Russia has deployed its first nuclear-capable missile that military officials claim can fly at 27 times the speed of sound, winning a race against the US to develop hypersonic weapons.
President Vladimir Putin boasted that the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle means Russia now leads the world in engineering an entire new class of weapons.
The intercontinental weapon, which became operational on Friday, was a technological breakthrough comparable to the 1957 Soviet launch of the first satellite, Mr Putin said.
He claimed the missile can withstand temperatures of up to 2,000C (3,632F) resulting from a flight through the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds.
It is launched on top of an intercontinental ballistic missile, but unlike a regular missile warhead that follows a predictable path, it can make sharp manoeuvres in the atmosphere, making it much harder to intercept.
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. The Avangard can hit almost any point in the world and evade a US-built missile shield, he claimed.
Some western experts have questioned how advanced some of the weapons programmes are.
Earlier this week, the Russian leader stressed that Russia was the only country armed with hypersonic weapons, saying that for the first time his country was leading the world in developing a new class of weapons, unlike in the past when it was catching up with the US.
“It heads to target like a meteorite, like a fireball,” he said last year in his state-of-the-nation address.
The Russian military previously had commissioned another hypersonic weapon of a smaller range.
The US Pentagon also has been working on hypersonic weapons in recent years, and in August defense secretary Mark Esper said he believed it was a matter of “a couple of years” before the US had one.
China has already tested its own hypersonic glide vehicle, believed to be capable of travelling at least five times the speed of sound.
US officials have talked about putting a layer of sensors in space to more quickly detect enemy missiles, particularly the hypersonic weapons.
The administration also plans to study the idea of basing interceptors in space, so the US can strike incoming enemy missiles during the first minutes of flight when the booster engines are still burning.
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