Russia’s new hypersonic glide vehicle and hypersonic cruise missile systems are “largely” a rip-off of American technology, US National Security Advisor John Bolton has claimed.
In an interview with US media on Wednesday on the recent deadly explosion during work on a liquid-propellant rocket engine at a military test site in northwest Russia, Bolton suggested that while the test demonstrated that “something obviously has gone badly wrong here,” it also showed that Russia was “still spending enough on defence to not only modernise their nuclear arsenal, to build new kinds of delivery vehicles, hypersonic glide vehicles, hypersonic cruise missiles, largely stolen from American technology.”
“We know more than I’m going to tell you,” Bolton coyly added, referring to last Thursday’s accident, which claimed at least eight lives, and left three scientists in hospital.
Ignorance or Storytelling?
What the Trump security advisor either doesn’t know, or deliberately failed to mention, is that Russian research into hypersonic technology goes back many decades, to at least the 1960s, when the Raduga Design Bureau, an secretive aerospace research company based in the town of Dubna, outside Moscow, began work on the Kh-15, a hypersonic aero-ballistic missile with a 300 km range capable of climbing to altitudes of up to 40,000 meters, accelerating to a speed of up to Mach 5 as it plunged back down to Earth to its target. The system was successfully developed, and deployed with the Soviet and later Russian air forces, and has received multiple upgrades through its decades-long lifespan.
In the late 1970s, Raduga began work on another missile, the Kh-90, a 15 tonne air-to-surface prospective hypersonic missile with a 3,000 km range. Despite multiple successful tests, the project was canceled in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In 1979, the Baranov Central Institute of Aviation Motor Development, another R&D institute focused exclusively on advanced aerospace propulsion, began work on a separate, scramjet-based project known as ‘Kholod’ (Russian for ‘Cold’). Several variants of the then radically-advanced cryogenic technology-based system were tested, and a 1998 test flight saw the rocket reach a sustained speed of Mach 6.5. Soon after, Baranov Institute engineers began work on the Kholod-2, which they planned to rev up to speeds of up to Mach 14. However, a lack of funds during the Yeltsin-era killed off that project, too.
In the early 2000s, a cash-strapped Baranov Institute was forced to sell all the test results from the Kholod flying laboratory to the United States, with one of the test rockets somehow winding up in the UK, where it was sold at auction in 2015. Coincidentally, several years after the Kholod’s documentation was handed over to the US, American engineers built their first X-41 hypersonic space plane, reportedly without any research backlog.
Avangard Began as a Response to Reagan, Not Trump
In March 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled the Avangard, a Russian hypersonic glide vehicle which can be carried aboard Russian ICBM systems, alongside five other new next-generation technologies designed to help Russia preserve its strategic response capability and thus help maintain global strategic stability.
Avangard had its origins in ‘Project 4202’, a secretive R&D effort begun in the mid-1980s at the NPO Mashinostroyeniya rocket design bureau in Reutov outside Moscow. The program, later codenamed ‘Albatross’, was formally approved for development in 1987, in response to US President Ronald Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ missile defence concept, but was abandoned in the early 1990s due to then warming relations with Washington. Russia resumed work on the programme in the 2000s, after the US withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and began deploying missile defence shield components in Europe. Testing of the system secretly began in 2013.
Who 'Stole' From Whom?
How Moscow would have gotten its hands on “American” hypersonic cruise missile technology, as Bolton claims, particularly during the Cold War, when the tech was deemed extremely problematic and even unworkable by US military engineers, remains unclear.
However, with the Pentagon recently reporting on its concerns about lagging behind Russia and China in the development of hypersonic armaments, and the US Air Force and Navy reporting that they expect to start acquiring such weapons only by 2021 and 2025, respectively, it seems that the US side might be a bit more interested in Russia's advances in this area than the other way around.
The Russian military, meanwhile, expects to deploy at least one unit of the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle system by the end of this year, with the new Kinzhal ('Dagger') nuclear-capable air-launched hypersonic missiles already carrying out experimental combat duty training in the Southern Military District since late 2017.