Russia is continuing to develop its new hypersonic missile and adding capabilities to a system for which no military, including the United States, has an adequate defense.

As reported by CNBC on Thursday, citing U.S. intelligence sources, the Russian navy has now successfully tested the new missile, which Moscow has called the “Tsirkon.”

U.S. intelligence sources who spoke to the network on the condition of anonymity said that Russia has now carried out five total tests of this ship-based hypersonic weapon since 2015. The last known test of the device was on Dec. 10. The missile managed to reach a top speed of Mach 8, or about eight times the speed of sound.

Put another way, that’s a missile that can travel two miles per second.

“What we are seeing with this particular weapon is that the Russians designed it to have a dual-purpose capability, meaning, it can be used against a target on land as well as a vessel at sea,” one source told CNBC.

“Last week’s successful test showed that the Russians were able to achieve sustained flight, a feat that is crucial in the development of hypersonic weapons.”

According to U.S. intelligence, the missile is slated for production beginning in 2021; it should be ready to be added to the Russian arsenal by 2022.

Russian hypersonic missile test. Source: Screenshot.

Hypersonic missiles, especially if they can be armed with nuclear warheads, are game-changers as they represent the next step in missile development. Worse, the Russians and Chinese have been working on designs for years; the U.S. only recently stepped up its development efforts.

That said, James Acton, the co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, does not think that the Russians and Chinese are that far ahead of the U.S. in hypersonic development.

“I don’t necessarily agree with the characterization that the U.S. is on its back foot. All of the evidence I see is that the U.S. has significantly more ambitious goals than the Russians and Chinese,” he told CNBC.

“I don’t want to pretend that these developments are irrelevant and that the U.S. can just ignore them. Clearly, there is a qualitative increase in the threat level with the development of a missile like Tsirkon, which is significant.”

He added: “But my point is that the breathless reaction you often hear to these developments, I think, can be overestimated.”

In May, CNBC reported that the U.S. may not be nearly as far behind the Russians and Chinese as some analysts may think.




For one, the report noted, the U.S. has a different objective than our competitors. The Pentagon is focused on developing hypersonic weapons that deliver conventional warheads, while Russia and China are focused on missiles that carry nuclear devices.

At that time, Acton said, “It is very commonly asserted that there is an arms race in hypersonic technology and that the United States is losing.” That’s because “in many ways, the United States is running a different race from Russia and China.”

Other analysts note that the U.S. is focused on delivering precision strikes using hypersonic weapons, while Russian and Chinese systems do not have the same precision capabilities.

Either way, these are missiles that are difficult, if not impossible, to defend against given current capabilities.

In August, Space News reported that the Pentagon was considering the development of a “mega-constellation” of sensors based in space that would be layered and thus more able to track — and intercept — incoming hypersonic weapons.

A boom in commercial space development is aiding the Pentagon’s efforts, the site reported.

“Our response has to be a proliferated space sensor layer, possibly based off commercial space developments,” said Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin, Space News reported.

Griffin said the U.S. has been testing hypersonic platforms for decades but chose not to weaponize them.

“Our enemies have, so we have to respond,” he said. “The first step in that response absolutely has to be a sensor layer from space.”

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