Why Russia’s Hypersonics Matter

Image Source: Defense News

On Thursday, March 9, Russian MiG-31 fighters employed 6 hypersonic Kh47M2 “Kinzhal” missiles in strikes on population centers and infrastructure across Ukraine. This brought the total instances of hypersonic missile use in Ukraine to five (3/19-20/2022; 8/7/2022; 9/14/2022). The March 9 attack represented the highest-volume use of Kinzhals so far, with six included in the 81 missiles launched.

Reporters and experts alike have been quick to discount Russia’s employment of hypersonic missiles in the war, noting their negligible impact on the military balance in Ukraine. Rather than discuss the Kinzhal’s broader strategic implications or its role within a small but growing Russian hypersonic counterforce arsenal, commenters have decided—and struggled—to interpret Vladimir Putin’s reasoning for using the missiles in Ukraine. Explanations include Russian desires to overcome defenses for a particular target, the need to test the weapon in an operational environment, and potential ploys to market the weapon. Unfortunately, these discussions miss the forest for the trees.

Limiting itself to the context of the Ukrainian battlefield, the Western response to Russia’s hypersonic missile use undercuts and forgets the historical importance of nuclear counterforce. Counterforce capabilities are designed to strike enemy nuclear forces instead of population centers, the countervalue targets. Counterforce weapons threaten an adversary’s capacity for nuclear retaliation. Hypersonic missiles such as the Kinzhal, and Russia’s new Tsirkon and Avangard systems, are menacing counterforce tools because they are effectively impossible to intercept with current air defense systems. Russia’s hypersonic weapons are therefore far more than an idiosyncratic feature of Russia’s disjointed war effort.  Each Kinzhal use is a repeated, glaring reminder to NATO members—intentional or otherwise—that in a NATO-Russia nuclear escalation scenario, hypersonic weapons give Vladimir Putin a historically significant technological advantage in nuclear counterforce capability.

Cold War Crises Revisited

During the Cold War, the nuclear balance, particularly nuclear counterforce capabilities, played a decisive role in crisis outcomes. Mutually assured destruction (MAD) enthusiasts are quick to downplay differences in the nuclear capabilities because in conditions of mutual vulnerability (where both sides can execute nuclear strikes against the other) any rational actor would be deterred from nuclear escalation or an outright nuclear strike. However, history proves MAD enthusiasts wrong. Major nuclear crises of the Cold War, namely both Berlin crises and the Cuban Missile Crisis, remind us that superior counterforce capabilities play a critical role in crisis decision-making and outcomes. In a reversal of those Cold War positions, NATO finds itself on the losing side of today’s counterforce balance, while Russia holds the advantage.

In the 1958-1959 and 1961 Berlin crises, U.S. nuclear counterforce superiority successfully restrained and ultimately neutralized Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s bids to reverse West German militarization and absorb West Berlin. Thanks to the Soviet Union’s small, undeveloped, and vulnerable intercontinental ballistic missile force—and the numerous holes in the Soviet warning network which allowed bombers to pass undetected—the United States could strike Soviet nuclear assets without the risk of interception in much the same way Russia can strike an adversary with its hypersonic capabilities today.

As a result, Khrushchev’s political leverage with respect to Berlin and West Germany was dramatically reduced. After initiating both crises with respective ultimatums to President Eisenhower and President Kennedy, the Soviets quickly undertook major diplomatic backtracking efforts. According to Marc Trachtenberg’s account, this backtracking occurred because the Soviets could not risk initiating a military confrontation that would invite a preemptive and disabling U.S. counterforce strike. Facing a far more advanced nuclear force, the Soviets “[faced] the problem of how far to go to keep the pot boiling in political terms, while at the same time making sure that the crisis would not escalate to anything that approached the level of a military problem”. Today, standing on the other side of unmatched nuclear counterforce capabilities, NATO’s attitude towards Ukraine is remarkably similar: boiling the pot with military aid, but unable to escalate the crisis to anything risking a NATO military problem.

At the height of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, U.S. advantages in nuclear counterforce capabilities again directly shaped Khrushchev’s decision to de-escalate the crisis. After President Kennedy initiated Strategic Air Command (SAC) Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) preparations in a dramatic show of nuclear counterforce capabilities, Khrushchev refrained from alerting Soviet nuclear and conventional forces for possible military action, bowing to the risk of inviting a U.S. counterforce strike. By threatening a devastating and disarming first strike, American counterforce superiority created a lever of escalation that Khrushchev could not match. Richard Betts highlighted this dynamic in his account of the crisis: “Soviet observers were well aware of the U.S. counterforce doctrine and prevalent views of American strategists… The remarkable Soviet non-alert was equivalent to a threatened dog’s rolling over belly up.” Trachtenberg echoes the point, noting that “Soviet leaders might have viewed war preparations as very dangerous—and quite possibly because of the disparity in force levels and in degrees of force vulnerability, risky in a way that the corresponding American alert simply was not.” As in the Berlin crises, American dominance in the counterforce balance created important bargaining leverage and had a decisive impact on the crisis outcome.

Today, Russia’s advantage in hypersonic weapons technology reverses the Cold War counterforce balance, lending Russia a key strategic advantage over NATO. While the United States has just begun to test and train its first hypersonic forces, the existing nuclear balance leaves the United States and its allies at risk of being paralyzed by the same strategic vulnerability suffered by the Soviet Union in some of the Cold War’s decisive moments.

Parity at the Cost of Destabilization?

It appears the U.S. Department of Defense is aware of this strategic imbalance. In a March 14 press briefing, a senior defense official acknowledged that “hypersonic missiles pose a new challenge to our defense systems… which require further development and technology investments.” Still, NATO remains far behind. The United States has begun training hypersonic missile operators but still needs to test hypersonic tracking sensors later this year. Moreover, these will only be prototype-stage devices, far from integration into service-ready systems. As of 2023, the United States has yet to develop its own combat-ready hypersonic systems.

An equally concerning implication of the hypersonic missile race is that parity, though necessary to re-establishing NATO’s strategic footing, may not be stabilizing. Because counterforce weapons target the adversary’s ability to retaliate, they advantage the actor who strikes first. As a result, a potential arms race in which global powers adopt counterforce nuclear postures is likely to generate what Thomas Schelling labeled “a premium on haste,” in which all countries have the incentive to strike first in a crisis or risk being left in the dust. Such incentives would create a dangerous strategic dynamic between NATO countries and their adversaries.

The necessary remedy to this risk is communication. Over the course of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union iteratively developed crisis communication hotlines and protocols to ensure that accidental strikes or misinterpretations were avoided. While it appears some progress was made to re-establish those lines of communication with Russia in November 2022, China’s refusal to answer a call from the United States during the February balloon incident represents a dangerous lack of communication that could lead to accidental escalation in future crises. As the United States and its allies enter the hypersonic fray, they must also work to establish dependable lines of crisis communication with their potential adversaries.

Until then, however, NATO members are best served by recognizing Kinzhal missiles for what they are: a symbol of NATO’s nuclear counterforce inferiority relative to its primary adversary.

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