As part of Moscow’s overall push to modernize its strategic and nonstrategic nuclear weapons arsenal, the Russian military has purportedly tested a new hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) in February of this year.
Citing a report by Jane’s Intelligence Review, Bill Gertz of The Washington Free Beacon notes that Russia has been working on the YU-71 vehicle for years now as part of Moscow’s secret Project 4202.
The most recent test, which took place on the Dombarovsky missile base in eastern Russia, involved the launching of a SS-19 intercontinental ballistic missile from which the hypersonic glide vehicle was released once it reached the boundary between space and Earth’s atmosphere approximately 100km above the ground.
However, according to Jane’s Intelligence Review, the flight test appears to have been unsuccessful. The report furthermore states that once operational the HGV may be able to penetrate all currently existing missile defense systems based on interceptor missiles. It also notes that Russia may put into service up to 24 HGV’s by 2020 to 2025.
“Russia appears to be considering the option of deploying its hypersonic system in a nuclear, as well as conventional, configuration. 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,” Jane’s Intelligence Review added.
The future ballistic missile booster of choice for the YU-71 will be the Sarmat ICBM, capable of carrying ten heavy or 15 lighter warheads. The Sarmat is expected to be inducted into Russia’s Strategic Missile Force by 2020, according to Russian media reports.
What makes the YU-71 such a potentially deadly weapon? The short answer is its speed, range, and erratic flight path.
Once it reaches near space and is ejected from the missile booster, the YU-71 HGV begins to glide in a relatively flat trajectory by executing a pull-up maneuver and accelerating to up to ten times the speed of sound, or around 7,680 miles per hour.
The gliding phase enables the YU-71 HGV not only to maneuver aerodynamically – performing “extreme maneuvers” and evading interception – but also extends the range of the missile. As I noted in a previous article (see: “Will this Chinese Weapon Be Able to Sink an Aircraft Carrier?”) HGVs pose a myriad of challenges due to its erratic in-flight behavior:
[U]nlike conventional reentry vehicles, which descend through the atmosphere on a predictable ballistic trajectory, hypersonic glider vehicles are almost impossible to intercept by conventional missile defense systems, which track incoming objects via satellite sensors and ground and sea radar.
However, Russia is considered to be behind China in developing hypersonic glide vehicles. Beijing has recently purportedly tested its own WU-14 HGV with greater success.
As I already pointed out in a previous article, the recent failed Russian HGV test is good news for the Pentagon, which apparently will have difficulties fielding one of the most effective countermeasures to HGVs – directed energy weapons systems – for some time (see: “US Navy’s Deadly New Gun Won’t Be Ready for Some Time”).