While most of you were opening up gifts around the Christmas tree this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin was unwrapping another “present” for the people of his nation. It came in the form of an apparently successful test launch of their new Avangard hypersonic missile system. While questions remain over precisely how functional this new weapon is, claims that it has an intercontinental range at speeds in excess of Mach 5 have military observers rightly concerned. And why Putin would want to engage in this sort of saber-rattling, potentially violating standing missile treaties, remains something of a mystery. (Washington Times)

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday his army would deploy a new hypersonic nuclear-capable missile system next year, upping the ante in a high-tech arms race with the U.S.

Mr. Putin made the announcement at a Kremlin meeting following tests of the hypersonic system known as Avangard.

“The test was completely successful: all technical parameters were verified,” Mr. Putin said, according to Russia’s state-run TASS news agency.

“Starting from next year, in 2019, a new intercontinental strategic system Avangard will enter service in the Russian army and the first regiment in the Strategic Missile Troops will be deployed,” Mr. Putin said.

The first issue to come to terms with is the fact that Russia has been deploying a variety of new missiles besides the Avangard weapons platform. Their new ground-based cruise missile appears to be a clear violation of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. This isn’t just a position being taken by the State Department. NATO observers have been up in arms over the announcement for months.

Does this new missile fall under the INF? There seems to be some dispute over that subject, but the United States has already awarded a contract to Lockheed-Martin to develop a hypersonic missile of our own. (The Chinese also tested a hypersonic vehicle earlier this year, but that one is supposedly only for use in their space program.) There are also questions as to whether or not the Avangard missile is truly ready for deployment or if this was a prototype that was put on display as a show of force. (Russian claims of new weapons systems have fallen apart in the past.)

But let’s just say for the moment that the Avangard missile system is fully functional and performs as the Russians claim. It does seem to raise the prospect of a first strike scenario where Putin could launch a nuclear war with a weapon our missile defense systems couldn’t stop. (We’re only marginally confident that we could knock down conventional ICBMs with any reliability. There’s no way we’re taking out something traveling that fast.) It’s a valid concern, but imagining that scenario ignores one very real element of our Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) protocol.

Even if Russia fired off a barrage of these Avangard missiles and nuked most of North America, Putin has nothing that could stop the hailstorm of nukes that would be launched from all of our boomer submarines a few hours after they lost contact with the American mainland. The Russians know this, and there are still no winners in a full nuclear exchange between our two countries. With that in mind, you probably don’t need to move into your survival bunkers just yet.