Video above: Video Interview: Can the United States Defend Against Hypersonic Weapons?
By Kris Osborn – President and Editor-in-Chief, Warrior Maven
Long-range rockets, artillery and missiles, special operations units and even air and missile defenses are among the combat assets currently being moved by Russia to the Ukrainian border, a sign that any potential military campaign could rely on a wide range sphere of attack possibilities.
This dynamic was addressed at the Pentagon by DoD spokesman John Kirby, who said that the forces themselves being moved by Russia are important on their own, but that additional variables such as the type of weapons put in place are also of great relevance.
“But what is important is not only the numbers, it is the capabilities. And what we’re seeing is he’s really building what we would call combined arms capabilities in Belarus, and along that border with Ukraine in Russia. That doesn’t just mean infantry or tracked vehicles, but also artillery and long-range fire, air and missile defense, and special operations,” Kirby told reporters, according to a transcript of his about by the Pentagon.
Long-range fire, for example, can be used to allow for a deeper and longer invasion of territory, as it is generally used to “soften” or destroy defenses from safer distances to better allow infantry and armored vehicles to advance on an enemy. Mobile air and missile defenses also contribute to this equation as they could provide advancing forces with an opportunity to defend against rockets, artillery and missiles intended to disrupt or halt their forward advance.
Russian air defenses such as the S-400s, for example, are mobile on the road and can move on the back of large trucks to support advancing ground forces. The intent here would of course be to diffuse, stop, or repel air attacks against maneuvering armored units. An interesting report in The National Interest cites a statement from the Russian Ministry of Defense announcing that Russian S-400 air defenses have been sent to Belarus for exercises.
Kirby also referenced something he mentioned before regarding wartime sustainment and logistics. He previously spoke about what he called a visible Russian effort to move medical supplies and other key equipment needed to provide logistical support for a protracted military campaign.
“It’s not just the combined arms capabilities, it’s the ability to sustain those troops in the field for a period of time. So while he added combat capability, he also added logistics and sustainment capability. In other words, the ability to keep them in the field for longer and longer periods of time,” Kirby said.
Would Russia fire Hypersonics? If Russia now has operational hypersonic weapons and there is a real capability gap, gap or distinct advantage of Russia over the United States with hypersonics, would Putin seek to demonstrate or exploit this gap in some sort of attack on Ukraine?
The question was put to Pentagon press secretary John Kirby, who said an invasion or occupation of Ukraine is not the kind of operation in which a long-range hypersonic weapon might be needed to strictly speaking. However, Kirby made it clear that he didn’t want to get into Putin’s “head,” so to speak, and didn’t want to speculate too much about what he might or might not do.
“It wouldn’t be entirely clear if the intent is to invade Ukraine, why one would need a hypersonic weapon to do so. These weapons, as you know, are meant to be used at extremely long intercontinental ranges and to approach stealthily and quickly…again, not sure what he’s got in mind, but one wouldn’t think that we would need this kind of weapon if we wanted to invade Ukraine across the border,” Kirby told the Pentagon.
However, it doesn’t seem entirely impossible that Putin would want to show the superiority of Russia’s hypersonic weapons, and there are tactical circumstances in which a hypersonic projectile could be used to destroy a target only several hundred kilometers away. Such an attack, even against fixed Ukrainian positions, or even against small moving units, although tactically useless, would be considered a show of power towards NATO and the West.
Demonstrated Russian superiority in hypersonic weapons could raise the threat of a high-speed attack in Europe. Perhaps Putin could view hypersonics as a surprise tactic with which to quickly annex or invade Eastern European countries before NATO can respond effectively? As unlikely as it is that Russia will pursue a military confrontation with the West, it could certainly be unpredictable to some extent and the Pentagon is likely to consider the fullest possible range of contingencies.
As for Ukraine, Kirby raised the possibility that Russia could either attempt a small-scale incursion or pursue a full occupation, a scenario that would require a large amount of support and logistical support. A possible target could be the Donbass region, Kirby said, pointing out that Russian state media talk about “Ukrainian aggression” in the region, perhaps to mobilize Russian support for an incursion.
“He (Putin) could do something small-scale, temporary in nature, maybe in the eastern part. In Donbass you hear a lot of Russian state media talking about Ukrainian aggressions in Donbass, or he could be doing something much bigger,” Kirby said.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a highly trained expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army – Acquisition, Logistics and Technology. Osborn also worked as an on-air military anchor and specialist on national television networks. He has appeared as a guest military pundit on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also holds an MA in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.