Russia’s New Nuclear Missiles Squeeze Response Time

Senior Science Fellow Philip Coyle spoke with Scientific American about how the United States’ national missile defense system matches against Russia’s missiles.

Although Russia’s new weapons sound frightening, none has actually been deployed yet. They may be ready in the next year or two, but “none of them are fully operational,” says Philip Coyle, a board member of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Coyle (who has also served as U.S. assistant secretary of defense), explains that some have been tested, but “none of them have been so successful that they can claim to have operational capability.”

But that doesn’t mean Coyle is not worried, especially about hypersonic threats. “Some of those would be impossible for United States missile defense systems [to counter],” he says, “especially the hypersonic air-to-ground-system and the hypersonic glide system, both of which [Putin] said had been successfully tested.” The current crop of weapons that defense experts label as hypersonic reach speeds greater than 3,000 mph.

And the Sarmat is dangerous for reasons beyond its size. According to Coyle it also has a shorter-than-usual boost phase (the period of an ICBM’s launch when it is rocketing into the atmosphere), which gives U.S. missile defenses less time to shoot it down. If a brief launch window is not enough to protect the missile, Coyle says, “[Putin] also said that Sarmat would carry countermeasures designed to confuse U.S. anti-missiles systems.”

Meanwhile, the most recent U.S. Nuclear Posture Review and Missile Defense Review promised to develop America’s own hypersonic weapons. The reviews also teased the creation of new sensors, floated the idea of turning the F-35—the new U.S. fighter jet—into an ICBM killer, and suggested developing space-based sensors to augment American missile defense systems. But both reviews were long on theory and short on details. In particular, Coyle says, “The Missile Defense Review is unclear about what it is we would deploy in space.” Read more