The Rise of Hypersonic Weapons

Photo: AP

A hypersonic missile launched from mainland China could strike a U.S. carrier group located anywhere in the South China Sea in under 20 minutes. That’s a hypothetical right now, but hypersonics are poised to be the next big thing in defense technology. A hypersonic weapon is any projectile that is able to achieve and sustain speeds at or above Mach 5, which is to say, five times the speed of sound. Some weapons, like electromagnetic railguns, can fire munitions at these speeds – but the primary focus of current research efforts is the creation of hypersonic missiles.

Cruise missile type hypersonic weapons could be fired from planes or ships and would be relatively cheap, whereas hypersonic glide vehicles are the final stage of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), which makes it both effective and accurate at very long ranges. Both types would be extremely fast and maneuverable, which makes them very difficult to intercept.

Hypersonic weapons are currently under development by the United States, Russia, China, and India, though each country intends to deploy them differently. The U.S. envisions that hypersonic weapons will be an integral piece of the prompt global strike regime; a concept that seeks to deliver a precision guided conventional strike anywhere in the world in as little as an hour. While a couple of U.S. projects have had measured success, the current focus is on the Tactical Boost Glide program recently awarded to Lockheed Martin. This joint effort, in conjunction with the Air Force and DARPA, seeks to not only develop boost glide vehicles capable of delivering warheads, but also a manned hypersonic vehicle seen as a successor to the SR-71 Blackbird, which would be capable of speeds as high as Mach 6.

Russia sees nuclear armed hypersonic weapons as a way to stay ahead of U.S. missile defense systems. However, Russia is likely to first deploy conventional cruise missile type hypersonic weapons on Russian naval vessels as a way to strike other ships or land targets. The missile the Russians envision being used in that capacity, known as the Brahmos-II, is currently in joint development with India.

China is currently only developing a hypersonic glide vehicle, of which it has conducted seven tests in the last two years. Such a weapon will be instrumental to its defensive anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy for the South China Sea

While hypersonic weapons allow for a considerable enhancement of a nation’s force projection capabilities, they are also extremely destabilizing. Hypersonic weapons are problematic for precisely the same reasons they are valued: they are fast and agile, which makes intercepting them considerably harder. Should key adversaries gain access to hypersonic weapons, then the missile defense systems that the United States and its allies use to protect themselves could be rendered obsolete. If this happens, it would have enormous ramifications for the ability of the U.S. to maintain security commitments abroad.

Moreover, the nuclear and conventional versions of these weapon systems are virtually indistinguishable, and the speed of these weapons decreases reaction time, compounding the risk of a nuclear confrontation.

However, hypersonic weapons do not need to be nuclear in order to be disruptive, as demonstrated by the United States’ focus on conventional hypersonic weapons. By some projections, conventional hypersonic weapons would be able to knock out a target’s nuclear capabilities fast enough and thoroughly enough to pre-empt any attempt at a retaliatory strike. As an added bonus, these weapons would be able to do so without causing any of the fallout – both nuclear and reputational—that helps to disincentivize the use of nuclear weapons. As a result, the deterrence-based assumptions that underlie many aspects of modern international relations would suddenly be in flux – thus adding more instability to an already destabilized system.

Arms control efforts geared towards hypersonic weapons represent one path towards avoiding this outcome. David Wright, a co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, believes it is important to pursue an arms control regime now before these weapons reach the deployment stage. A comprehensive test ban treaty, like the one in use for nuclear weapons, could be the basis of an international arms control regime for hypersonic weapons. However, no country is pursuing this, and it is unlikely to make any headway before the deployment of these systems.

In the meantime, the hypersonic arms race is in progress and is likely to accelerate. The U.S., China, Russia, and India have already spent significant resources on hypersonic weapons development and will be able to deploy them within the next five to ten years. A secondary race, one that will involve defensive systems capable of defeating hypersonic weapons, is also likely. The cost of falling behind is too great for any of these countries to ignore. Each sees real strategic value in the capability of these weapons and a means of fulfilling their own national goals.

Once hypersonic weapons are deployed, the global balance of power could change radically – depending on who gets there first – and the lag time before another power perfects its own system. Given Russian and Chinese interest in hypersonic weapons, it is clear that both countries view them as viable ways to counter American influence and challenge American hegemony.

The strategic realities that form the foundation of hypersonic weapons’ appeal also represent a significant hurdle to any attempts at arms control or limitation that might prevent them from being developed fully. Simply put, the advantages of having them are numerous, and the risks of missing out are large. 

Will Edwards is an international producer at The Cipher Brief.