WASHINGTON — Russia's defense minister on Friday declared a new hypersonic weapon, which is said to be capable of striking the United States, ready for war.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in a conference call with Russian military leaders that the first missile unit equipped with the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle entered combat duty.
Russia's Strategic Missile Forces chief, Gen. Sergei Karakayev, added that Avangard was put on duty with a unit in the Orenburg region in the southern Ural Mountains.
Avangard can travel at least five times the speed of sound, or about one mile per second.
It was one of the six new weapons that Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled in March 2018. At the time, the Russian leader claimed the hypersonic weapon was capable of reaching targets at 20 times the speed of sound and that it could strike "like a fireball." He also said that the device had already entered serial production.
Of the six new weapons Putin boasted about, CNBC learned that two of them, Avangard and an air-launched cruise missile, would be ready within two years of Putin's announcement.
The air-to-ground hypersonic missile dubbed "Kinzhal," which means "dagger" in Russian, has been tested at least three times. The weapon is slated to join the Kremlin's arsenal as early as 2020.
In March, CNBC learned that nearly 20 Kinzhal missiles were moved to a military testing site, signaling another milestone for the Kremlin's hypersonic weapons program.
Avangard, which Moscow has been developing for three decades, is designed to sit atop an intercontinental ballistic missile. Once launched, it uses aerodynamic forces to sail on top of the atmosphere.
In May 2018, 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.
Intelligence reports curated in spring of last year calculate that Russia's hypersonic glide vehicles are likely to achieve initial operational capability by 2020.
As it stands, the U.S. does not have a defense against hypersonic weapons such as Avangard. Combined with blistering speed, maneuverability and long-range flight, these weapons are difficult to track, target and defeat.
And while the Pentagon has several hypersonic weapons programs in development, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in August that it will be "a couple of years" before the U.S. can deploy a weapon of this caliber.