Russia doubles down on hypersonic missile tests

Waving a mailed fist on Christmas Eve, Russia conducted another test-fire of its Tsirkon hypersonic missile. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin lauded the salvo launch as a “big event”, and that the “tests were conducted successfully, immaculately.” This test was also the first time Russian authorities reported a successful simultaneous launch of multiple Tsirkon missiles. 

Russia previously tested the Tsirkon missile on November 29 and earlier on November 18, firing the missile from surface warships in the White Sea and the country’s Arctic region, respectively.

These tests were preceded by a successful submarine test launch of the missile on October 4, striking a test target in the Barents Sea. Hypersonic weapons are characterized by their capability to fly at five times the speed of sound to evade enemy missile defenses.

Why is Russia so invested in their development? World War II may provide a precedent that can help explain Russia’s motives.

As the Allies and Soviets pushed back Germany on all fronts, the latter was cut off from strategic resources to manufacture armaments. The Allied bombing campaign also took a toll on Germany’s industrial capacity and civilian population, crippling the latter’s ability to field conventional forces.

Faced with this desperate situation, Hitler placed faith in “wonder weapons”, such as the V-1 cruise missile, V-2 ballistic missile, and Fritz-X guided bomb, to offset Germany’s increasing military weakness.

However, they did not save Germany from defeat. They were futuristic weapons at the time, but their technology was unreliable. They consumed more resources to produce relative to the damage they inflicted on the enemy. Moreover, they were too little and too late to affect the course of the war. 

Similarly, Western sanctions have recently significantly limited Russia’s ability to modernize its conventional forces. Since the sanctions were implemented in 2014, in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, they have contributed to hobbling Russia’s economic growth to 0.3% per year, compared to the global average of 2.3%.

Furthermore, these sanctions have slashed US$50 billion worth of foreign credits and foreign direct investment (FDI) per year. As a result, the Russian economy is not expected to grow significantly unless Western sanctions are eased.

Moreover, in 2020, the combined effect of Western sanctions, low oil prices, and the Covid-19 pandemic forced Russia to spend more on supporting its economy than funding its military for the first time since 2014.

Russia’s defense spending was cut by 5%, taking it below the level of spending on state-backed industries in 2014. While Russia fields several high-end conventional weapons, notably the T-14 Armata tank and Su-57 stealth fighter, the country’s current economic situation prevents the mass adoption of these high-tech platforms.

Adding to Russia’s economic woes, a fully-mobilized NATO now enjoys qualitative and quantitative superiority over the Russian military. As such, Russia is forced to rely more on its nuclear arsenal for deterrence and adopt asymmetric means to make up for its shortfalls in conventional military power.

Russia’s big reveal of five new “superweapons” in 2018, including the Tsirkon hypersonic weapon, underlines the country’s efforts to maintain the viability and deterrent value of its nuclear arsenal against NATO’s plans to improve its missile defenses.

Russia’s hypersonic weapons program may also aim to offset its limited conventional force projection capability with long-range precision strike capabilities.

The Russian Navy is increasingly becoming a green-water navy, with the country’s naval shipbuilding and maintenance capacity for large, ocean-going surface combatants called into question.

Russia’s difficulties in maintaining its Soviet-era capital ships, such as its sole aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and nuclear-powered battlecruiser Admiral Nakhimov, underscore these challenges.

Also, while Russia has announced the development of the PAK DA stealth bomber, it faces the same budget restraints that prevent the mass adoption of the T-14 and Su-57.