A long, long time ago, before I became a professor and even before I went to graduate school for my doctorate, I worked for a few years in the defense community. I was a Defense Analyst for the Strategic Assessment Center of Science Applications International Corporation (unfortunately, the SAC no longer exists), which was a small organization that dealt with issues of future war. We did much of our work for the Office of Net Assessment of the Defense Department under recently-retired Andrew Marshall. Our job, simply said, was to help DoD think about what war would look like 25 years or so down the line: What technologies might be around? How might those technologies change the way the US fights? How might potential adversaries respond? One of the weapon systems with which the office was particularly interested in was hypersonic projectiles. But, as this was in the mid- to late-1990s, most of what we were doing was mere speculation.
The future has arrived. Or is at least getting closer.
Hypersonic weapons are currently an area of fierce competition between the US, Russia, and China. The US and China have both tested prototypes and, while the US is currently not contemplating nuclear hypersonic weapons, both Russia and China are believed to be planning nuclear-capable options. A hypersonic weapon is, in essence, a projectile that travels at speeds several times the speed of sound, generally between Mach 5 and Mach 25 (most hypersonic weapon designs are in the Mach 5-10 range). This video shows a 2013 test of the X-51 hypersonic vehicle traveling at Mach 5.1, covering 230 nautical miles in 6 minutes. As the Politico article cited above states, both the Pentagon and Congress are pushing hard to develop these weapons:
As one senior Pentagon weapons scientist recently assured Congress, hypersonic weapons “will provide us an advantage in a contested environment in the future.” A top missile-builder, Raytheon, calls hypersonic weapons “the new frontier of the missile business.” And new legislation working its way through Congress, which seems firmly on board, urges the Pentagon to step up development, including seeking new ways to defend against hypersonic missiles.
These weapons have the potential to substantially alter the way we think about strategic deterrence and stability. On the plus side (that is, enhancing deterrence) is that hypersonic weapons will be even harder to intercept, particularly for the missile defense systems currently in development. Also, their extreme speeds make it possible to strike targets of opportunity that might have been too fleeting in their absence, such as a mobile nuclear weapon or Osama bin Laden (in 1998, the US missed by two hours taking him out with cruise missiles), which could help reduce invulnerabilities and increase deterrence.
In the minus column is the fact that these weapons will even further compress the OODA loop, shrinking the time that decision makers will have to react to a suspected missile launch (especially if these weapons become nuclear-capable, as both China and Russia seem to be contemplating. Also, given that the US program is using repurposed ICBMs, it could be possible for an adversary to mistake a conventional hypersonic launch for a nuclear one. Finally, from an American perspectives, hypersonic weapons offer one of the only ways that potential enemies could take out a US carrier (what impact this has on deterrence depends on your assessment of the impact of US naval capabilities on strategic stability).
So, on balance, how will the emergence of hypersonic weapons affect the strategic environment? While I didn’t work directly on questions of hypersonic weapons and while much of the work was classified, the general consensus in the office (assuming I’m remembering correctly…this was 20 years ago!) was that, on balance, the weapons were worth developing. The strategic stability combined with the tactical flexibility that comes with an increased ability to hit fleeting targets outweighed the loss of decision making time in the event of a launch.
It’s possible that as these weapons get closer to being operational, all sides will come to see them as too destabilizing. But given the ways that Russia and China seem to be preparing to use these weapons to counter areas of clear US military advantage (i.e. carriers and missile defense), it might just be wishful thinking to hope that they’ll be willing to bargain them away. The best, and perhaps more realistic, option would be to negotiate an arms control agreement that prohibits the nuclearization of hypersonic weapons (although Russia’s disadvantage in missile defense systems would certainly come into play here).
However, Congress is currently far from thinking seriously about the impact of these weapons. Right now, in the testing phase, the weapons are cutting-edge and fantastic, and Congress is, unsurprisingly, concerned with keeping up with the Joneses. But of course that might change when these systems are actually in the hands of America’s adversaries.
A Google search of both the Web broadly and of several House and Senate committee websites revealed not a single congressional hearing concerned to the impact of hypersonic weapons (of course, if anyone is aware of one, please let me know!). Now is the time for both Congress and the Defense Department to move beyond their infatuation with these weapons. If the US believes that they will ultimately be destabilizing, then now is the time to begin negotiations on their limitation, before Russia and China spend more money on their projects and get closer to deployment.