Almost three years ago, Vladimir Putin announced a series of new Russian nuclear weapons systems. Some of these have already entered service or are expected to do so soon, including Kinzhal, Avangard, Tsirkon. Others, like the Poseidon and Burevestnik systems, are still mired in the development process and will therefore not be the focus of this article. Since Putin’s speech, policymakers in the U.S. have grown increasingly worried about how those weapons systems, particularly ones involving hypersonic missiles, might endanger U.S. and allied security. Two questions naturally suggest themselves: 1) what genuinely novel threat, if any, do these new weapons systems present, and 2) how, if at all, should the U.S. respond. Answering the first question is the focus of this article; a subsequent article will attempt to address the second.

In brief, there are three preliminary conclusions we can draw about the new Russian systems. First, Russia’s new weapons, the Avangard, Kinzhal, and Tsirkon, do not fundamentally alter the strategic balance between Washington and Moscow. They do not make nuclear offense more appealing to Russia, nor do they reduce reaction time to the extent some have suggested. Second, these weapons do moderately exacerbate the risk of miscalculation and inadvertent escalation. Specifically, the dual-capable systems, those capable of delivering both conventional and nuclear payloads, threaten to make miscommunication more likely before and during active hostilities. Third, the primary driver behind the development of these weapons seems to be Russian preoccupation with U.S. missile defense.

What Russia’s New Weaponry Does Not Change

Though some of the new missile capabilities developed by Russia are genuinely impressive, it is far from clear that they do much to change the underlying strategic situation between the U.S. and Russia. A nuclear superpower, Russia already retains the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons.[1] Experts and policymakers from both Democratic and Republican administrations have stressed that existing U.S. defenses would not be able to stop an all-out Russian attack, whether or not that attack included the new Russian systems. Indeed, former Defense Secretary James Mattis believed “that Russia is wasting its money in developing weapons to overcome American missile defenses because those systems are simply not capable of taking on the Kremlin’s nuclear arsenal”[2] and former Obama administration New START negotiator Rose Gottemoeller said that the new systems “have some show-off value, but they will do no more than make the rubble bounce.” [3]

Taken separately, none of the three systems adds much to the existing Russian nuclear threat. Avangard, a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle, capable of carrying a nuclear payload intercontinental distances, has already entered into service.[4] According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, “Avangard does not change the existing balance between Russian offensive and U.S. defensive forces.”[5] This conclusion has also been supported by researchers such as Spenser A. Warren, who argued that Avangard does not give Russia new offensive options in Europe, as its existing weapons are already able to penetrate missile defenses in Europe.[6]

The Tsirkon is a hypersonic cruise missile nominally but not reliably suitable for nuclear weapons delivery only. Analysts expect it to target aircraft carriers, missile defense systems, and command and control centers[7] and to enter into service sometime in 2023.[8] Yet an attack on U.S. missile defense systems and command and control centers would be incredibly risky for Moscow, as the U.S. could view these as a first strike and abandon any pretense of keeping a nuclear conflict limited. More worrying is the ability of the Tsirkon to serve as a ‘carrier-killer.’ It is true that even without a nuclear payload, the Tsirkon will likely be able to inflict significant damage just by its kinetic force alone.[9] However, while an increased Russian ability to hold aircraft carriers at risk is a serious problem, it does not “expand Russian nuclear first- and second-strike options, strengthening Moscow‘s strategic deterrent.”[10] Similarly, the Kinzhal, an air-launched hypersonic ballistic missile which Russia outwardly states is dual-capable, seems designed as a tactical strike platform, especially for anti-ship weaponry.[11] Again, while an increased ‘carrier-killer’ capacity is ominous, it does not necessarily affect the overall strategic nuclear balance between the two countries. In fact, the inability of the U.S. to defend against even lower-level missile capabilities suggests that carriers were already far from invulnerable.[12]

Furthermore, the threats of a shortened reaction time popularly associated with Russia’s hypersonic missiles seems increasingly to be exaggerated. Hypersonics, conventionally defined, travel at five times the speed of sound, or Mach 5. By this measure, ballistic missiles dating back to the Soviet days have been hypersonic – even Nazi V-2 rockets reached hypersonic speeds at times. Some have argued that the new Russian missiles would cut the flight-time of a Russian nuclear-armed ICBM to the U.S. from thirty minutes to twelve,[13] the flight-time of a Russian submarine-launched ballistic missile, likely not far from the U.S. coastline, would already be considerably lower than thirty minutes. A recent technical study published in Science and Global Security, found that “a hypersonic missile will travel intercontinental distances more slowly than a comparable ballistic missile flying a depressed trajectory. Furthermore, hypersonic missiles will remain visible to existing space-based early warning systems for the majority of flight.”[14] This suggests that the new Russian hypersonic systems will not noticeably decrease reaction time, though they might perhaps remind us of how perilously low those reaction times already were.

Even if hypersonic systems do not reach their targets faster than their ballistic counterparts, it can take longer to ascertain what the final destination of an incoming hypersonic missile really is. Ominous as this sounds, with reaction times already so short with shorter-range, in-theater missiles, the increased ambiguity provided by hypersonic maneuverability is unlikely to meaningfully reduce reaction time. On longer-range systems such as Avangard, the U.S. would likely view an incoming intercontinental-range missile as a strategic threat, regardless of its destination.

All this is not to say that Avangard, Kinzhal, and Tsirkon merit no U.S. consideration or response. To the contrary, as dual-capable systems, they pose a dangerous potential of accidental use.

The Dual-Capable Danger

All three of these Russian systems are dual-capable, in that they can be used to deliver either nuclear or conventional payloads. Such weapons introduce new elements of uncertainty to the already tense world of strategic stability. As Steven Simon argued, given the preciously small reaction times involved in missile strikes, the U.S. could confuse an inbound Russian conventional weapon for a nuclear one.[15] Such a mistake would have devastating consequences.

It was precisely this concern that led Congress to limit a U.S. proposed prompt strike conventional submarine-launched ballistic missile, over concerns that Russia and China would have “have no way to know whether a missile launched from a submarine was armed with a conventional or a nuclear warhead, would assume the worst and respond as though it were nuclear.”[16] The co-location of nuclear- and conventional-armed missiles by Russia also heightens this risk.[17]

Moreover, as others have commented, signaling intentions to an adversary is also harder when using dual-capable systems. Nuclear powers frequently use nuclear weapons to signal their intentions to one another. Such signals are more likely to be misread when dual-capable systems are involved.[18]

The new Russian systems do not add considerably to Moscow’s ability to rival the U.S. nuclear arsenal. As dual-capable systems, they do unfortunately exacerbate existing dangers. The risk they pose obviously begs the question, why did Russia build them in the first place?

The Role of Missile Defense

The primary driver of Russia’s hypersonic build-up seems to be missile defense. President Putin said the development of these weapons was directly caused by the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002.[19] U.S. analysts have also agreed that Russia mainly pursued these weapons because it sought to bypass U.S. missile defenses.[20] Fears that U.S. missile defense will one day allow it to escape mutually assure destruction have deep roots in Russian and Soviet history, despite the fact that the U.S. continually argues its Ground-Based Midcourse Defense is not intended to or capable of stopping a major Russian assault.[21] Putin is therefore merely executing on a long-held Russian military viewpoint.

Russia may also have pursued such missiles to undermine the United States’ confidence in its own missile defenses. Any increased doubt by Washington of its ability to defend against retaliation would deter the U.S. from launching a first strike.

This fact – that Russia developed such weapons in response to its view of U.S. missile defenses – may seem self-evident but it has important ramifications. Putin has long complained of U.S. missile defense systems, which have continued if not expanded despite his opposition to them. Knowing jettisoning New START was not in his interest, Putin may have instead decided to build these new systems to demonstrate that he had not taken U.S. missile defense development lying down. Rather, he had to develop such weapons because the U.S. turned a deaf ear to Russian concerns over missile defense. Putin strongly suggested this was his motivation during his March 2018 speech, saying of U.S. missile defense development, “If we do not do something, eventually this will result in the complete devaluation of Russia’s nuclear potential.”[22]

There was also a fair amount of bravado in Putin’s announcement of these weapons, with Putin at various points comparing these weapons favorably to American Tomahawk missiles and saying “no other country has developed anything like this. There will be something similar one day but by that time our guys will have come up with something even better.” Most politicians would be hard-pressed not to speak fawningly about an impressive new collection of missile systems their country had just developed, but Putin’s braggadocio likely contains another level. Knowing that Russia cannot compete with U.S. or missile defense technology, Moscow can even less tolerate falling behind in hypersonic missile technology. More directly, knowing it cannot compete on defenses, it has no choice but to compete on offense. The development of these weapons was therefore in many ways a political action, designed to penalize the U.S. for its withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

This is especially true as numerous other countries, from France to India, that Russia would like to consider lesser powers, have developed hypersonic missile programs. Putin bragged repeatedly about how special these weapons were, immodestly arguing, “I would like to stress that only a country with the highest level of fundamental research and education, developed research, technology, industrial infrastructure and human resources can successfully develop unique and complex weapons of this kind. You can see that Russia has all these resources.”[23] Just as Charles de Gaulle once argued France would not remain France if it did not build a nuclear weapon,[24] so too does Putin realize that Russia cannot coast on previous great power status without hypersonic technology, especially absent U.S. accession to its demands on missile defense.[25]


[1] “Countries with the most nuclear weapons | US is not number 1, China adds 30 warheads within a year,” CNBC. November 21, 2020. https://www.cnbctv18.com/photos/world/countries-with-the-most-nuclear-weapons-us-is-not-number-1-china-adds-30-warheads-within-a-year-7525831.htm

[2] Dave Majumdar, “Mattis: Russia Can Beat U.S. Missile Defenses (For a Forgotten Reason)” National Interest, March 12, 2018. https://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/mattis-russia-can-beat-us-missile-defenses-forgotten-reason-24869

[3] Rose Gottemoelller, “Russia Is Updating Their Nuclear Weapons: What Does That Mean for the Rest of Us?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. January 29, 2020. https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/01/29/russia-is-updating-their-nuclear-weapons-what-does-that-mean-for-rest-of-us-pub-80895

[4] For more information on technical specifications of these weapons, see Jill Hruby, “Russia’s New Nuclear Weapons Systems: An Open-Source Technical Review.” Nuclear Threat Initiative. November 2019. https://www.nti.org/analysis/reports/russias-new-nuclear-weapon-delivery-systems-open-source-technical-review/

[5] U.S. Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service. Russia’s Nuclear Weapons: Doctrine, Forces, and Modernization by Amy F. Woolf. R45861. January 2, 2020. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/R45861.pdf, p. 20-21. See also See Pavel Podvig, “Avangard system is tested, said to be fully ready for deployment,” Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces blog, December 26, 2018, http://russianforces.org/blog/2018/12/avangard_system_is_tested_said.shtml, and Michael Kofman, “Russia’s Avangard hypersonic boost-glide system,” Russia Military Analysis, January 11, 2019, https://russianmilitaryanalysis.wordpress.com/2019/01/11/russias-avangard-hypersonic-boost-glide-system/.

[6] Spenser A. Warren, “Avangard and Transatlantic Security,” Center for Strategic and International Studies. September 23, 2020. https://www.csis.org/blogs/post-soviet-post/avangard-and-transatlantic-security

[7] Peter Brookes, “Responding to Troubling Trends in Russia’s Nuclear Weapons Program,” The Heritage Foundation. March 26, 2021. https://www.heritage.org/defense/report/responding-troubling-trends-russias-nuclear-weapons-program; “Russia Successfully Test-Launches ‘Tsirkon’ Hypersonic Missile,” The Moscow Times, October 7, 2020, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/10/07/russia-successfully-test-launches-tsirkon-hypersonic-missile-a71684 (accessed March 3, 2021).

[8] U.S. Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service. Hypersonic Weapons: Background and Issues for Congress, by Kelley M. Sayler. R45811. March 4, 2020. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/R45811.pdf, p. 11; Amanda Macias, “Russia again successfully tests ship-based hypersonic missile—which will likely be ready for combat by 2022,” CNBC, December 20, 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/12/20/russia-tests-hypersonic-missile-thatcould-be-ready-for-war-by-2022.html; and “Russian Navy to accept latest Tsirkon hypersonic missile for service in 2023—source,” TASS, March 20, 2019, http://tass.com/defense/1049572.]

[9] Peter Suciu, “Russia’s Tsirkon Hypersonic Missile: How Much Of A Threat?” 1945. January 1, 2021. https://www.19fortyfive.com/2021/01/russias-tsirkon-hypersonic-missile-how-much-of-a-threat/

[10] Peter Brookes, “Troubling Trends in Russian Nukes,” The Heritage Foundation. May 7, 2021.https://www.heritage.org/defense/commentary/troubling-trends-russian-nukes

[11] Abraham Ait, “Russia Inducts Its Own ‘Carrier Killer’ Missile, and It’s More Dangerous than China’s,” May 12, 2018. The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2018/05/russia-inducts-its-own-carrier-killer-missile-and-its-more-dangerous-than-chinas/

[12] Ibid.

[13] Scott Ritter, “The U.S.-Russia Nuclear Arms Race Is Over, and Russia Has Won,” Newsweek. April 12, 2017. https://www.newsweek.com/us-russia-nuclear-arms-race-over-and-russia-has-won-581704

[14] Cameron L. Tracy and David Wright, “Modelling the Performance of Hypersonic Boost-Glide Missiles,” Science & Global Security, vol. 28, no. 3 (2020): 135-170 https://doi.org/10.1080/08929882.2020.1864945, p. 2

[15] Steven Simon, “Hypersonic Missiles Are a Game Changer,” New York Times. January 2, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/02/opinion/hypersonic-missiles.html 

[16] Ivan Oelrich, “Cool your jets: Some perspective on the hyping of hypersonic weapons,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 13, 2020. 76:1, 37-45, DOI: 10.1080/00963402.2019.1701283, p. 38; Woolf, A. 2019. “Conventional Prompt Global Strike and Long-Range Ballistic Missiles: Background and Issues.” US Congressional Research Service, August 14. https://fas.org/ sgp/crs/nuke/R41464.pdf, p. 30-32

[17] George Perkovich and Pranay Vaddi, “Proportionate Deterrence: A Model Nuclear Posture Review.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 21, 2021. https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/01/21/proportionate-deterrence-model-nuclear-posture-review-pub-83576, p. 27

[18] James M. Acton, “Is It A Nuke? Pre-Launch Ambiguity and Inadvertent Escalation.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. April 9, 2020. https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/04/09/is-it-nuke-pre-launch-ambiguity-and-inadvertent-escalation-pub-81446, p. 47

[19] “Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly,” President of Russia, March 1, 2018, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/56957.

[20] U.S. Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service. Hypersonic Weapons: Background and Issues for Congress, by Kelley M. Sayler. R45811. March 4, 2020. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/R45811.pdf, p. 10

[21] Austin Long, “Red Glare: The Origin And Implications Of Russia’s ‘New’ Nuclear Weapons,” War on the Rocks. March 26, 2018. https://warontherocks.com/2018/03/red-glare-the-origin-and-implications-of-russias-new-nuclear-weapons/

[22] Vladimir Putin, “Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly,” March 1, 2018. http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/56957

[23] Ibid.

[24] Charles de Gaulle: “‘Est-ce que la France restera la France ?” Quoted in Lawrence Freedman and Jeffrey H. Michaels. The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy. Fourth edition. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, p. 375. See also ibid., p. 347

[25] Others have made similar points. See Anya Fink, “Russia’s Assessment of the 2030 Strategic Balance,” In Roberts, Brad ed. Fit For Purpose? The U.S. Strategic Posture In 2030 And Beyond, Center for Global Security Research, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, October 2020. https://cgsr.llnl.gov/content/assets/docs/The-US-Strategic-Posture-in-2030-and-Beyond.pdf, p. 103