China has displayed its hypersonic weapon system to the world during the military parade held to commemorate the 70th anniversary of founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The display is meant to demonstrate China’s capability to compete with other great powers, Russia and the United States (US), in developing hypersonic weapons. India too had conducted a test of hypersonic technology demonstrator in June 2019. These developments mark the beginning of a contest by great powers to field next generation weapons that can maneuver at high speeds, rendering current missile defence systems obsolete. Such systems pose wider global security implications, particularly for strategic stability. The constant flux in the international system, unraveling the peace dividend of the Cold War, is abetting an underlying arms race.


Maneuverable Hypersonic Platforms


Speed is a fundamental differentiator in a war; and therefore military powers emphasize research and development onfaster fighter jets and missiles. The American test pilot Chuck Yeager proved for the first time that sound barrier can be broken (flying faster than the speed of sound). This feat is performed using a military plane B-29.Subsequently,multiple supersonic fighter jets came into existence during the Cold War such as the MiG-21. The speed of sound is denoted as Mach 1 and the speeds between Mach 1 and Mach 5 as supersonic. India’s supersonic cruise missile can travel at a maximum speed of Mach 2.8. The speeds between Mach 5 and Mach 10 are categorized as hypersonic and speeds higher than Mach 10 as high-hypersonic. Achieving a hypersonic speed is not new. Re-entry vehicles can achieve that speed with the American space shuttle re-entering Earth’s atmosphere at Mach 25.


Another key quality that turns a war is maneuver. It is the ability to maneuver a hypersonic object that makes weaponizing this technology a top priority today. The Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV) and Scramjet powered cruise missiles are the two types of hypersonic weapons being developed and possibly deployed in near future. The HGV uses a missile booster to achieve hypersonic speed and skids along the atmospheric layers to maneuver to its target.The HGV can evade missile defences by traveling along unpredictable pathways unlike a ballistic missile that follows a predetermined ballistic arc to a target.The Scramjet powered cruise missile has an onboard engine that requires intake air to flow at supersonic speeds to achieve hypersonic speed. Therefore, these missiles require initial boost to first achieve supersonic speed. For example, the American X-43A test hypersonic platform used a modified Pegasus rocket booster to achieve supersonic speed that activated the onboard Scramjet to achieve hypersonic speed of Mach 9.6.


Strategic Rationale for Weaponization


The American ‘Prompt Global Strike’ initiative provided impetus for weaponizing the hypersonic technology. This concept uses hypersonic platforms to deliver conventional weapons on targets anywhere on the globe in less than an hour. Such high-speed strikes are necessary to disable and destroy enemy’s high value targets that can be fleeting during a conflict. This strategy was necessitated to counter threats by the Axil of Evil (Iran, Iraq and North Korea) as determined by the George W. Bush administration. Moreover, the Bush administration unilaterally abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treatyciting nuclear weapon related developments by the Axis of Evil. The ABM treaty was formulated to limit the number of ballistic missile interceptors and deployment sites of the US and Russia. This assured the credibility of American and Russian nuclear weapons and therefore, discouraged advancing the arsenals.


The newdevelopments meant that the US now has the capability to destroy an adversary’s nuclear arsenalusing hypersonic weapons and escape retaliation by erecting limitless missile interceptors. The adversaries could also construe hypersonic strikes as the leading edge for eventual nuclear strikes by the US. This prompted Russia to design new weapon delivery systems that can successfully evade American missile defences, thus reassuring the credibility of its nuclear arsenal.As a result, Russia unveiled Avangard HGV, 3M22 Zircon hypersonic anti-ship cruise missile and KH-47M2Kinzhal air launched ballistic missile. The Avangardis expected to be nuclear armed, conforming to Russia’s strategy.


China too reached similar conclusions about the US Prompt Global Strike and the introduction of hypersonic platforms.Russian advances in hypersonic weapon technology also affected its decision-making. China has been testing DF-ZF HGV since 2014 and displayed DF-17 missiles topped with HGVs during the parade. This confirms that China has acquired basic know-how of designing HGVs. It has started to build DF-17 squadrons that can launch salvo attacks. The possibility of mating DF-21 and DF-26 ballistic missiles with HGVs suggest China is sharpening its anti-access/area-denial strategy using hypersonic weapon technology. Consequently, these missiles may not be nuclear armed. On the other hand, China’s intercontinental ballistic missile DF-41 designed for attacking the US mainland could be mated with a nuclear-armed HGV to rebalance nuclear deterrence.


In the Indo-Pacific region, India also is working on hypersonic technology and weapon system. India is collaborating with Russia on designing BrahMos-II, a hypersonic version of BrahMos in service, which will use a Scramjet. Parallelly, the Indian Space Research Organisation(ISRO) is also working on Scramjet technology to power reusable launch vehicles allowing low cost, frequent access to space.


In turn, the US administration has made introducing hypersonic weapons an immediate priority. Secretary of Defence Mark Esper claimed that the USwouldpossess hypersonic weapons within a few years as the administration appointed Michael Griffin to lead these efforts at the Pentagon. Griffin was part of the Cold War era Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), also known as Star Wars, that sought to place laser weapons and missile interceptors in space. These ideas are set to become real as technology matures and great power competition renews, as Griffin puts it.


Reemerging Strategic Instability


The range, speed and maneuverability of hypersonic weapons, particularly the HGV, makes hypersonic platforms the possible choice of weapon in future great power conflicts to blunt enemy’s advances. However, these very characteristics are prompting concerns about maintaining strategic stability.The existing sensor networks are incapable of detecting and tracking highly maneuvering hypersonic weapons, thus raising the possibility of sneak attacks. Even if an attack is detected in time, hypersonic weapon maneuvering around complex geographies such as North-East Asia and Eastern Europe complicate calculation of the intended target. This increases chances of miscalculation and unintended reactions. Moreover, states will be forced to put their command and control on hair-trigger alert. Concerns over sneak attacks and hair-trigger alerts used to be Cold War concerns but they are reemerging as a result of hypersonic weapons.


At least the US is working to resolve these dilemmas by using a constellation of small satellites to detect and track incoming hypersonic missiles and cue the interceptors. The small satellite constellation is a low cost, low risk approach and the distributed architecture allows greater coverage and redundancy over specifically designed satellites.This allows the US to attribute an attack precisely and respond appropriately. Such an approach also informs the design of hypersonic defence systems, which is a priority alongside offensive platforms. No such measures are announced by Russia and China yet, keeping international security at risk.


Possibility of Confidence Building Measures?


Apart from the consequences of the US withdrawing from the ABM, the international system is now facing the dangers arising from the US and Russia withdrawing from the Intermediate range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. The INF treaty removed Europe from the nuclear cross-hairs by eliminating missiles with ranges between 500-5,500 kilometers. The US and Russia withdrew from this treaty citing Chinese missile system advances in these ranges unencumbered by the INF treaty. China is opposed to joining a new multilateral INF Treaty, prompting the UStoprobe deployment zones for its INF missiles in the Western Pacific. The USArmy believesthat these missiles must have hypersonic weapon capability.


On the other hand, the extension of New START (Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms) from 2021 to 2026 appears impossible. This treaty limited the American and Russian nuclear arsenals, the largestarsenals in the world. However, both countries accuse each other of undermining a strategic dialogue to resolve differences arising from new weapon systems such as hypersonic HGVs. However, Chinese advances remain the primary concern for both parties. As Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov commented, arms control and reduction measures can no longer be confined to US-Russia bilateral dynamic but requires a multilateral process.


However, the current trends in the international system, prompting the emergence of a multi-polar world order,give a contrary signal. The unravelling of Cold War era arms control treaties, political unwillingness to forge new treaties and incapacity of arms control institutions such as the Conference on Disarmament – all abeta hypersonic arms race in the near future.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.