The Modern Global Arms Race
In March of 2018, Micheal D. Griffin, the Pentagon’s under secretary for research and engineering, announced a novel shift in defense research and spending. At the McAleese/Credit Suisse Defense Programs Conference in Washington, Griffin established hypersonics as the new focus of military defense research and development.
As an object travels through the air, it produces an audible sonic boom when it reaches a speed of 760 miles per hour. This speed is generally referred to as Mach 1, or the speed of sound. Any object that travels at a speed superior to Mach 1 travels faster than the speed of sound, which is called supersonic speed. An object traveling faster than Mach 5, at approximately five times the speed of sound, is said to be traveling at hypersonic speed.
Projectiles, specifically missiles that travel at this speed are what Griffin was referring to - a new “game-changing” technology that could change modern warfare.
Hypersonic weapons are maneuverable weapons that travel faster than Mach 5. While speed is a huge advantage for these weapons, their maneuvering capability is also significant. Modern missile defense systems rely on ballistic missiles’ predictable trajectories to effectively intercept incoming threats. A missile which can be maneuvered during the entirety of its flight therefore renders these systems obsolete due to its unpredictable path. Because hypersonic missiles travel at roughly one mile per second, they would be hugely advantageous to have, as well as dangerous to face. “We don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us,” said General John E. Hyten, commander of United States Strategic Command, to the Senate Armed Service Committee in March 2018.
The question therefore remains: do the rivals of the US possess hypersonic weapons, and will they in the near future? The answer is yes. In March 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the testing of the Kinzhal missile, a hypersonic missile capable of reaching Mach 10 speeds while carrying either conventional or nuclear warheads. China has also been heavily developing and testing their own hypersonics, like the DF-ZF, a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) that can reach speeds near Mach 10. The weapon can be configured to carry a conventional or nuclear warhead. The DF-ZF is scheduled to be operational by 2020 and presents yet another level of danger. Consider a nearly unstoppable, blindingly fast, and precise missile equipped with a nuclear warhead. The U.S. could be facing this devastating threat roughly within the next decade.
Hypersonic weapons can be launched either independently or by using other missiles. They can be fired from the final stages of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles or Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles, after which they glide at the top of the atmosphere using specialized jet engines to accelerate to hypersonic speeds. Alternatively, they can be launched independently or released from a bomber before accelerating to hypersonic speeds. Due to the high friction caused by their speed, hypersonic weapons require extremely resistant materials and design. The weapons must be able to withstand high temperatures for extended periods of time, and this has been the focus of a large part of hypersonic research and development.
Currently, the United States is trailing both China and Russia in the development of hypersonic weapons. However, Griffin’s new focus on hypersonics and the increased budget for hypersonics could improve the U.S.’s position in the global race to develop hypersonic weapons.
The modern arms race for hypersonic weapons is underway, with the winners gaining a large military advantage over every other nation. However, there are concerns about the increased risk of preemptive strikes against nations equipped with powerful hypersonic weapons. Nevertheless, hypersonic vehicles are an incredible technological development, and have the potential to revolutionize modern warfare.
Written by Paul Luu Van Lang, Edited by Lorenzo Lizzeri & Alexander Fleiss