According to a report in the New York Times, the Russian military on Friday claimed it had deployed a hypersonic weapon that flies at superfast speeds and can easily evade American missile defense systems, potentially setting off a new chapter in the long arms race between the world’s pre-eminent nuclear powers.
American officials reportedly responded that they have little doubt that the Russians have a working hypersonic weapon — which sits on top of a modified missile and is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead at speeds faster than 3,800 miles per hour.
Moscow has been working on the technology for years and has invested heavily in it, determined to reverse the pattern in the Cold War, when it was often struggling to catch up with American nuclear weapons systems.
If the new system, called “Avangard,” works as President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia boasted when he described the weapon a year ago, it would significantly enhance Moscow’s already powerful nuclear forces, American officials said.
Hypersonic weapons fly extremely fast and can maneuver along unpredictable trajectories, making them very difficult for current systems to track, much less shoot down. Senior American military officials said the United States plans to deploy its own hypersonic weapons by 2022, but some experts believe that the schedule may prove optimistic.
Yet the Russian announcement may be as much about spurring a new round of diplomatic talks as it is about reviving an arms race, current and former diplomats said. Moscow is anxious for President Trump to renew the last remaining arms control treaty between the United States and Russia, called New START, which limits strategic nuclear missile launchers and deployed warheads for both nations. The treaty expires soon after the next presidential inauguration in 2021.
The Trump administration has been noncommittal about extending the treaty, and President Trump has repeatedly said that he would only renew it if it includes China and other nuclear powers. China has said it is not interested in any numerical limits on its arsenal, which is one-fifth of the size of America’s and Russia’s.
Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that “the world has changed” in the decade since the Obama administration negotiated New START and arms control treaties can no longer be limited “to the United States and Russia.”
By showcasing its new weapon, Russia could be trying to pressure President Trump to open talks. Putin said earlier this week that Russia was ahead on hypersonic technology, reveling in a rare moment of superiority to American and Chinese technology. The Russian leader has been unafraid to use “nuclear diplomacy” in the past and Moscow has been designing new weapons that can threaten the United States.
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