Avangard and Transatlantic Security

This article is part of the CSIS executive education program Understanding the Russian Military Today.
On December 27, 2019, the Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu announced that the Russian military had successfully deployed the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV). Avangard is one of several new weapons programs announced by Vladimir Putin in 2018 and part of a broader effort to modernize the Russian nuclear arsenal. Avangard is a boost-glide vehicle that is attached to a ballistic missile. The boost-glide vehicle separates from the missile at an altitude of approximately 100 km and then maneuvers towards its target at speeds reaching Mach 20. This speed is not different from existing capabilities, as Avangard, and hypersonic glide vehicles in general, are slower than intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). What is new is Avangaard’s ability to maneuver, which makes its trajectory unpredictable. Furthermore, Avangard’s altitude of its trajectory also makes it more difficult for ground-based radar to detect and more difficult for missile defense systems to counter. Currently, Avangard is boosted by the SS-19 Stiletto ICBM and will be deployed on the SS-28 Sarmat as it enters service to replace the Stiletto.

What impact does the development of Avangard have on U.S. and NATO security? Is it a “game-changer,” and not just a “zoomier version of existing weapons,” as an op-ed in The New York Times argues? Or are its strategic implications minimal? I argue that Avangard will have a minimal impact on the security of the United States and NATO and will not change the strategic status quo. I also argue that although there is an impact at the operational or theater level, this impact is limited. I derive three policy implications from my argument: the United States should not invest in technologies to counter Avangard; the United States should not perceive new weapons programs intended to increase the survivability of the Russian nuclear arsenal as aggressive or destabilizing; and the United States should be more concerned with maintaining or lowering current limits on strategic arms than with limiting hypersonic weapons. Limits on hypersonic weapons should be considered, but future arms control should focus on more serious issues, such as maintaining existing limits on strategic weapons or reestablishing limits on intermediate-range nuclear forces.

Avangard and the Strategic Status Quo

The development of Russian hypersonic weapons—including Avangardis a response to the development of U.S. conventional prompt global strike and ballistic missile defense capabilities. U.S. attempts to develop and improve these systems exacerbate a persistent Russian fear that the United States seeks to develop sufficient enough counterforce to neutralize Russia’s strategic deterrent and gain a first-strike capability. HGVs like Avangard also provide counterforce capabilities, but even they will be incapable of threatening the second-strike capability of the United States.

The Russian Ministry of Defense described Avangard as “a weapon of the future” that “can penetrate both the existing and any future missile defense systems” of the United States. The ability to penetrate U.S. missile defense is perceived as necessary to prevent the United States from developing a first-strike capability and is intended to preserve not only Russia’s second-strike capability but also the credibility of the Russian strategic deterrent. Nevertheless, Avangard is currently a poor option to ensure a secure second-strike capability because it is boosted using a silo-based ballistic missile. Avangard was initially intended to be deployed on the SS-26 Rubezh. Rubezh is a road-mobile ballistic missile that was tested throughout the early 2010s but appears to have had its development postponed until at least 2027. While Avangard is a poor guarantor of a secure second-strike while only deployed on silo-based ballistic missiles, it could be used to eliminate U.S. missile defense systems prior to a second strike.

Avangard fails to change the strategic status quo for two reasons. First, the United States lacks a first-strike capability and will not develop one in the foreseeable future. Russia’s nuclear arsenal is too large for existing or developing U.S. counterforce capabilities to gain a first-strike advantage, even if the U.S. develops conventional prompt strike and expands existing missile defense systems. Second, the threats posed by Avangard are already posed by existing weapons. Attacks on U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems in Europe or elsewhere can be carried out by Russian cruise missiles. And Russian nuclear forces can already penetrate U.S. missile defense systems. Russia has enough ballistic missiles to overwhelm an existing or future U.S. system, while Russian strategic bombers and cruise missiles can penetrate missile defense systems and deliver a conventional or a nuclear strike. This gives Russia the ability to counter U.S. missile defense and successfully deliver a nuclear strike, whether as the first use of nuclear weapons or in retaliation for a U.S. nuclear strike on Russia, with or without Avangard.

Avangard and Operational/Theater Level

Avangard does have an impact on the operational or theater-level of conflict in Europe, but this impact is minimal. Two concerns—that Avangard could neutralize U.S. missile defense systems in Europe and hit targets in NATO Europe or Ukraine more quickly than existing capabilities—will not change the operational status quo. The assertion that Avangard could neutralize U.S. BMD systems in Romania and future systems under construction in Poland is true, but Russian cruise missiles can already penetrate or strike these defense systems, as can Russian strategic bombers. Europe could be hit more quickly from longer distance by Avangard. For example, an Avangard HGV fired from eastern Russia could strike targets in Ukraine as quickly as a subsonic weapon fired from near the Russia-Ukraine border. This also is not a significant change to the status quo at the operational level. Russia can already hit these targets with nuclear or conventional weapons, which would yield the same military and political result as an equivalent Avangard strike.

Two additional concerns—the increased risk of misperception and intrawar escalation—are the biggest threats posed by Avangard. New military technologies rarely cause escalation, but technologies that make offense advantageous and create the perception of first-mover advantages can be intervening variables that increase the risk of inadvertent intrawar escalation. Avangard is one of these technologies that increases perceived offense dominance. Escalation in a crisis could also be complicated by Avangard’s dual capability. These threats increase the likelihood that a crisis between Russia and NATO in the Baltics or Black Sea region escalates into a conflict, or that a Russia-NATO conflict escalates from a conventional conflict to a nuclear one.

While the risk of intrawar escalation is increased by Avangard, the impact of this increased risk on the operational status quo is minimal. Avangard is not unique in creating the perception of offensive dominance or in hindering the ability to distinguish between a nuclear or nonnuclear strike. After all, the Kalibr and SSC-8 are both able to penetrate missile defenses in Europe, which could lead to the perception of offensive dominance. Furthermore, Kalibr can carry both a nuclear and a conventional payload, leading to the same problems of distinguishing between a nuclear and a nonnuclear attack that an Avangard strike would have. Russian strategic bombers and the Iskander intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) are also dual-capable.

Conclusion and Policy Implications

Avangard does not change the strategic status quo between the United States and Russia and does not increase the insecurity of the United States. It does have an impact on escalation management and crisis stability in the event of a Russia-NATO conflict in eastern Europe, but this impact does little to change the status quo in Europe at the operational level. I derive three policy implications based on this argument.

First, the United States should not invest in technologies that defend against Avangard. If the United States was able to defend against an attack from the small number of Russian hypersonic glide vehicles, it would still be vulnerable to a Russian nuclear attack. If the United States was able to develop systems capable of defending potential European targets against a conventional or nuclear Avangard strike, those targets would continue to remain vulnerable to conventional or nuclear strikes from other weapons systems. Deterrence is the best way to prevent an Avangard strike against the United States or its European allies, not an anti-HGV system. The money, labor, and other resources that would be used to produce an anti-HGV system would be more effective if used in the pursuit of other national priorities.

Beyond failing to protect against a nuclear attack, developing an anti-HGV system could have negative consequences for U.S. security. Developing and fielding such a system would exacerbate Russian concerns about the security of their strategic deterrent. This could have two negative impacts on U.S. security. First, it would increase the risk of crisis escalation, as Russia would face increased use or lose pressures due to the perception that the strategic deterrent is unsafe. Second, Russia would likely try to overcome U.S. anti-HGV defenses, either by developing newer weapons to penetrate those defenses or by producing enough HGVs to overwhelm American defenses, which could spiral into a costly arms race.

Second, the United States should not perceive the development of Avangard as aggressive or destabilizing. The primary purpose of Avangard is to increase the survivability of the Russian strategic deterrent and to ensure that Russia can maintain a secure second-strike capability. This is a defensive purpose rather than an offensive purpose. Instead of destabilizing U.S.-Russia relations, increasing the perceived security of the Russian strategic deterrent will make Russia feel more secure, which should make relations more stable. It should also increase crisis stability in the event of a U.S.-Russia crisis, as increasing the perceived security of Russia’s second-strike capability reduces use or lose pressures.

Finally, the United States should consider limits to hypersonic weapons, but should not make it a major goal of U.S. arms control strategy. The United States should focus on more important arms control issues, such as maintaining current limits on the level of strategic nuclear weapons by extending New START, reducing those levels through future agreements, reestablishing limits on intermediate-range nuclear forces, and bringing China into the arms control regime. Limitations on hypersonic weapons may play a role in future arms control agreements, but instead of being the goal of the U.S. arms control strategy, they should be a means to achieve that goal. Russia would likely be interested in negotiating bilateral or multilateral limits to hypersonic weapons as Russia perceives the development of hypersonic capabilities by the United States as a threat to the Russian strategic deterrent. Given that the counterforce threat posed by hypersonic weapons increases as the size of the strategic deterrent decreases, limits on U.S. hypersonic capabilities may be necessary for future bilateral arms reductions.
Spenser A. Warren is a political science Ph.D. student at Indiana University Bloomington studying international relations. His research focuses on nuclear politics and Russian foreign policy.
CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).