The arms race is an old one. Ever since our cavemen ancestors started using sticks and stones to attack each other, mankind has constantly sought to create more effective weapons. Some have sought this to use in attacking their enemies, while others only to defend themselves. Offensive warfare and defensive warfare are two sides of the same coin.
This arms race has also fueled technological research and development through the ages. Much of the technology that we depend on, every day of our lives, came from the Department of Defense (DOD). Many things which don’t have an obvious military application were in fact invented for the military, such as the Internet, the Global Positioning System and many modern emergency room techniques.
Much of the last century was overshadowed by this arms race, specifically involving nuclear arms. While there are still only a few countries who own these weapons, a huge amount of money has been invested in their development. That investment hasn’t stopped, as we can see from a recent announcement.
During his State of the Nation address, President Vladimir Putin of Russia announced the creation of five new, but interrelated, weapons systems. Amongst these are hypersonic, nuclear capable, cruise missiles, which are unstoppable by any current defense technology.
The idea of these missiles is obviously to defeat existing anti-missile systems, such as Israel’s Iron Dome system or the US THAAD system. It does this by operating in a different way than those systems are designed to defend against.
Current Anti-Missile Systems
In the contest between offensive and defensive systems, offensive systems always hold the upper hand, with defensive systems struggling to catch up. Such is the case with missiles as well. Current anti-missile systems are built to defend against the threat of yesterday, which might very well mean that Putin’s announcement was correct and they are totally ineffective for these new weapons.
There are two basic types of missiles we are talking about here; ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. Ballistic missiles are fired up into the upper atmosphere, just like a rocket putting a satellite into orbit. When they run out of thrust, they fall back towards the earth, their path of travel creating a huge arc and with their payload hitting the target. Amazingly enough, these missiles are highly accurate, even after crossing oceans.
Since the start of the Cold War, this was the type of nuclear missile which anti-missile systems needed to defend against. In the event of a nuclear war, ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) would be carrying nuclear warheads anywhere from a few hundred miles to the other side of the globe. The abovementioned Iron dome and THAAD systems, as well as others, are designed to defend against these kinds of missiles.
Different anti-missile systems recognize, target and attack these missiles during different parts of their flight trajectory. They can be designed to work on the boost phase, during the apogee of their flight or the terminal part of the flight. Each system only works against one part; not all three parts of the flight trajectory.
Cruise missiles could be said to be the direct opposite of ballistic missiles in that they don’t fly high up into the sky. Rather, they fly at altitudes which are typically lower than 100 meters. This allows them to defeat the radars and defensive missile systems which are designed to recognize ballistic missiles. They are also quite effective at defeating normal air traffic control radars and other short-range radar systems, as they can often fly under the radar’s minimum effective altitude.
Since there is no ballistic track and the radar visibility of these missiles is considerably shorter than that for ballistic missiles, defending against them is quite different. There are two basic types of systems used for this. One is anti-missile missiles which are also able to fly a cruise missile flight path, low to the ground. The other is point defense systems, which fire slugs (bullets) at the missiles at close range.
What’s Different About Russia’s New Missiles
There is little public information about these new missile systems, other than what Vladimir Putin said in his speech. However, the little bit that he did say is enough to show that if these missiles do exist, the Russians have made some major technological breakthroughs that the world should take note of.
First of all, these new missiles are supposed to fly at a speed of 10 times the speed of sound. That’s over 7,000 miles per hour, almost 14 times as fast as other cruise missiles out there. That speed makes for a much more difficult targeting solution, as the anti-missile systems have much less time to react. While they may still be able to hit the missile in a head-on defense, their cross-range (with the missile crossing in front of the defensive system) capability would probably be virtually nil.
Secondly, these missiles are designed for carrying nuclear warheads. While all cruise missiles are capable of that, their range is greatly reduced, due to the heavier weight of the warhead. While such warheads are generally smaller to make up for this,
Thirdly, these missiles are designed for long-range use. Typically, cruise missiles have a 1,000 km (621 mi) range. While no specific information was given about the range of these new missiles, it appears that they have intercontinental range, something that has never been possible before with cruise missiles.
The reason given for this great range was that these missiles use a nuclear powered engine, rather than a solid-fuel rocket motor. That was looked at, many years ago, by our own scientist and engineers, who concluded that it was impractical. If the Russians have managed to overcome the technical problems which were encountered then, they might have created a missile that can be launched in Russia and fly to wherever they want.
A Whole Weapon’s System
While I’ve been discussing this as if it were one type of missile, there are actually several variants of it, including a land based version, an air deployable one, and a sea-launched one. Considering the potential effectiveness of this system, such missiles would give the Russians a distinct advantage over anyone.
In addition to the missiles the Russians have supposedly developed a new type of submarine, which would carry the naval version of this missile. This submarine is supposed to have the capability of diving to much deeper depths than any other. That would allow it to escape from other countries submarines and travel to where it wanted, without being followed.
The deeper a submarine dives, the less cavitation noise the propeller produces. This noise is caused by air bubbles forming on the trailing edge of the propeller or “screw.” As they collapse from the pressure, they make noise. But the deeper the submarine dives, the faster the screw can turn, without cavitation.
What Does It All Mean?
While this weapons system gives the Russian military a distinct advantage; it only does so if it is ready for deployment. Considerable doubt has been raised as to whether or not these weapons actually exist. The only imagery that Putin used with his speech were computer generated; not actual photographs. So it is quite possible that these weapons are still under development or just plans for the future.
Even if these weapons have completed their testing and are ready to be manufactured, it could still take several years before enough of them have been built and issued to the military. In the mean time, you can be sure that other countries will be hard at work to develop an effective means of countering this new threat, whether by modifying existing weapons systems or developing new ones.