Hypersonic Missiles : The Global Arms-Race of the Future?
This year, the Trump administration allocated $2.6 billion for hypersonic weapons research in the proposed defense budget. National security industry experts predict that the annual budget will rise to $5 billion in just a few years to keep pace with Russia, China, and other countries developing the same technology.
Why are military superpowers turning their attention to this new type of weapon? Hypersonic missiles are capable of traveling faster than 15 times the speed of sound, allowing them to materialize in any corner of the world in a matter of minutes with little warning. In a blinding flash, these missiles can smash through their target unleashing energy equivalent to three to four tons of TNT. A former Obama administration White House official called them “instant leader-killers” due to their ability to strike a military or political target with terrifying precision and speed.
Modern defenses are currently powerless to stop this new weapon since they fly at an unusual trajectories and can maneuver unpredictably. Flying at approximately 12 to 50 miles above the earth’s surface, hypersonic missiles can slip under ballistic missile interceptors such as the American Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), a ground-based system, and the Aegis ship-based system, while staying above the effective range of air defense missiles like the Patriot system. Although infrared-sensing satellites could potentially detect a missile’s launch within a few minutes, the missiles are much harder to detect once they near their target because they can strike any location in a potential landing zone as large as Rhode Island.
THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system
Illustration of Hypersonic Missile in flight.
In 2016, a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report said that, in the hands of enemies, hypersonics could “challenge this nation’s tenets of global vigilance, reach and power.” American lawmakers have since expanded federal spending for this destabilizing technology to match similar programs in China and Russia. In 2018, The Pentagon awarded over $1.4 billion to Lockheed Martin to develop missile prototypes for use by Air Force fighter jets and B-52 bombers. The United States is also currently developing a hypersonic prototype that will travel at speeds between Mach 15 and Mach 20, or over 11,400 miles per hour.
A U.S. Air Force B-52 prepares to carry the X-51 Hypersonic Vehicle out to the range for a launch test.
President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, has claimed that Russia will soon possess a missile called the “Dagger” that will fly at Mach 10, while another will fly at Mach 20 called the “Avangard”. This would allow Russia to strike the Pentagon from Bermuda in five minutes. China, likewise, is developing its own missile which could launch from the Chinese coastline and reach Guam within minutes.
In his State of the Nation speech in 2018, Putin demonstrated new strategic weapons under development in Russia, including the “Dagger” and the “Avangard” missiles. He stated that the development of these weapons was a direct response to the US’ withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. "No one has listened to us," said Putin. "Listen to us now.”
JP Morgan expects US Hypersonic Missile sales to top $5 Billion in the next decade.
While enthusiasm for the technology has spread to military officials and lawmakers around the world, the rush to develop hypersonics may outpace the creation of international agreements and relevant regulations. In fact, there are currently no international standards for the use of hypersonics.
This is a scary prospect since hypersonic missiles could allow a nation to strike first without fear of consequences, a capability long imagined since the Cold War. The missiles could target a nation’s key targets, disabling chain of communication and removing the threat of retaliation, all within the span of a few minutes. Perhaps more dangerous for global relations, these missiles do not have radioactive fallout and do not yet carry special condemnation in the eyes of the world. Their speed and precision will also force military officials and political leaders to compress their time frame for decision-making and and pressure them to quickly strike first in a crisis. As a result, hypersonic missiles could threaten the grim doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction that has been widely accepted in the modern Atomic Era.
Illustration of the Hypersonic Missile being deployed, it should take 3-4 minutes for a global strike.
Nevertheless, military superpowers around the world are looking to hypersonic weapons as a potentially game-changing technology that could disrupt the modern military landscape. While history has shown that it is almost impossible to stop an arms race once it has begun, the world still has time to set regulations on an international level for these new weapons. Regardless, there will soon be a new menace on the horizon, one that can hit shore in a matter of seconds with a blinding flash and a sonic boom.
Written by Alex Sheen, Edited by Will Turchetta & Alexander Fleiss
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Osborn, Kris. "Hypersonic Weapons: Everything You Need to Know About the Ultimate Weapon." The National Interest. July 22, 2017. Accessed July 31, 2019. https://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/hypersonic-weapons-everything-you-need-know-about-the-21637.
Smith, R. Jeffrey. "Hypersonic Missiles Are Unstoppable. And They're Starting a New Global Arms Race." The New York Times. June 19, 2019. Accessed July 31, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/19/magazine/hypersonic-missiles.html.