Racing Towards the Future of War: Cometh the Hypersonic Missiles

Imagine for a moment you are in an airplane at cruising speed (about 878-926 km/h). That airplane is moving fast. Now imagine something that is moving anywhere from six to more than 25 times faster than that airplane (5000 to 25,000 km/h). That is the speed range for a new generation of weapons being developed by the United States, Russia, and China. They are known as hypersonic missiles and the development of these new weapons raises questions as to how effective traditional notions of deterrence will be in a world when missiles can easily defeat anti-ballistic missile defence systems. Just what are hypersonic missiles? There are two types, hypersonic cruise missiles (HCM) and hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV). A report released this year by the RAND Corporation details what exactly these two variants are. HCMs are faster versions of existing cruise missiles that are powered all the way to their target by rockets or advanced jet engines. HGVs are launched by rockets and are released into the upper atmosphere where they glide toward their targets at the upper levels of hypersonic speeds. These weapons are extremely manoeuvrable, fast, and fly at unusual altitudes (between a few tens of km and 100 km).  Both types of hypersonic weapons are expected to be ready for military use in the next decade.

Image Courtesy of US Air Force via US Air Force © 2011, some rights reserved

U.S. Air Force X-51A Waverider hypersonic test vehicle


So, these missiles fly really fast, why all of the alarm? Well, hypersonic weapons completely change the playing field for future conflicts. According to Bruce Blair, a nuclear security expert at Princeton University, being able to launch a missile that is easily able to circumvent air defences and deliver an accurate conventional weapon to anywhere on the planet within an hour fills a gap in current military capabilities. Hypersonic missiles, because of their speed and manoeuvrability, can defeat current anti-ballistic missile systems because they are highly unpredictable, it’s difficult to know their intended target until minutes before impact. This is especially true with HGVs. Their targets are not known until they enter their terminal phase, when they finally descend from their hypersonic gliding phase. These weapons can also carry nuclear warheads, further exacerbating concerns. Nuclear deterrence rests on the idea that neither side will use nuclear weapons for the fear of mutually assured destruction (MAD). One of the reasons that the United States and the Soviet Union decided to agree to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), that would ban the development of anti-ballistic missiles systems, was because of the fear that such systems would destroy deterrence. If one side in a nuclear deadlock can completely destroy the other’s nuclear arsenal in a first strike or destroy enough that the resulting second strike would be minimal, deterrence is destroyed. However, hypersonic missiles create the possibility that countries might become trigger-happy. The speed of such weapons forces quick counter-decisions. Crunched for time, countries might simply opt to strike first.

Defense One notes that it would be impossible for countries to know whether an incoming HCM or HGV is carrying a nuclear warhead or not. Mark Gubrud, a physicist at the University of North Carolina, told Defense One that the only realistic use he saw for these weapons would be in a strategic first strike by the United States against either Russia or China. Tong Zhao, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Nuclear Policy Program, raises the point that some analysts in Beijing suspect the United States is seeking full first strike capability to destroy China’s nuclear deterrent. Hypersonic missiles, he argues, would degrade Beijing’s confidence in nuclear deterrence. Nations might adopt a launch on warning doctrine, which is when a retaliatory attack is launched before the incoming missiles have reached their targets and with no way of knowing whether the incoming missiles are carrying nuclear warheads. In this situation, the chances for a strategic war are raised.

As mentioned previously, the United States, Russia, and China are the only three nations that are actively investing in this technology. The United States tested a new hypersonic missile this month that is capable of being launched from an underwater submarine. Defence contractors in the United States, such as Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, are pouring millions of dollars into hypersonic research. The United Kingdom has already expressed concerns about Russian hypersonic missiles. A senior source within the Royal Navy has stated that Russia’s 3M22 Zircon HCM would negate the new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers because their Sea Ceptor defensive missiles are unable to intercept targets moving as fast as the Zircon (around 7402 km/h). The Russian Navy is already planning to replace the P700 Granit cruise missiles on its Kirov-class battlecruisers with Zircons. The Russians also have three types of HGVs in development that are designed to be carried by their new generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles and can be fitted with nuclear warheads. China has also invested considerable resources in the development of hypersonic missiles, such as the HGV DF-ZF (designated Wu-14 by U.S. defence officials). The development and testing of these weapons have been kept under extreme secrecy by the Chinese. Currently the American X-51A, the Russian Yu-71, and the Chinese DF-ZF represent the prototypes of the HGVs and all three nations seem intent on further improving this technology.      

In addition to the potential harms, hypersonic missiles carry great proliferation risks. The RAND Corporation noted in their recent report on hypersonic missiles that hypersonic technology has a dual-use character. This means that it can be used for non-military purposes such as space launch, spacecraft retrieval, and civilian transport. Once a nation acquires this technology, it can choose to use it for military purposes as well. Hypersonic research is currently openly disseminated and readily available, posing potential challenges to non-proliferation. However, there are formidable technical barriers to mastering hypersonic technology, raising the possibility that proliferation could be limited. Other commentators have noted that not enough is known about these weapons to be making sweeping claims about how they present an ‘uncounterable’ threat. However, there is a serious concern that this technology could be exported to actors who may not have benign intentions. The ballistic missile programs of Iran and North Korea are constant topics in the news. Should either of these states receive hypersonic missiles, that would drastically compound the threat they pose to their neighbouring states.

To address the potential threats that hypersonic technology poses, the United States, Russia, and China should agree to a common non-proliferation policy. The RAND Corporation suggests exploiting the inherent technical barriers present with this technology to improve the effect of such a policy. By implementing a policy of export denial for complete hypersonic systems and major subsystems, the spread of such weapons would be limited. Case-by-case export reviews should also be implemented for civilian hypersonic systems given dual use concerns. There is less than a decade to substantially hinder the spread of hypersonic technology that has military applications. The United States, Russia, and China should take the lead and agree not to export complete hypersonic missiles and they should encourage the international community to establish controls on hypersonic missile hardware and technology. Hypersonic missiles pose the serious risk of exacerbating conflicts and threatening unintentional nuclear exchanges and this threat needs to be taken seriously by the three great powers developing them.

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