This past weekend there were increasing signs that the war was entering a new and bloody phase: Russia announced that it had used hyper-Sunni missiles against an underground target in western Ukraine.
Ukrainian courage gives way to realism
Russia’s significant progress in developing hypersonic missiles is perhaps one of the reasons for Vladimir Putin’s self-confidence. He has been openly waving the hyper-Sunni threat for several years. It is not inconceivable that in the coming days the motif of “Who will mourn the heroism of Ukraine” will begin to weaken, because even the impressive collection of shoulder-fired missiles against tanks and planes will not be able to hit Russian cruise missiles.
The hyper-Sunni blow came hours after Russian cruise missiles inflicted on the Ukrainian army the heaviest blow since the war began. The attack on an airport near the southern city of Mykolaiv destroyed a Ukrainian Marine Corps military camp and killed at least 45. The attack on Mariupol, in southeastern Ukraine, also intensified and ended with siege and heavy noises (killing 2,000 and hitting 90% of buildings), Russian forces stormed the center The city.
The inevitable admiration for the courage of Ukrainian soldiers and their maturity is beginning to give way to a slightly more realistic assessment of the state of war. However, the realistic assessment is also likely to increase pressure on Western democracies to find a way to do more for Ukraine’s resilience.
Ukrainians are fighting a considerable degree of effectiveness to prevent the siege ring from tightening, especially in areas north and west of the city. An American estimate gives the defenders of Kyiv a life expectancy of two weeks under siege, before food, fuel and ammunition run out.
The US will have missiles, Russia already has
And back to the hyper-sonic missiles. For Putin, they have become at the forefront of Russia’s return to superpower status. In his annual speech on the state of the federation, four years ago, he presented an audio-visual presentation on the hyper-Sons and described them as “immune to harm.”
Putin boasted that these missiles stack up on the American defense concept, which assumes that enemy missiles will enter at high altitude, and be given interception long before they reach their targets. The hyper-sonics, he said, fly at low altitudes and at such a high speed that the defense batteries will not be able to hit them.
The aggressiveness of his announcement then struck its listeners with astonishment, even if it aroused their doubts. An unofficial U.S. response was that Putin’s missiles were not yet operational.
If we believe the announcement that came from Moscow on Saturday, the missiles are definitely operational, although of course this is still a very short range, hundreds of kilometers, not thousands. The question is why Russia saw a need to use them, and why it saw a need to announce that it had used them.
A practical explanation is the desire to circumvent the Ukrainian anti-ballistic defense, limited when it will be. A bolder explanation is that Russia is signaling to NATO that there is no point in arming Ukraine with S-300 surface-to-air missiles. These surface-to-air missiles are in use in former communist countries, which are now members of NATO. One of them, Slovakia, offered to hand over the missile to Ukraine without delay, provided that NATO filled its shortfall, probably with American patriot missiles.
A more far-reaching explanation is an implicit threat to NATO. Moscow has already declared that supply convoys to Ukraine are “legitimate targets.” If they are legitimate at their starting points, it means Russia is ready to hit NATO soil. It risks pushing the boundaries of logic and imagination, especially given that President Biden has repeatedly said in recent weeks that the United States will fight to defend “every inch of NATO soil.” Perhaps Putin does not believe in Biden, and is willing to take risks, especially if he believes he has a decisive advantage in the hyper-Sunni area.
Coincidentally or not, five days after Putin’s speech in 2018, a senior U.S. official in charge of developing weapons at the Pentagon has declared that hypersonic missiles are “the top priority.” He likened the need to expedite their development to the accelerated project of developing the atomic bomb during World War II. Donald Trump was then in his second year of the presidency, but there was agreement on the need to expedite the hyper-sonic project, so as not to fall behind.
That same year, Congress ruled that the U.S. hyper-Sunni missile should become operational no later than October 2022. One can only guess whether the schedule influenced Putin in his decision to attack Ukraine. That it exists.
There is evidence of a dialogue that took place between him and Trump at the end of his presidency, in which Trump told him that “we will have hypersonic missiles,” to which Putin replied, “We have now.” It is hard to believe that the use, now, will be limited to the attack on the underground ammunition depot of the Ukrainian army. Such a strategic advantage requires much wider and bolder exploitation.
The superpowers in a hyper-Sunni arms race
A Chinese researcher claimed in October that China had acquired a “20 to 30 year advantage” in developing Hyper-Sunni weapons. At the same time, considerable anxiety spread in Washington following a successful experiment with China’s hyper-Sunni weapons in outer space. The US chief of staff likened this experiment to the launch of the Soviet Sputnik, the first satellite in 1958. A few days after the chief of staff’s announcement, the Pentagon awarded contracts for the development of anti-hypersonic weapons to military industry giants Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and Northrop-Grumman.
In January this year, the British chief of staff presented a plan for the development of hypersonic missiles, in order to deal with Russia’s military intensification.
Hypersonic missile test in 2020 / Photo: Associated Press, Mikhail Klimentyev
A number of countries are at the stage of hyper-sonic developments. North Korea has recently tried hyper-Sunni weapons. India is developing it, in cooperation with Russia and Israel. The Indians used two wind tunnels in Israel, with speeds of up to Mach 12. A wind tunnel was opened at Tehran University in 2014, where experiments can be done at speeds up to Mach eight.
A hyper-sonic arms race against the backdrop of a war in Europe is not good news. An advantage for the superpowers in this race is particularly bad news. When the US began developing the atomic bomb, in 1942, it feared that Hitler would precede it. Alternative scenarios for a Nazi victory in World War II included a German atomic bomb in Manhattan. Fortunately, this did not happen. This time it seems to have happened, and the results are unpredictable.