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Should we be worried? Yes, but maybe not for the reasons you might think.
First, what are hypersonic weapons? When people talk about hypersonic weapons today, they’re usually referring to two things:
Jet missiles that fly at extreme speeds. These missiles travel very close to the earth’s surface. Most cruise missiles today do too, but they don’t travel faster than sound. Hypersonics, on the other hand, travel at least five times the speed of sound.
Hypersonic sliding vehicles, which do not have their own engines. They are carried high into the atmosphere by another rocket, then released to hover, like hypersonic paper planes, until they hit their targets.
These weapons can be equipped with nuclear warheads, and their main and terrifying novelty – besides their speed – is their maneuverability.
Unlike most missiles today, which follow a predictable path after launch, hypersonics can zigzag. In baseball terms, it’s the difference between a long throw from an outfielder, which you can line up and catch, and a knuckleball that dances through the atmosphere like a butterfly before destroying your aircraft carrier.
So far, only three countries have advanced hypersonic weapons programs. China and Russia have successfully tested, and probably deployed, hypersonics, some of which are nuclear capable. They say these programs are a direct response to US missile defense systems, which Washington has been building for more than twenty years. The United States itself is also developing hypersonic missiles, with an emphasis on non-nuclear missiles which actually need to be more precise. So far, the United States has not deployed anything. India, France, Australia, Germany, and Japan all have earlier stage hypersonic programs as well.
Why are people worried about these weapons? Some have pointed out that hypersonic weapons can easily evade missile defense systems. This is because their flight patterns are more unpredictable and because their low altitudes make them more difficult to detect than ICBMs, which trace large, high ballistic arcs that can be seen thousands of miles away.
But the truth is that a missile defense system like the one in the United States already fails 6 out of 10 times, even in highly controlled tests with ICBMs. In other words, the existing Russian and Chinese ICBM arsenals are more than sufficient to overwhelm any missile defense. Yet the insistence of the United States on continuing to develop missile defense capabilities is one of the reasons the Russians and Chinese are so eager to develop new evasive hypersonic weapons in the first place.
As a result, nuclear deterrence still hinges on the idea of mutually assured destruction. “We can’t stop you from hitting us. But we can hit you back and destroy you, so don’t.”
There are, however, two big concerns with hypersonics.
They make catastrophic miscalculations much more likely. Because they arrive so much faster and more unpredictable than conventional ballistic or cruise missiles, they leave officials and generals less time to assess a threat and decide on an appropriate response. This not only raises the stakes – and the risks – in the heat of the moment, but also makes wary countries more likely to strike first so as not to be caught off guard by a hypersonic attack, nuclear or otherwise.
Additionally, there are no global rules for hypersonic weapons. The current arms control treaties have nothing to say about it. Like other advanced military technologies – such as artificial intelligence weapons or cyber attacks – there are no limits to testing or deployment, no understanding of proportional retaliation, and no mechanism in place to exchange information about who own which weapons and where.
The new START pact between Russia and the United States, for example, is the last major strategic arms control agreement in the world: it does not cover hypersonics. Even if it did, China did not sign it.
Looking back. The world has gone through decades of duck fear and cover-up before exploring reasonable nuclear weapons control deals, and even it has been a near miss like the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Look forward. We are still only in the early days of the era of hypersonic weapons. Will it take another missile crisis to get world leaders to make rules for these things?