In a public display of force, Russia’s newest heavy long-range missile blasted off on Wednesday from a test silo in Plesetsk, western Russia. Russian media said it flew nearly 6,000km (3,700 miles) before hitting targets in Kamchatka on the other side of the vast country.
The Sarmat Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, or ICBM, has been in development for years and is designed to replace the older Soviet legacy S-18 missiles. These ICBMs were meant to fly around the planet showering strategic targets with multiple nuclear weapons in a nuclear war that no one wanted to fight.
Both the United States and the Soviet Union built these missiles in the hope that if they each had them then neither would be tempted to use them. This counter-intuitive logic was given impetus by the findings of scientists around the world who told their governments that any such war would mean the eradication of all human life on Earth.
These strategic missiles protected in silos and bunkers in both Russia and the US have sat there, thankfully silent and immobile. Decades-old, they need replacing if this deterrent is to remain credible, so the thinking goes. Both countries have embarked on modernisation drives to develop ways to defeat the increasingly potent missile defences their adversaries are developing.
The Sarmat’s extreme range, some estimate as far as 35,000km (22,000 miles), allows it to fly the long way around to its intended target, bypassing likely radar and missile defence systems, striking its target from an unexpected direction.
The huge payload of 10 tonnes means it can carry up to 15 nuclear warheads, each with its own limited manoeuvrability. The payload can be swapped out to include an unknown number of Avangard Hypersonic glide missiles that can travel further and faster, flying in an unpredictable path to spoof missile defences.
The Sarmat’s short initial burn time at launch means that the US’s network of heat-detecting satellites will have a smaller chance of spotting the Sarmat’s launch, increasing the missile’s ability to surprise its adversaries and limiting the time they would have to respond to an attack.
In short, it is huge, powerful, advanced and almost impossible to stop. The Sarmat is now part of a new family of missiles being added to Russia’s arsenal. Russia has also developed hypersonic missiles and is the first country to use them in combat. But it is not the only country to incorporate them into their respective militaries. China has also been working hard to create viable weapons for the 21st century.
China: YJ-21 – missile and test
One day before the Russian Sarmat was tested, China launched its brand new hypersonic missile from a heavy Type 055 cruiser. The YJ-21, ultra-fast with an unpredictable flight pattern, is part of a family of Chinese missiles designed to be ‘carrier killers’. Long aware of the potency of American aircraft carrier groups and their ability to roam the world’s oceans, destroying both naval targets and those on land, Chinese scientists have worked hard to ensure they have the means to defeat these heavily-defended mobile airfields.
With a range of up to 1,500km (930 miles), the YJ-21 can deliver a large warhead, moving so fast it punches straight through the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, destroying it instantly.
Normally air-launched from a bomber, this launch is significant as it blasted off from the type of cruiser that would normally be used to defend Chinese aircraft carrier strike groups. It is significant that the missile’s range is greater than the combat range of the US’s new carrier-borne stealth fighter, the F-35C. This will now force American carrier groups to sail closer in so the F-35s can reach their targets, meaning the carrier groups will be vulnerable to attack.
Russia and China – closer and closer
With a shared 4,000km (2,500-mile) border and common enemies, Russia and China have increasingly cooperated in defence and military planning. American intelligence estimates the two countries are closer than they have been for 60 years. Joint naval exercises are getting progressively larger and many Chinese fighter jets are based on Russian designs. Their common border means large-scale military exercises are easier to set up and have increased in complexity and realism.
The war in Ukraine has demonstrated the superiority of Western weapons and the bloody deadlock of the conflict shows that cooperation between the two powers will be the only way to guarantee victory in a future conflict.
The point of these recent tests is not that they fielded advanced weapons but that they were broadcast and not held in secret. Both China and Russia want the world to know they have potent weapons they have not used yet that would be a threat to their enemies. Both countries want to show they are powers to be reckoned with. In Russia’s case, President Vladimir Putin is trying to shore up Russia’s tattered prestige after the debacle in Ukraine, reminding the world that Russia still has teeth. China is keen to demonstrate that any future conflict would come at a steep price and that it aims to become so powerful it would have a free hand in forcing its foreign policy aims on its neighbours, without outside interference.
President Xi Jinping is closely watching China’s giant neighbour struggle to win the war in Ukraine. Russia’s failure to suppress Ukraine’s air defences in the opening days, its inability to effectively supply its military and the lacklustre approach to command and leadership are all lessons Chinese military planners will make note of. With the reputation of the new professional Russian military in tatters, any future alliance between Russia and China will be on very different terms from the cooperation before the war. Russia’s launch on Wednesday smacked of desperation, China’s was a stark warning.