A new hypersonic weapon of intercontinental range became operational yesterday following years of tests, Russia's defense ministry said.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu informed President Vladimir Putin that the first missile unit equipped with the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle entered combat duty.
The Avangard is capable of flying 27 times faster than the speed of sound and can make sharp manoeuvres in the atmosphere en route to target, making it much harder to intercept.
"I congratulate you on this landmark event for the military and the entire nation," Shoigu said later during a conference call with the top military brass.
The Strategic Missile Forces chief, General Sergei Karakayev, said during the call that the Avangard was put on duty with a unit in the Orenburg region in the southern Urals Mountains.
Putin unveiled the Avangard among other prospective weapons systems in his state-of-the-nation address in March 2018, noting that its ability to make sharp manoeuvres on its way to a target will render missile defense useless.
"It heads to target like a meteorite, like a fireball," he said then.
Putin described the Avangard's creation as a technological breakthrough comparable to the 1957 Soviet launch of the first satellite.
The Russian leader noted that Avangard is designed using new composite materials to withstand temperatures of up to 2000C resulting from a flight through the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds.
Putin has charged that Russia had to develop the Avangard and other prospective weapons systems because of the US efforts to develop a missile defense system that he claimed could erode Russia's nuclear deterrent.
Moscow has scoffed at the US claims that its missile shield isn't intended to counter Russia's massive missile arsenals.
Earlier this week, Putin emphasised that Russia is the only country armed with hypersonic weapons.
He noted that for the first time in history Russia is now leading the world in developing an entire new class of weapons, unlike in the past when it was catching up with the United States.
In December 2018, the Avangard was launched from the Dombarovskiy missile base in the southern Urals and successfully hit a practice target on the Kura shooting range on Kamchatka, 6000km away.
Russian media reports indicated that the Avangard will first be mounted on Soviet-built RS-18B intercontinental ballistic missiles, code-named SS-19 by NATO.
It is expected to be fitted to the prospective Sarmat heavy intercontinental ballistic missile after it becomes operational. The Defense Ministry said last month that it demonstrated the Avangard to a team of U.S. inspectors as part of transparency measures under the New Start nuclear arms treaty with the US.
The US has mulled new defense strategies to counter hypersonic weapons developed by Russia and China.
US officials have talked about putting a layer of sensors in space to more quickly detect enemy missiles, particularly the hypersonic weapons. The administration also plans to study the idea of basing interceptors in space, so the US can strike incoming enemy missiles during the first minutes of flight when the booster engines are still burning.
The Pentagon also has been working on the development of hypersonic weapons in recent years, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in August that he believes "it's probably a matter of a couple of years" before the US has one.
He has called it a priority as the military works to develop new long-range fire capabilities.