Missiles are the way to go in today’s arms race

Russia and China pushing ahead with new missile technology to rival that of the United States

On March 30, Russia launched the largest ballistic missile in history.

Moscow says the 200-ton Sarmat rocket - dubbed Satan 2 by Western analysts - is the first with the range to hit anywhere on earth from one launch point.

The test - announced by President Vladimir Putin - was an unambiguous threat to Russia's enemies, particularly the US.

Since the end of the Cold War three decades ago, the US military has been the undisputed leader in missile technology.

Suddenly, however, it faces a world where its greatest potential foes have made great investments in long-range weapons.

For all the focus on North Korean rocket and warhead tests, Pyongyang has only really been catching up with 1950s and 1960s technology.

Russia and China, in contrast, have pushed ahead with a new generation of weaponry. Both have focused on new land- and sea-launched nuclear missiles aimed at crossing continents.

Just as worrying for the Pentagon, the new weapons also include smaller fast, perhaps impossible-to-evade missiles to destroy US planes, ships and particularly aircraft carriers, arguably the most potent symbol of America's power.

How well those would perform in practice is impossible to say - although their mere existence may be enough to deter enemies from risking a fight or intervening in smaller conflicts.

The balance is shifting.

Military planners in Russia and China have taken a close look at US military domination, and view cutting-edge missile technology as an easy way to outmanoeuvre that superiority.

Several of these missiles may now be operational, and in conflict would pose a serious threat to the US military. The Sarmat is scheduled to replace an older generation of Russian missiles by the 2020s.


Last week, Russia announced it had also tested its A-135 antiballistic missile rocket, already deployed around Moscow. Such systems - a counterpart to US antimissile rockets now deployed in Europe and Asia - would only likely be able to knock down a handful of incoming warheads.

But they and equivalent Chinese weapons could play havoc with satellites on which Western forces have come to rely.

Russian military officials claim their new Zircon anti-ship missile is capable of speeds in excess of 6,400kmh, roughly six times the speed of sound.

If true, the Zircon would outstrip anything in the US arsenal, and may be virtually impossible to intercept.

In the last two years, China has showcased its own trove of medium-range missiles, one dubbed the "carrier-killer" for its intended ability to take out the US' largest warships.

Both countries have also stepped up investment in air defence and anti-aircraft missiles, determined to limit the US' ability to operate over enemy territory in wartime.

Russia is exporting such systems to some of Washington's most likely enemies, including both Iran and Syria.

Both Russia and China see missile technology as key to pushing back the US and its allies. China is believed to be installing such systems on the network of artificial islands it is constructing to dominate the South China Sea.

This escalation comes at a dangerous time.

Around the world, cyber attacks and other new forms of confrontation are redefining what it even means to be at war.

Combined with the return of this very Cold War-style missile contest, the world may be heading towards a very disconcerting balance of terror. -REUTERS

The writer is Reuters global affairs columnist.