Are hypersonic missiles really revolutionary or are they the clickbait of the defense world?
In some ways, whether they live up to the hype or not, their impact has already been felt as American government spending on hypersonic weapons increases, and countries like China and Russia eagerly announce their latest successes.
Since there is good science saying that hypersonic missiles are not really that different from ballistic missiles, it’s possible that all this focus on hypersonic weapons will amount to nothing more than a lot of international chest pounding.
On the other hand, tensions between the U.S., Russia, and China are much higher than they were a decade ago. It’s possible that added tensions from the hypersonic arms race could escalate problems even more. New technologies, after all, must be tempting to try out.
The Impact of Hypersonic Weapons on Modern Warfare
In future, it’s likely that once enough countries have obtained hypersonic missiles, they will simply be added to the mix of available weapons.
If a conflict were to break out and an aggressor were to use a hypersonic weapon against the U.S., scientists say current defense systems could spot it. They also say ballistic missiles essentially have the same capabilities as hypersonic weapons.
This is due to a few technical challenges with hypersonic weapons. First, since they mostly stay in the earth’s atmosphere, the faster they go, the more drag they experience, ultimately slowing them down. They also get incredibly hot for long periods of time. This means they require highly specialized materials.
Costs to develop hypersonic weapons are also high due to the need for unique materials, special test facilities, and the best minds in the business. As a result, countries may not be able to add many to their arsenals. Some estimates price a single hypersonic missile at $15 million.
It's telling that when Russia recently included hypersonic missiles in a barrage on the Ukraine, only six out of the estimated total of 81 were hypersonic. No one knows why Russian command made this choice. It’s possible that hypersonic missiles are only saved for special occasions due to their expense, but there could be other unknown issues with them.
Yet, with Russia and China already adding hypersonic missiles to their arsenals, they are likely going to be a permanent fixture of modern weaponry. And they will only get better as time goes on.
The Impact of Hypersonic Weapons on Global Security
Hypersonic weapons are already having an impact on global security. An arms race primarily between Russia, China, and the U.S. has started. Other countries like Australia, the United Kingdom, North Korea, South Korea, and India are also working on this technology.
There can be little doubt that since Russia invaded the Ukraine, tensions between the U.S. and Russia are at their highest levels since the cold war. The relationship between the U.S. and China is also becoming increasingly strained. While much bigger issues are contributing to these damaged relationships, competition and fear over hypersonic missiles likely isn’t helping.
It is believed that arms races can contribute to the likelihood of war, though this is a matter of debate.
It’s possible the current fervor over hypersonic weapons will dissolve once more countries have crossed the finish line and stocked their arsenals with them.
It’s also a very real possibility that hypersonic weapons will be used against the U.S. in the future if current global tensions escalate into war.
While there are international agreements regarding nuclear weapons, the U.S. doesn’t have active agreements regarding hypersonic weapons or ballistic missiles in place. The U.S. left the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia, which put restrictions on ballistic missiles, in 2019.
The United Nations published a study on hypersonic weapons in 2019, but no international agreements appear to be forthcoming. With momentum building on hypersonic weapons, this might be an ideal time to draft an agreement to ensure their safe and responsible development and deployment.
The best-case scenario is for hypersonic missiles to become part of a rarely-used stock of weapons that countries keep on hand in case of conflict.
If the worst-case scenario happens and war breaks out among countries with hypersonic missiles, it’s likely they will be part of the conflict, but won’t significantly tip the balance in any direction.
For more information on the ups and downs of hypersonic technology, and its potential for civilian uses, listen to RSnake’s conversation with an actual rocket scientist, Dr. Leon Vanstone today!