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Russia poised to add a new hypersonic nuclear warhead to arsenal

| Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018, 2:45 p.m.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (left), Russian President Vladimir Putin (center), Chief of General Staff of Russia Valery Gerasimov (background center), and special representative on questions of ecology and transport, Sergei Ivanov oversee the test launch of the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle from the Defense Ministry's control room in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018.
Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo/AP
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (left), Russian President Vladimir Putin (center), Chief of General Staff of Russia Valery Gerasimov (background center), and special representative on questions of ecology and transport, Sergei Ivanov oversee the test launch of the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle from the Defense Ministry's control room in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018.

MOSCOW — Russia on Wednesday conducted a final test of a nuclear-capable glider that flies at 20 times the speed of sound, President Vladimir Putin said, adding that the weapon will be added to the country’s arsenal next year.

Putin described the successful test, in which the glider was launched from a site in southwestern Russia toward a target on the Kamchatka Peninsula more than 3,500 miles away, as a “wonderful, perfect New Year’s gift for the country.” The fanfare surrounding the test — it led the TV news, and state media reported that Putin gave the launch order — underscores how central nuclear saber-rattling has become to the Kremlin’s effort to depict Russia as a global superpower for audiences at home and abroad.

The new weapon, dubbed the Avangard, is of a type that the Pentagon has been both working on and worrying about as an arms race emerges among the United States, Russia and China for missiles that can maneuver easily and travel far faster than the speed of sound. There was no immediate, independent confirmation of the test.

After being launched by a rocket, a vehicle carrying a potentially nuclear payload detaches and glides back to earth at hypersonic speeds. It is so fast and agile, Putin claimed when he unveiled it in a speech in March, that it will be able to evade missile defenses for years to come.

“This is a major event in the life of the armed forces and, perhaps, in the life of the country,” Putin told his cabinet ministers in televised remarks Wednesday. “Russia now has a new kind of strategic weapon.”

The United States is also working on hypersonic missiles, some of them launched from airplanes, although U.S. officials have warned in recent months that the efforts lag behind those of potential adversaries. In recent years, the Pentagon has dramatically increased its budget for such initiatives.

Russia has pointed to U.S. missile defenses to justify the development of hypersonic boost-glide missiles that can carry nuclear weapons. Although the U.S. missile defense system is not designed to take on Russia’s strategic missiles, with a limited number of installations in California and Alaska and a few interceptors in Europe, Moscow has long been unnerved by the prospect of a system that could undermine its nuclear deterrent.

That is one of the rationales for the super-speedy, nimble Avangard. Traditional intercontinental ballistic missiles travel in a predetermined arc and do not maneuver, making them easier to shoot down with missile defense interceptors. American officials have long pointed out that the United States doesn’t have anywhere near the capacity to stop an onslaught of Russia’s vast supply of nuclear missiles.

“Even if the rationale of U.S. missile defense doesn’t hold much logic behind it, Russian leadership continuously thinks about a future where their strategic deterrent is somehow compromised, and this threat concept is rather convenient to justify a host of next generation technology programs, delivery systems and the like,” Michael Kofman, an analyst of the Russian military at CNA Corporation, wrote in a blog post after Putin’s March speech detailing Russia’s missile plans.

Kofman wrote that even though the documentation Putin unveiled then proved nothing, there was no doubt that a real hypersonic boost-glide vehicle was being tested.

“These are not bluffs,” he wrote. “The question is less whether they can make it work and more of ‘how many can they afford.’ “

Officials in Washington worry that the rise of maneuverable missiles that can strike their targets within seconds will destabilize parts of Europe and Asia, where a leader would have only a few seconds to decide how to respond to an attack.

But for Putin, displays of terrifying new weaponry represent a way to excite Russians who miss the superpower status of the Soviet Union as well an attempt to bring Washington to the negotiating table. Putin has been warning of a new arms race amid fears in Russia that the United States will not renew the New START treaty limiting the two countries’ deployed nuclear warheads, which is set to expire in 2021. President Trump this year announced that the United States will exit a separate, Cold War-era treaty limiting short and intermediate-range nuclear weapons — known as the INF Treaty — because of what Washington says is a Russian violation of it.

On Tuesday, the Tass state news agency reported that Russia has started testing a nuclear-propelled, nuclear-capable underwater drone that could theoretically devastate a coastal area such as Manhattan. The drone — named Poseidon following an online vote conducted by the Defense Ministry — was unveiled by Putin alongside the Avangard in his March address.

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