in collaboration with several dozens of institutes and enterprises,” Obnosov said. ”It has been approved by the Defense Ministry and the Industry and Trade Ministry. It is now important to implement it smoothly.”
After a failed test flight of the U.S. Hypersonic Test Vehicle-2 in 2011, a Russian official was quoted as saying Russia’s hypersonics are different.
“Our program is developing in a different direction; we are creating maneuverable hypersonic warheads for intercontinental ballistic missiles, and there are no plans to control them from outside—the target-kill program is installed in them in advance,” the defense industry official told Izvestya, a Russian newspaper.
Another report said Russia’s future strategic bomber, known as the Pak Da, will be equipped with hypersonic cruise missiles.
In August 2013, the Novosti news agency reported that Russia was cooperating with China, France, and India on hypersonic missiles.
The Russian companies said to be involved in hypersonic missile development have been identified as the Tactical Missiles Corp. and NPO Mashinostroyenia. A hypersonic engine test facility reportedly is being built at Russia’s Central Institute of Aviation Motors.
Alexander Shirokorad, a Russian military analyst, stated in a 2013 article in the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta that hypersonic glide vehicles are one reason Moscow decided to violate the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty, that prohibits building missiles with ranges of between 500 kilometers and 5,500 kilometers.
“New IRBMs will breach a missile defense by traveling along exotically variable trajectories,” Shirokorad stated. “The combination of hypersonic cruise missiles with ballistic is not ruled out. Aside from operating against ground targets, IRBMs will be able to engage naval targets, too—aircraft carriers, cruise missile-armed Ticonderoga-class cruisers, and even submarines.”