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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Report: Russians Fire New Missile

U.S. intelligence officials believe Russia has test launched a new jet-powered ballistic missile intended to outwit the United States' planned system of defense against long-range missiles, The Washington Times reported Monday.

The report cited unidentified officials as saying the launch of a refashioned road-mobile SS-25 intercontinental ballistic missile, known as the Topol, took place "from a launch site in central Russia two weeks ago" and landed on the far eastern Kamchatka Peninsula.

The officials said the launch caught their attention because of the missile's unusual trajectory: The last stage flew within the Earth's atmosphere at an altitude of 30 kilometers — unlike the standard path of missiles, which tend to fly at higher altitudes. The lower altitude could help evade U.S. missile defenses.

A spokesman for Russia's Strategic Missile Force said in a telephone interview Monday that there have been no missile launches "within the time period indicated in the [Washington Times] article." However, he declined to say when Russia last launched a Topol.

The Washington Times report cited U.S. officials as saying that the missile's last stage was a high-speed cruise missile.

"It looks like the Russians were testing scramjet technology," one intelligence official was quoted as saying.

Scramjet is an abbreviation for supersonic combustion ramjet and refers to a powerful jet engine powered by a stream of compressed air that is forced out faster than it is taken in during a plane's forward motion; combustion in a scramjet engine occurs at supersonic air velocities. This technology allows vehicles to reach a speed five times the speed of sound — Mach 5 — or more, according to the report.

The Pentagon declined to comment on the launch report and further details were scarce Monday.

Moscow-based defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said the report left a multitude of questions unanswered.

"All that seems clear is that the Americans observed an unusual trajectory [for a familiar missile] and thought this might be a countermeasure in response to their missile defense plans," Felgenhauer said.

If the launch did in fact take place, Felgenhauer said, it is virtually impossible to establish whether the Topol had been equipped with some kind of engine — scramjet or otherwise. Theoretically, he said, it could have flown at a low altitude without an engine, in the manner of a glider.

Felgenhauer added that the Topol, which has a range of 10,500 kilometers and a maximum payload of about 1,000 kilograms, is too light to be used for lifting a large engine or a full-sized aircraft, and could only be used to test launch a relatively light model. Paradoxically, however, the Topol is also an optimal missile for Russia to use in such tests, as it is still being produced, he said.

Felgenhauer added that various methods of eluding U.S. missile defenses — including maneuverable re-entry vehicles — were actively researched in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, at the height of then-President Ronald Reagan's so-called Star Wars initiative.

Moscow has been an adamant opponent of Washington's push to develop a national missile defense in violation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, although President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush made some headway at the G-7 summit in Genoa earlier this month when they agreed to link talks on defensive and offensive strategic weapons.

The Washington Times noted that the Russian launch was likely to draw intensified criticism from opponents of U.S. aid to Russia for dismantling its nuclear arsenal, while being allowed to continue developing new weapons.

The Associated Press reported that U.S. officials were to brief a Senate defense appropriations subcommittee in a closed session Monday on the accelerating U.S. defense program and the billions of dollars it will cost.