Russia hits a snag in developing a hypersonic weapon – after Putin said it was already in production

Key Points
  • Russia is currently unable to find a source for the critical carbon fiber components needed for one of its hypersonic weapons, according to people with direct knowledge of a U.S. intelligence report.
  • Yet, these people added, the weapon is still on track to achieve its initial operational capability by 2020 because Moscow has prioritized this program.
  • The Kremlin is slated to conduct another flight test of the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle by the end of the year.
New Russian hypersonic weapon may be ready for war by 2020

WASHINGTON — Russia is currently unable to find a source for the critical carbon fiber components needed to make one of its hypersonic weapons, despite President Vladimir Putin's claims that the device has already entered serial production, according to people with direct knowledge of a U.S. intelligence report.

A hypersonic weapon can travel at least five times the speed of sound, or about one mile per second. What's more, the U.S. is currently unable to defend against this breed of threat.

The Kremlin considers their current carbon fiber material unreliable and is therefore looking for another source. Yet, the people added, Moscow has prioritized the program, and so the weapon is still on track to achieve initial operational capability by 2020.

The next flight test is slated for December, said one of the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"The body of the hypersonic glide vehicle cannot withstand the heat on re-entry, and therefore the internal systems fail," this person explained to CNBC. "The Russians therefore need a better material because they have an upcoming test and they don't think the material used to construct the body provides enough thermal protection."

US military hypersonic weapons program shrouded in secrecy

Russia expects the carbon fiber components to be produced within 12 months of selection and still expects to meet its 2020 deadline, according to the person.

"It's intriguing that they continue to run into problems, because they've been flight-testing this system for a long time," said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.

"They're running into the same problems that anyone else would run into if they would do this, and it gets back to the issue, of course, how important is this for Russia?" he added, noting Moscow's ambition to develop hypersonic weapons.

Read more: Hypersonic weapons: What they are, and why the U.S. can't defend against them

A spokesman for the Pentagon expressed skepticism about Russia's hypersonic development.

"Obviously, Russian attempts to develop high-tech weaponry is something we watch closely. To this point, however, we've seen more grandiose claims of success than actual proof," said Defense Department spokesman Eric Pahon. "We are continuing to develop our own defensive capabilities and improve readiness for both ourselves and our allies to counter any threats the Russians may develop."

The latest revelations come less than eight months after Putin touted his nation's growing hypersonic arsenal as "invincible."

The hypersonic glide vehicle, dubbed Avangard, was one of the six weapons Putin presented in March. Avangard is designed to sit atop an intercontinental ballistic missile and uses aerodynamic forces to sail on top of the atmosphere.

Putin claimed Avangard was capable of reaching targets at a speed of 20 times the speed of sound and strikes "like a fireball." He also said that the hypersonic warhead had already entered serial production.

"Certainly, heat management is a huge challenge; you know, you have this thing that is going through the atmosphere at very high speeds and potentially for a long period of time," said James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"The longer you are in the atmosphere, the more heat you have to manage, and that's been a huge challenge for the U.S. in hypersonics, and, in part, it's really a material science challenge," Acton added, noting the significant costs associated with testing and producing hypersonic weapons.

 A display of a flight of the warhead of the Avangard hypersonic boost-glide weapon.
Video screen grab | TASS | Getty Images

In May, CNBC learned that Russia successfully tested Avangard twice in 2016. The third known test of the system was carried out in October 2017 and resulted in a failure when the platform crashed seconds before striking its target.

The intelligence reports, which were curated this spring, calculate that Russia's hypersonic glide vehicles are likely to achieve initial operational capability by 2020, a significant step that would enable the Kremlin to surpass the U.S. and China in this regard.

"If this is a real national priority, which I believe it is, I'm sure they will get this system up and running. I wouldn't put any money on 2020, but I think this weapon will enter service," Acton said.