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The Strategic Implications of Hypersonic Weapons

9 February 2021

Emerging military technologies such as hypersonic weapons challenge the established dynamics of nuclear deterrence and strategic stability (Reny, 2020). Being able to fly faster than Mach 5, which is at least five times faster than the speed of sound, these next generation technologies carrying nuclear or conventional warheads do not only cover an extensive distance in minutes but are also highly manoeuvrable in flight, thus more survivable, and are more precise in targeting (Sayler, 2020; Davis, 2020).

Hypersonic flight is not new, it has been in development since the Cold War (Klare, 2019). However, the rapid technological advances in hypersonic technologies and shifting geopolitical dynamics have triggered a renewed interest in the R&D of hypersonic weapon systems (Rajagopalan, 2019). Hence, great powers – the United States, the Russian Federation, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – as well as middle powers such as India and Australia have been increasing funding for hypersonic programmes and are now racing to develop, test, and deploy hypersonic missiles (Bryen, 2021).

To date, the main focus is on the development of two main types of hypersonic weapons: hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) and hypersonic cruise missiles (HCMs). HGVs, such as the Russian Avangard and the Chinese DF-ZF, are typically launched by rocket boosters into the outer atmosphere and released at an altitude between 40 and 100 km, from where they glide through the atmosphere towards the target at hypersonic speed (Sayler, 2020; Davis, 2020). Yet, despite being “unpowered, the vehicle can manoeuvre in flight, using satellite guidance to strike with high precision” (Klare, 2019).

HCMs, by contrast, are air-, land- or sea launchable, fly within the atmosphere at altitudes between 20 and 30 km. They are fuelled by “high-speed, air-breathing engines, or “scramjets” – supersonic combustions ramjet” reaching hypersonic speeds. This, however, shortens its range (Sayler, 2020:2; Klare, 2019). Contrary to ballistic missiles, both HGVs and HCMs are able to manoeuvre, which makes their flight path unpredictable (Klare, 2019). Moreover, they are hard to detect and intercept as they fly at lower altitudes, hindering radars’ ability to spot the launch and provide an early warning (Fraser et al., 2020).

While the U.S. works on hypersonic R&D, the PRC and the Russian Federation have already developed both HGV and HCM technology. Consequently, the disruptive and offensive nature of hypersonic weapons raises concerns about their implications on strategic stability and arms control since no country has created a fully operational anti-hypersonic missile defence and detection system yet (Farley, 2021). Thus, hypersonic missiles’ speed and agility impose major time constraints on decision-makers by reducing available assessment and response time. Moreover, the manoeuvrability of hypersonic weapons, enables them to follow unpredictable trajectories, simultaneously increasing the risk of miscalculation and producing uncertainty about the potential target (ibid.).

Most notably, both conventional and nuclear-armed hypersonic weapons “blur the line between conventional and strategic weapons”, thus increasing the risk of nuclear escalation and pre-emptive wars (Simon, 2020). Yet, as hypersonic weapons have the potential to become “a weaponised moral hazard for states with a taste for intervention” (ibid.), states are heavily investing in defensive capabilities to deter potential enemies, ultimately generating the security dilemma, weakening strategic stability, and triggering a global arms race.

Undoubtedly, hypersonic weapon systems represent a challenge for global security. However, they also open an opportunity for arms control agreements. The U.S. President Joe Biden and the Russian President Vladimir Putin have recently extended the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty – New START – until 2026. This is currently the only arms control treaty limiting both parties nuclear arsenals. It reinforces compliance monitoring and maintains strategic stability between the U.S. and Russia (U.S. Department of State, 2021). However, the New START does not cover newer technologies, such as Tsirkon – a ship-launched HCM – and Poseidon – a nuclear-powered UUV, as these were announced by the Russian government after the treaty was signed.

As a temporary solution, states leading the R&D of hypersonic weapons could potentially take the initiative to re-design existing arms control agreements and treaties. Alternatively, the PRC, the U.S. and the Russian Federation could negotiate a new multilateral arms control agreement, which would impose constraints on hypersonic weapon testing or completely ban it (Sayler, 2020:19). Despite shared vulnerabilities, the mutual distrust and lack of transparency hinder any possibility of negotiating an agreement and provide a strong incentive to compete for hypersonic weapons. Therefore, it is of crucial importance to generate the political will to create confidence-building measures to neutralise the hypersonic threat and stop the militarisation of outer space (Klare, 2019).

Written by Cholpon ABDYRAEVA, Researcher at Finabel – European Army Interoperability Centre


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