At the end of last year the Russian military announced that it had deployed a revolutionary weapon, designed to give Russia a decisive advantage in the strategic nuclear arms race. Avangard, as the new system is called, is a ‘hypersonic glide’ missile. Unlike traditional Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, which follow a fixed and predictable trajectory, arcing up as high as 1200 miles into space and re-entering the atmosphere at around 15,000 miles an hour before plunging down to their target, the Avangard glider is launched by an ICBM booster on a much lower trajectory to skirt the edge of the atmosphere, between 25 and 60 miles up. It then separates and shoots through the upper atmosphere at about 7000 miles per hour while manoeuvring on an unpredictable course toward its distant target. That’s the hope, at least.
Vladimir Putin revealed Russia’s development of Avangard in his annual address to the Russian Federal Assembly in March 2018. He boasted that it was ‘absolutely invulnerable to any air or missile defence system’ – ‘It flies to its target like a meteorite, like a ball of fire’ – and treated the audience to a short video animation depicting the weapon zigzagging around the globe before striking Florida. When he had warned Nato leaders about the advent of such strategic systems years earlier, he said, ‘nobody wanted to listen to us … Listen to us now.’ Putin’s bellicose claim – two weeks before the presidential election in which he was running for a fourth term – and the more recent official announcement that Avangard had now entered service, drew alarmed and unquestioning attention in the West. ‘Russia Deploys Hypersonic Weapon, Potentially Renewing Arms Race’ the New York Times blared. ‘The new Russian weapon system flies at superfast speeds and can evade traditional missile defence systems. The United States is trying to catch up.’
Across the military-industrial complex, the money trees were shaken, showering dollars on eager recipients. A complaisant Congress poured money into programmes to develop all-new missile defences against the new threat, as well as programmes to build offensive hypersonic weapons to close the ‘technology gap’. The sums allocated for defensive initiatives alone exceeded $10 billion in the 2020 Pentagon budget, including $108 million in seed money for a ‘Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor’ – an as-yet undesigned array of low-orbit satellites that would detect and track Russia’s weapons. Last September, Marillyn Hewson, the CEO of Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest arms manufacturer, hefted a golden shovel to break ground in Courtland, Alabama, on new facilities to develop, test and produce a variety of hypersonic weapons. By then Lockheed already had more than $3.5 billion of hypersonic contracts in hand. Excitement was running high. ‘You can’t walk more than ten feet in the Pentagon without hearing the word “hypersonics”,’ one official remarked to an industry sponsored conference. Michael Griffin, undersecretary of defence for research and engineering, a hypersonics enthusiast, has spoken of the need for ‘maybe thousands’ of hypersonic weapons. ‘This takes us back to the Cold War,’ he announced cheerfully, ‘where at one point we had thirty thousand nuclear warheads and missiles to launch them’.
‘Welcome to the world of strategic analysis, where we program weapons that don’t work to meet threats that don’t exist.’ This was what Ivan Selin, a senior Pentagon official, used to tell subordinates in the Defence Department in the 1960s. Such irreverence regarding high-tech modern weaponry is rare: the norm is uncritical acceptance of reality as the arms industry and its uniformed customers choose to define it. This credulity persists partly because of the secrecy rules deployed to cloak the realities of shoddy performance and unfulfilled promises. More important, complex weapons programmes, however problematic, benefit from a widespread and unquestioning faith – not least among journalists – in the power of technology to challenge the laws of physics. One example: for several decades the US air force has spent billions of dollars on efforts to produce an airborne laser weapon. But laser beams powerful enough to destroy a target require enormous amounts of energy, which means a power source far bigger than any that can be carried on an aircraft. These efforts have inevitably come to nothing, but the funds continue to flow smoothly, accompanied by breathless headlines such as the Washington Post’s declaration that ‘the Pentagon’s newest weapons look like something out of Star Wars.’ Throughout the Cold War, similarly, work continued on a programme to develop a nuclear-powered bomber – ‘Atom Plane on Way to Drawing Board; First Phase Ended’ the New York Times announced in 1951 – despite the plain fact that the weight of the lead shielding required to protect crews from lethal radiation made such a plane impossible.
In the 1960s, when Selin was issuing his mordant warning, the US had a hugely expensive arsenal of one thousand intercontinental Minuteman missiles, originally justified by the threat of a ‘missile gap’ in the Soviets’ favour, despite classified intelligence reports which made it clear that no such gap existed. At least 40 per cent of the Minutemen were equipped with faulty guidance systems; the air force generals were aware of the problem but preferred to ignore it. For many years afterwards, US intelligence agencies continued to insist that the Soviets were able to match the US and its allies militarily and even economically. This was the justification given for commensurate defence spending by the US. Half a century later, we know that the Soviet Union was even then rotting from within, with a sclerotic leadership presiding over armed forces enfeebled by drunkenness and poor training. When the end finally came, troops in the elite divisions stationed in East Germany, so long a spectre haunting Nato, were revealed as an undernourished, demoralised rabble eager to sell their uniforms to get money for food.
Today, once again, Russia is the presiding threat. Its ‘aggressive actions’, according to the closing communiqué of December’s Nato summit in London, ‘constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security’. Congress has voted for $738 billion in military spending for 2020: $38 billion more than Trump initially asked for and the highest ever peacetime military budget. The other Nato members, under US pressure, have pledged to maintain their own military spending at 2 per cent of GDP. This despite the fact that Russia’s overall military expenditure is comparatively tiny: in dollar terms somewhere between $45 and $68 billion (depending on the rouble-dollar conversion rate), and in decline since 2016. What’s more, it seems that much of this allocated money goes missing: in 2011 Novaya Gazeta reported that the Ministry of Defence was Russia’s most corrupt government department, ahead of strong competition from the ministries of transport, economic development, education and health. (So much of the defence budget was being stolen or spent on bribes that the armed forces had to buy Israeli drones.) But it is clearly not in Putin’s political interest to advertise military weakness. As his economy suffers from sanctions and the low price of oil, he has been determined to show his domestic constituency that Russia is still a military superpower: hence his advertisement of the supposedly invincible hypersonic ‘meteorite’, along with other thermonuclear innovations, in his March 2018 speech, including an intercontinental underwater drone and a nuclear-powered cruise missile.
It’s worth taking a closer look at Putin’s claim, and the credulous response to it in the media and in the Western military-industrial complex. Far from being a cutting-edge 21st-century innovation, the Avangard was conceived as long ago as 1987, though at the time the programme was known as Albatross. According to Pavel Podvig, an expert on Russian nuclear weapons, Albatross was intended to counter Reagan’s missile defence programme, which supposedly threatened the ability of Soviet ICBMs to strike the US. Podvig also shows that Albatross was to some extent a make-work project, designed to provide business for the relevant defence contractor, NPO Mashinostroyeniya, with its ten thousand employees in Rostov. (At almost the same time, Andrei Sakharov was busy persuading Gorbachev that America’s ‘Star Wars’ programme could never pose a significant threat to Soviet missiles.) The Albatross programme survived the fall of the Soviet Union, though only just: mothballed in the 1990s, it was revived and renamed Avangard under Putin, who gave the go-ahead after attending a launch in 2004 – even though that test was reportedly a failure. In subsequent years there were further unsuccessful tests, and in 2014 the programme was nearly cancelled when the designers reported that they couldn’t make the system manoeuvre – the essential selling point for any hypersonic weapon.
Hypersonic endeavours in the US have an even longer history, having originated in the imaginations of German scientists during the Second World War. Walter Dornberger, a favourite of Hitler who oversaw the V2 rocket programme and its extensive slave labour workforce, emigrated to the US after the war and soon found employment in the arms industry. In the 1950s he presented the US air force with a proposal for a ‘boost-glide’ weapon, first conceived by his former colleagues in Germany. His initiative led to Dyna-Soar, a manned aircraft that would be boosted to the edge of space by a powerful rocket and then glide at high speed around the planet, dropping nuclear bombs at designated spots along the way. Its projected cost was close to a billion dollars – a lot of money in those days – but it never left the drawing board. The Dyna-Soar was cancelled in 1963 by the then defence secretary, Robert McNamara. But the dream never died, lingering on in obscure budgetary allocations over ensuing decades, none of them yielding anything of practical use. Despite the bombast on both sides of what we have to call the New Cold War, current efforts will almost certainly be no more successful than their predecessors – except in improving arms corporations’ balance sheets – for reasons that bear some scrutiny.
Conceptually, hypersonic vehicles come in two basic variants. They can be powered by onboard ‘scramjet’ engines throughout the period of flight; or they can be boosted by an attached rocket to the height and speed required before gliding while manoeuvring to avoid missile defences. Although scramjet cruise received a great deal of Pentagon funding in the early part of this century, little has been heard of it recently, possibly because officials recognise that the problems with the technology may be insurmountable. In a scramjet engine, air passes through the engine at supersonic speed and is ignited by the fuel to generate thrust. But the slightest perturbation in the airflow – as during manoeuvres – leads to shockwave disruption in the smooth supersonic flow of air. This leads to a sharp increase in pressure, and in extremis to the explosive break-up of the engine, which was the apparent reason for the almost instant failure of two out of the three tests of Darpa’s experimental X-51 ‘Waverider’ prototypes (Darpa is the Pentagon’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency). True to form, the UK Ministry of Defence is still investing heavily in this problematic technology.
As a result, essentially all attention and funding in the US has shifted to ‘boost glide’, the conceptual basis for Avangard. But this approach poses its own problems. While gliding, these missiles travel through, rather than above, the atmosphere so as to benefit from wing-lift, just like any aircraft. The control surfaces on the wings enable them to change direction – up, down and sideways. Here is the difficulty. As Pierre Sprey, a Pentagon analyst who played a major role in designing the highly successful F-16 and A-10 warplanes, explained to me,
the friction or drag that comes with flying through the atmosphere at extremely high supersonic speeds causes the missile to heat up to near white heat, and to slow down in a hurry. That’s why space capsules and ballistic missile warheads have blunt-shaped noses with heat shields. The heat energy from their high-speed re-entry into the atmosphere gets dumped into melting and burning off the heat shield. This protects the passengers or payload inside. But to get any range, a hypersonic glider can’t afford the high drag of that blunt heat-dumping shape.
If the in-the-atmosphere glider is to achieve a tenable range, it must have a longer, far more slender body-wing shape to minimise drag – ‘real pointy-nosed just like the old Concorde airliner’. Without a blunt heat shield, the missile is forced to absorb much more of the heat internally. What’s more, at the moment it detaches from its booster rocket, it is of necessity pointing down (otherwise it would shoot into space), so it must pull up the nose to create the wing-lift needed to level out. But the lift for this pull-up manoeuvre greatly multiplies drag, causing the glider to slow precipitously. To enjoy the advertised advantages of unpredictable defence-evading trajectories, further manoeuvres on the way to the target are necessary, and each manoeuvre exacts yet another penalty in speed and range. It’s true that both Russian and American developers have claimed successful tests – though not many – over long distances. ‘I very much doubt those test birds would have reached the advertised range had they manoeuvred unpredictably,’ Sprey told me. ‘More likely, they were forced to fly a straight, predictable path. In which case hypersonics offer no advantage whatsoever over traditional ballistic missiles.’
There are other problems intrinsic to hypersonics that render them unviable as effective weapons. Achieving adequate range mandates an ultra-slender and ultra-low weight design, which inevitably means that hypersonic missiles can carry very little in the way of explosive payload. Small weapons payloads need very accurate guidance systems, since they have to hit a target dead-on to destroy it. All projected designs rely for navigation on GPS, which is eminently jammable – and only works for fixed, well-mapped targets. For mobile targets such as aircraft carriers and other ships, or truck-mounted ICBMs and air defence missiles, some sort of sensor (such as radar) is needed to guide the missile to the target at the end of its journey. But a radar and its antenna would have to be very small and light to avoid compromising drag and range, and small antennas have an inadequate range of detection and are poor at distinguishing land or sea targets against cluttered backgrounds. Infrared and electro-optical seekers are defeated by weather, smoke, camouflage and decoys. The speed-induced heating of the missile to 1000ºC or higher creates further problems for navigation and electronics. At that temperature steel glows nearly white hot and titanium becomes soft as plastic. There may be no GPS antenna that can survive such conditions. Functioning radar dishes and lenses for infrared and optical sensors may not be possible either. The cooling needed to protect internal guidance computers and explosive payloads against speeds of Mach 5 (3000 mph) and higher may prove to be unachievable given the tight weight and space constraints of a hypersonic missile.
Putin has presumably never heard of Ivan Selin, but in promoting his hypersonic arsenal he is surely confirming the truth of Selin’s axiom, since the threat that it is supposed to meet does not, in fact, exist. Putin’s justification for his hypersonic initiatives has been based, as he said in 2018, on America’s ‘constant, uncontrolled growth of the number of anti-ballistic missiles, improving their quality and creating new missile launching areas’. By this he meant that American Star Wars-type missile defences have become capable and extensive enough to prevent traditional Russian nuclear missiles from reaching their targets, to the point where a US leader could conceivably choose to launch an attack on Russia without fear of reprisal. Such confidence in US military-technical prowess is hard to understand unless Putin takes every boast emanating from the Pentagon at face value, or at least finds it politically desirable to pretend to do so. At least $200 billion has been showered on missile defence since Reagan unveiled the Star Wars programme in 1983, and yet as Tom Christie – the Pentagon’s director of Operational Test and Evaluation under George W. Bush – puts it, ‘here we are, almost forty years on, and what have we got to show for it?’ Very little, it seems. As he told me recently, ‘We’ve tested against very rudimentary threats, and even then [the defence systems] haven’t worked with any degree of confidence.’ An apparently insoluble problem is that no defensive system is able to distinguish reliably between incoming warheads and decoys, such as balloon reflectors that mimic missiles on radar and can be deployed by the hundred at little cost. ‘There’s a very simple technical reason there’s essentially no chance – and, I mean, really essentially, no chance – that these missile defences will work,’ Ted Postol of MIT, a long-term critic of Star Wars, told me.
And that is because they must function in the near vacuum of space. And in the near vacuum of space, a balloon and a warhead will travel together essentially for ever. So, if you deploy balloons, for example, or any object that has the same appearance from tens of kilometres range or hundreds of kilometres range, remember the sensors have to see things at very long range. It’s going to look like a warhead. It’s very, very, easy … it’s trivially easy to build credible decoys. It takes no effort at all and so, this is fundamental to the whole problem.
Thanks to this awkward fact, the balloon decoys in what Postol likes to call our ‘choreographed’ tests are made larger than the target warheads so that they can easily be distinguished – not something that would happen in an actual attack scenario. Even so, tests fail half the time.
Given these ineradicable technical limitations, of which even the most remotely well-informed Russian security official must be aware, Putin’s mission to destabilise American missile defence initiatives seems to make no sense. Why embark on the great expense of building new high-tech weapons when the old ones – Russia’s existing force of ICBMs – do the job perfectly well? One possible answer is that Putin understands that the American system presents no danger, but worries that the US leadership may be deluded enough to believe the nonsense promoted by the military and associated industry – such as the Pentagon’s claim in 2010 that ‘the United States is currently protected against the threat of limited ICBM attack’ – and will proceed accordingly. But it’s more likely that Putin is interested in dispensing billions of roubles to his supporters in the defence industry while simultaneously reassuring the citizenry that Russia is still a superpower. If the US takes it seriously as a superpower competitor then it is one. Meanwhile, the US is lavishing large amounts of money on anti-hypersonic programmes. Given the gross deficiencies of both hypersonics and current missile defence systems, this indicates that the US and Russia have both taken Selin’s axiom a step further: they mean to deploy a weapon that doesn’t work against a threat that doesn’t exist that was in turn developed to counter an equally non-existent threat.
The notion that the Cold War was a nuclear ‘arms race’ with each side developing systems to counter the other’s increasingly deadly initiatives is generally taken as a given. Today, hypersonic weapons are depicted as products of a similar competitive impulse. But when you look more closely at the history of the Cold War and its post-Soviet resurgence, you see that a very different process is at work, in which the arms lobby on each side has self-interestedly sought capital and bureaucratic advantage while enlisting its counterpart on the other side as a justification for its own ambition. In other words, they enjoy a mutually profitable partnership. In the early 1960s the US navy’s newly introduced submarine-launched missiles, invulnerable to enemy attack, posed a threat to the air force’s richly endowed role in nuclear deterrence; perhaps they would make it obsolete. So the air force adopted and heavily promoted a ‘counter-force’ strategy that required missiles with an accuracy that only land-based air force weapons could provide. Similarly, in the 1970s the Soviets fielded multiple different designs of ICBMs – a surfeit of activity adduced by the US arms lobby as clear evidence of Soviet malignance. In reality, as revealed in the post-1991 thaw, the Soviet generals regarded the redundant ICBMs as jobs programmes: as with Albatross/Avangard, they were a budget-draining exercise with no actual military relevance.
Old Pentagon hands tell of the time, many years ago, when a fraught negotiation with Congress over the US navy budget was speedily resolved in the admirals’ favour thanks to the sudden appearance of a Soviet submarine just outside San Francisco Bay. Queried about the timeliness of this providential intervention, a navy spokesman responded: ‘We just got lucky, I guess.’ The ease with which the chimerical menace of hypersonic weapons has been launched into the budgetary stratosphere by the arms lobby suggests that their luck will hold for a long time yet.