What is the Avangard system in missiles

New Russian hypersonic glide missile with nuclear warhead in service

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has a new one in readiness shortly before the end of 2019 Hypersonic gliding missile called "Avangard" announced. Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed that Avangard could reach almost any point on earth. With this first ready-to-use hypersonic gliding missile, which can reach speeds of over Mach 20, i.e. twenty times the speed of sound, the Russian army has a system that can hardly stop the US missile defense. Avangard is an unpowered hypersonic glide missile that can be armed with conventional weapons, but also with nuclear weapons, including nuclear warheads. An ICBM brings the glider to the upper layers of the atmosphere and generates the necessary acceleration with which Avangard can reach these speeds. Then the glider separates from the rocket and does not head for the target in a predictable trajectory. In this way Avangard can change course, even be led to a different goal if necessary. This maneuverability at such high speeds makes it nearly impossible for a missile defense system to prevent the attack. According to the Russian government, Avangard has already been shown to the US arms controllers and is not intended to contradict the provisions of the New START treaty (treaty for the reduction of strategic weapons).




  • PD Dr. Jürgen Altmann, research assistant in the Chair of Experimental Physics III, Technical University of Dortmund and Chairman of the Research Association for Natural Science, Disarmament and International Security (FONAS) and member of the editorial board of the journal "Science and Global Security"

  • Prof. Dr. Götz Neuneck, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (IFSH), Hamburg and Professor at the MIN Faculty of the University of Hamburg


PD Dr. Jürgen Altmann

Research Associate in the Chair of Experimental Physics III, Technical University of Dortmund and Chairman of the Research Association for Natural Science, Disarmament and International Security (FONAS) and member of the editorial board of the journal "Science and Global Security"

“The statement that the Avangard missile flies at 20 times the speed of sound, ie at around 24,000 kilometers per hour or six kilometers per second, is correct. It is in fact the second type of hypersonic missile, a so-called hypersonic gliding missile, which flies considerably faster than the lower limit of Mach 5 used for the hypersonic range, i.e. 5 times the speed of sound. This first type of hypersonic cruise missile fly at five to eight times the speed of sound, have a significantly shorter range and do not leave the atmosphere. "

“Six kilometers per second is also the speed to which conventional ballistic ICBMs have to accelerate their warheads if they are to travel a distance of 10,000 kilometers on their elliptical orbit through space. Therefore, the time from start to arrival at the target is roughly the same as with missiles over the same range, for example 45 instead of 35 minutes. "

“The main difference is that the elliptical orbit in space is shorter and reaches lower heights, according to which the missile does not fall further through it when it re-enters the atmosphere, but changes its orbit and, thanks to the aerodynamic lift, continues for many hundreds to many thousands of kilometers glides as it descends from about 100 kilometers to about 30 kilometers in altitude. The path can be changed using control flaps like an airplane. "

“Defense is made considerably more difficult for various reasons. For space radars on the ground in the target country, the missile rises later - or not at all - over the horizon during the space orbit phase. During the gliding phase, this happens much later, shortly before arrival. Because of the control in the glide phase, the trajectory - unlike ballistic missiles - cannot be calculated in advance, so that interceptor missiles cannot be launched early in the direction of the approaching missile. "

“However, defense is particularly difficult with ballistic missiles too, and there is no prospect of any serious interception success here either. Thus, even hypersonic glide missiles will not change the basic situation that no country can protect itself from a massive nuclear attack. "

“The US had been developing hypersonic glide missiles since the early 2000s, but discontinued the program after two attempts. After the Russian and Chinese tests, priority will now be given to resuming it. "

“The main danger of the introduction of hypersonic glide missiles lies in shortened advance warning times - because of the shorter, deeper part of the path in space and the later radar visibility in the glide phase. This increases nervousness, which increases the willingness to start one's own nuclear weapons when an attack warning is received, which would only trigger a nuclear war in the event of a false alarm. "

“Despite the relative hopelessness, defense efforts will increase, which in turn will lead to improvements and growth in offensive weapons. The connection with conventional weapons will also be intensified. "

“After the termination of the missile defense treaty (ABM treaty 2001/2002) and the medium-range treaty (INF treaty) in 2019, the only limitation on nuclear weapons is the New START treaty from 2010. It expires in 2021 and could be extended by five years. Whether that will happen is open. "

“The opportunity to agree a test ban on hypersonic glide missiles, which existed until around 2015, was unfortunately missed. A further reduction in nuclear weapons is necessary, especially between the USA and Russia - China still plays a clearly subordinate role. Missile defense must be severely limited again, hypersonic glide missiles must be abolished. "

Prof. Dr. Götz Neuneck

Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (IFSH), Hamburg and Professor at the MIN Faculty of the University of Hamburg

“The press releases on the subject of 'hypersonic weapons' have increased in recent years, but they contain a lot of technical inaccuracies, exaggerations and misjudgments. Important terms have been improperly researched, mixed up or incorrectly translated. There is talk of 'miracle weapons, Avangard missiles or missile shields'. The following is an attempt at clarification. "

“Hypersonic missiles are missiles that can fly faster than five times the speed of sound in certain flight phases (Mach 5, for example about 6,000 kilometers per hour). These developments began in the 1960s and pose extreme challenges to the propulsion, navigation and structural stability of missiles. With its 'Prompt Global Strike' program from 2010, the USA revived the trend of being able to hit targets worldwide within an hour. Two hypersonic systems are being developed in the USA that are to be equipped conventionally. Russia and China have also been promoting these developments for years, but are also facing enormous technical challenges. The development requires new flight dynamics, new materials and steering systems, as well as a corresponding infrastructure (for example wind tunnels and tests). The range of these missiles is just as limited as their maneuverability or payload. The main reason for the development is given by the Russian and Chinese sides to overcome the US missile defense systems. These missiles should be able to be equipped with nuclear equipment. Hypersonic weapons will be further developed, but are now a 'niche capability', but will present major challenges for arms control, crisis stability and warfare in the future. With the termination of central arms control treaties (ABM treaty, INF treaty and so on), it is questionable whether such developments can be limited. "

“At the end of the year, the announcement by Russian Defense Minister Shoigu that the Russian missile forces had put 'Avangard' supersonic missiles into operation on December 27, 2019 caused a stir. The Avangard is a glide missile that is launched with an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) and is maneuverable when it re-enters the earth's atmosphere. The speed in the atmosphere is depending on the orbit profile at over Mach 20 and is further reduced by the orbit maneuvers. For comparison: warheads of ballistic ICBM, for example, have a top speed of Mach 27 and there is still no defense against it. "

“Because of the changeable path profile, the target point is more difficult to determine and a missile defense system can be bypassed very effectively. Russia recently presented these maneuverable warheads to American inspectors and provided transparency as part of bilateral strategic arms control. An integration into an extended New START contract is possible because these nuclear payloads can be stationed on contract-compliant ICBMs. "

"The danger of misunderstandings about this weapon system is that the opinion will prevail,

  1. Hypersonic weapons would have to be fought with hypersonic weapons,
  2. investing in new missile defense would solve the problem and
  3. these developments are a 'game changer' for strategic deterrence.

All of these reasons lead to an uncontrolled 'offensive-defensive arms race' that will waste huge amounts of money, create new dangerous confrontations and block any further prospect of profound nuclear disarmament. There is also the risk that other nuclear powers such as India will join this technological arms race. The nuclear balance between the US and Russia is limited by the New START treaty and the introduction of some Avangard slip bodies will not be changed. "

“Another dangerous category are hypersonic self-propelled missiles that operate exclusively in the atmosphere and have shorter ranges, or cruise missiles with several times the speed of sound (from Mach 1). There are developments in this regard in all nuclear weapon states. Should such systems be stationed, the flight times are shortened and represent a considerable problem for decision-makers in a crisis with regard to suitable countermeasures, especially since it is unclear whether such missiles are equipped with conventional or nuclear equipment. As a result, the line between nuclear and conventional missiles is becoming increasingly blurred. There is still no missile defense against such systems, but the advances in existing missile defense are extremely limited and lead to an illusion of security. "

“The New START contract expires in February 2021 and can be extended by five years with a simple signature by US President Trump and Russian President Putin. Talks between the USA and Russia about an extension or a successor regime have not yet taken place. Putin has offered to extend New START several times. Developments of new carrier systems, such as a heavy ICBM ('Sarmat') that can carry several Avangard gliders or a nuclear-armed torpedo or a nuclear-powered cruise missile, would have to become part of a new strategic arms control treaty. Since the INF contract was terminated, there is also a risk of ground-based medium-range systems being deployed in the hypersonic range. "

"According to the statutes of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the nuclear weapon states are to 'negotiations in good faith' with the aim of 'the early termination of the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament, as well as a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control' obliged and no longer comply. This represents a serious violation of the NPT. The dialogue between the USA and Russia, but also between the other nuclear weapon states, on strategic stability and the associated nuclear disarmament must be resumed. "

Information on possible conflicts of interest

PD Dr. Jürgen Altmann: "There is no conflict of interest."

All other: None specified.

Further sources of research

Altmann J (2019): New types of nuclear weapons and their carriers - threats to strategic stability, in:
Werkner IJ et al. (Ed.) (2019): Nuclear deterrence from a peace-ethical perspective (Questions on Violence, Volume 7), Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 2019, 105-123.

Neuneck G (2019): The Deep Crisis of Nuclear Arms Control and Disarmament: The State of Play and the Challenges, Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, 2: 2, 431-452, DOI: 10.1080 / 25751654.2019.1701796.