Did Obama Really Give Russia Hypersonic Technology?

WASHINGTON, D.C. – US President Donald Trump claimed on Friday that Russia created its hypersonic missiles after allegedly receiving information about such technologies from the administration of his predecessor Barack Obama.

“They [Russia] have the missile, the super-duper-hypersonic missile <…> It goes five times faster than a normal missile,” he told the crowd in Bemidji, Minnesota, TASS reported.

“We have one that goes much faster, much faster than that,” he said, adding, “Russia got that information from the Obama administration, Russia stole that information. You knew that, you knew that. Russia got the information, and then they built it.”

Speaking at a ceremony in the White House in mid-May, Trump noted the United States was working on a “super-duper missile” capable of flying 17 times faster than any other missile existing at the moment. He gave no further details.

President Trump’s rather limited knowledge of military technology, combined with an attempt to appease his potential voters resulted in an “unfortunate” choice of words. While it’s true that the US has a number of hypersonic weapons programs, the reality is that the country lags behind both Russia and China in terms of deployment and weapons capabilities.

Currently, the aforementioned weapons the US is developing can reach Mach 5, which barely falls within the hypersonic category. On the other hand, Russia has already deployed both HGVs (Hypersonic Glide Vehicles) and HCMs (Hypersonic Cruise Missiles), both ship and ground-based, as well as air-launched.

The claim that Obama “gave” Russia hypersonic technologies seems rather illogical, given that the US is the one significantly lagging behind Russia, not vice versa. It’s also impossible to just “give” someone such an advanced technology as if it was only one physical object. This claim has been parroted by many US officials in an attempt to support the myth of US being technologically “well ahead” of everyone else.

Current declared stats of deployed and prospective strategic hypersonic boost gliders

Russia – Avangard HGV (Hypersonic Glide Vehicle):

  • Speed – Mach 27 (33,339 km/h; 9.3 km/s),
  • Operational status – Active (2019).

China – DF-ZF HGV (Hypersonic Glide Vehicle):

  • Speed – Classified, presumed to be between Mach 5 (6,173 km/h; 1.7 km/s) and Mach 10 (12,360 km/h; 3.4 km/s),
  • Operational status – Active (2019).

USA – AGM-183A ARRW (Hypersonic Glide Vehicle):

  • Speed – presumed to be between Mach 5 (6,173 km/h; 1.7 km/s) and Mach 20 (24, 696 km/h; 6.86 km/s),
  • Operational status – Prototype, initially planned for deployment in 2023, deadline likely to slip to mid or even late 2020s.

What made Trump think the US weapon is “17 times faster than any other missile existing at the moment”?

First, it’s important to understand that HGVs are not actually missiles, since they are unpowered and require a launch vehicle. The AGM-183A ARRW prototype that the United States is currently testing went through a rather rocky R&D process, with the weapon initially being unable to go past the Mach 5 mark, which is the bare minimum required to attain hypersonic speed (5+ times faster than the speed of sound).

The US R&D team projected that the weapon is capable of up to Mach 20, but encountered serious issues in reaching the target speed. The problem mainly involved the HGV’s (in)ability to survive extreme heat generated during hypersonic flight, probably resulting in the destruction of sensitive electronics.

What’s possible is that the US team made a breakthrough during testing and managed to propel the prototype weapon to Mach 17. This was likely reported to President Trump, but the definition of “17 times faster than the speed of sound” probably didn’t mean much to him, so he just simplified it and reported it to the press as “17 times faster than any other missile existing at the moment”.

Lately, even senior US officials admitted that the country was trying to catch up with Russia and China in the domain of hypersonic weapons. Defense Secretary Mark Esper stated in December 2019, that his country was “planning catchup” and “investing every dollar it can” in order to at least gain parity.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said earlier that now that Moscow had hypersonic weapons there was no point for other countries to spend so much money to deter Russia. He noted that for the first time in history Russia had outstripped other countries in terms of developing highly advanced weapons.

The first regiment of Avangard HGV (Hypersonic Glide Vehicle) systems came into service in Russia in late 2019. Apart from that, Russia continues tests of other state-of-the-art weapons, including the Zircon hypersonic anti-ship cruise missile and the Sarmat ICBM (also colloquially known as “Satan 2”).

Geopoliticshypersonic weaponsMilitaryObamaRussiaTrumpUSA
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