According to Russia’s Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, Moscow has successfully created the world’s first hypersonic nuclear weapons.
The weapons system, called Avangard, utilizes hypersonic technology in tandem with traditional ballistic missile structures, reportedly making it the fastest such nuclear weapon in existence.
In a statement, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the missiles can travel 20 times the speed of sound, putting Russia’s technology ahead of other nuclear-capable states.
It also claims to boast a modern maneuverability system, making detection and defense against the weapon extremely difficult.
President Putin used the occasion to tout Russia’s nuclear prowess. “Not a single country possesses hypersonic weapons, let alone continental-range hypersonic weapons.” The West and other nations “are playing catch-up,” he added.
The US is lagging behind
In response to the announcement, the Pentagon said that it “will not characterize the Russian claims” on the new missile system. However, William Roper, the head of US Air Force acquisitions and technology, admitted that Washington is lagging behind its military rivals.
“China and Russia made hypersonic weapons a national priority. We didn’t. Every service now has a major hypersonics program in a department wide effort to catch up,” said Roper.
The US hopes to have laser and hypersonic weapons systems in use by 2022. As of now, its defense against a weapon like Avangard would likely be limited.
US Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said it would be a “couple of years” before the US could successfully deploy such a weapon.
Nuclear disarmament is uncertain
As nuclear weapons technology gets more sophisticated, some analysts worry that a new nuclear arms race could begin, especially if nationalistic governments continue to win elections.
In 2021, the New START treaty, a nuclear reduction agreement between the US and Russia, is set to expire.
The Trump Administration remains uncommitted to renewing the treaty. President Trump has repeatedly said the US would only renew the deal if China and other nuclear states sign on as well.
China, for its part, has said it is uninterested in reducing its nuclear stocks, which are about one-fifth the size of the US and Russia’s.
With political posturing on both sides, non-proliferation advocates worry that denuclearization trends won’t be sustained.
Speaking about the apprehension surrounding the expiration of New START, US Senator Ed Markey laid out the possible repercussions if negotiations go sour.
“My concern is if we mishandle this, we could wind up with a new nuclear arms race that could cost us trillions of unnecessary dollars because we missed the opportunity for a negotiated agreement first with the Russians,” he said.