Avangard

Avangard glider mounted on a ground-based chassis Russian Defense Ministry
The US pullout from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was a threat to Russia's security and risked "zeroing" its nuclear arsenals, prompting Moscow to design unparalleled hypersonic projectiles, President Vladimir Putin said.

Moscow, which claims primacy in the worldwide race to develop the ultra-fast weapons systems, faced an urgency to maintain strategic parity with its near-peer opponent Washington, the Russian president recalled on Saturday.

"The US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty [ABM Treaty] in 2002 forced Russia to start developing hypersonic weapons," Putin said while speaking over a video link to Gerbert Yefremov, a renowned engineer who played a lead role in designing an array of sensitive missile systems for the Russian military.

Signed back in 1972, the ABM Treaty was instrumental in helping keep the equilibrium between Russian and American nuclear deterrents, until the 2002 pullout threatened to dramatically tilt the balance. No longer bound by the pact, the US rushed to deploy its ballistic missile shields, including close to Russian borders.

Moscow could not stand back and watch the new threat emerge, Putin continued.

"We had to create these weapons in response to the US deployment of a strategic missile defense system, which in the future would be capable of virtually neutralizing, zeroing out all our nuclear potential."

Russia also had to catch up with its prime rival on nearly every track, from building nuclear weapons to designing long-range bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

According to Putin, the need to play catch-up has always put the country "in a very difficult and even dangerous situation." On certain occasions, "we were threatened but had nothing to respond," he admitted.

He praised Yefremov's contribution in creating hypersonic weapons, likening it to the Soviet nuclear program of the 1950s and 1960s.

"For our country today, the embodiment of your concepts is undoubtedly comparable to implementing USSR's nuclear and missile projects, which were carried out by outstanding Soviet scientists [Igor] Kurchatov and [Sergey] Korolev."

The modern-day advances in hypersonic technology turn the tide in Russia's favor, Putin said. "Right now, for the first time in our modern history, Russia possesses the most modern types of weapons, which are many times superior in strength, power, speed and accuracy to previous and existing ones," he explained.

Russia claims to be the first nation to have fielded a hypersonic weapon, the Avangard glide vehicle. Other projectiles, like the Kinzhal (Dagger) cruise missile and the Zircon anti-ship missile, are undergoing trials or said to be in the works.

In addition, the Russian military industry is on its way to designing an interceptor missile that will be able to shoot down adversary ultra-speed munitions. As part of the effort, it has recently rolled out a radar station designed to track over a thousand fast-moving targets, including those that are hypersonic.

Economy now more important than military expenses

Russia is set to cut military spending next year in favor of boosting the national economy, marking the first time in seven years the two areas have traded places in the government's budget plans.

According to a note relating to the draft plan, seen by business news outlet RBC, military costs are set to stand at 3.11 trillion rubles ($41.08 million) in 2021, equivalent to around 14.5 percent of all government expenses. That's over one percent lower than the funds allocated for the national economy, which are expected to total 3.37 trillion rubles ($44.51 billion).

This means that in 2021, national economy expenses will beat those of the military for the first time since 2014. At the same time, military spending will account for just 2.7 percent of Russia's gross domestic product - the lowest share in a decade.

Compared to pre-crisis plans, the 2021 military spending is set to be trimmed by 120 billion rubles. With the crisis hitting most businesses and industries hard, Moscow has had to boost support for the national economy by 19 percent, including increased spending for the space sector and infrastructure projects, as well as subsidizing air carriers and agriculture companies, among others.

Military expenses have been on the rise since 2012 as part of Russia's rearmament and weapons modernization program.

Early forecasts expected the Russian economy to contract up to seven percent this year in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, but more recent predictions have been more positive, expecting the slump to be between four and five percent. Starting next year, the Russian government expects the GDP to gain over three percent.

Trump accuses Moscow of stealing American tech

US President Donald Trump has accused Russia of stealing information about hypersonic weapon technology from the Barack Obama administration. Russia claims it began discussing the weapons almost 20 years ago.

"You know, they have a super-duper hypersonic missile... it is five times faster than a normal missile," Trump said at a campaign rally in Minnesota. "Russia stole that information. You knew that, you knew that? Russia received this information and then built [the rocket]."

However, Washington claims that it has a significantly faster missile, which, according to Trump, is envied by Moscow and Beijing.

"We have weapons that are so advanced that [Chinese] President Xi [Jinping], [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, everybody, we're the envy of the world. But they don't know quite what we have, but they know that we have stuff they have never even heard of before," the President said.

Despite Trump's statements about US superiority, other parts of the government have recognized that the country is lagging behind Russia and China in producing hypersonic weapons. Last year, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced that the Pentagon is "planning catchup" and "investing every dollar it can" to advance towards hypersonic weapons.

Last week, the Chinese web portal Sina dubbed Russia's Avangard hypersonic missile system a "more intimidating weapon than a nuclear bomb." Unveiled in 2018, Putin claimed it is "absolutely invulnerable to any air or missile defense system."

According to Putin, Russia was forced to create hypersonic weapons after the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002.

"We had to create these [hypersonic] weapons in response to the deployment of the US strategic missile defense system, which in the future would be able to neutralize and reset all of our nuclear potential," Putin claimed in a meeting with military design engineer Herbert Efremov.

The Russian leader also claimed that Moscow made every possible effort to reach an agreement with the Americans, but it was all in vain.