A new intercontinental weapon that can fly 27 times the speed of sound has become operational, Russia’s defence minister reported to President Vladimir Putin.
Mr Putin has described the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle as a technological breakthrough comparable to the 1957 Soviet launch of the first satellite.
The new Russian weapon and a similar system being developed by China have troubled the United States, which has pondered defence strategies.
The Avangard is launched atop an intercontinental ballistic missile, but unlike a regular missile warhead that follows a predictable path after separation, it can make sharp manoeuvres in the atmosphere en route to target, making it much harder to intercept.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu informed Mr Putin that the first missile unit equipped with the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle entered combat duty.
“I congratulate you on this landmark event for the military and the entire nation,” Mr Shoigu said later during a conference call with top military leaders.
The Strategic Missile Forces chief, General Sergei Karakayev, said during the call that the Avangard was put on duty with a unit in the Orenburg region in the southern Ural Mountains.
Mr Putin unveiled the Avangard among other prospective weapons systems in his state-of-the-nation address in March 2018, noting that its ability to make sharp manoeuvres on its way to a target will render missile defence useless.
“It heads to target like a meteorite, like a fireball,” he said at the time.
The Russian leader noted that Avangard is designed using new composite materials to withstand temperatures of up to 2,000C (3,632F) resulting from a flight through the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds.
The military said the Avangard is capable of flying 27 times faster than the speed of sound. It carries a nuclear weapon of up to two megatons.
Mr Putin has said Russia had to develop the Avangard and other prospective weapons systems because of US efforts to develop a missile defence system that he claimed could erode Russia’s nuclear deterrent.
Moscow has scoffed at US claims that its missile shield is not intended to counter Russia’s massive missile arsenals.
Earlier this week, Mr Putin emphasised that Russia is the only country armed with hypersonic weapons.
He noted that for the first time Russia is leading the world in developing an entire new class of weapons, unlike in the past when it was catching up with the US.
Russian media reports indicated that the Avangard will first be mounted on Soviet-built RS-18B intercontinental ballistic missiles, code-named SS-19 by Nato.
It is expected to be fitted to the prospective Sarmat heavy intercontinental ballistic missile after it becomes operational.