How did we get into today’s supply chain chaos?
Should you be worried? Yes, but probably not for the reasons you might think.
First, what are hypersonic weapons? When people talk about hypersonic weapons today, they are generally referring to two things:
Jet-powered missiles fly at top speeds. These missiles travel close to the surface of the Earth. Most cruise missiles today do this as well, but they do not travel faster than sound. By contrast, hypersonics travel at a speed of at least five times the speed of sound.
Hypersonic gliding vehicles do not have their own engines. They are carried high in the atmosphere by another missile and then launched to glide, like hypersonic kites, until they hit their targets.
These weapons can be armed with nuclear warheads, and their main terrifying new feature – besides their speed – is their maneuverability.
Unlike most missiles today, which travel along a predictable trajectory after launch, ultrasonic missiles can zigzag and zigzag. From a baseball perspective, it’s the difference between a long throw from an outside player, which you can line up and catch, and a knuckle ball that dances through the air 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 may have deployed, hypersonic devices, some of which have nuclear capability. 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 that should actually be more accurate. So far the United States has not published anything. India, France, Australia, Germany and Japan all have hypersonic programs in the early stages, too.
Why are people worried about these weapons? Some have suggested that hypersonic weapons can easily evade missile defense systems. That’s because their flight patterns are unpredictable, and because their lower altitudes make detection more difficult than ICBMs, which track large ballistic arcs visible from thousands of miles away.
But the fact is that a missile defense system like that of the United States has already failed 6 times out of 10 even in highly controlled tests with ICBMs. In other words, the Existing The Russian and Chinese arsenals of ICBMs are more than enough to defeat any missile defenses. However, the insistence of the United States to continue to build missile defense capabilities is one reason Why are the Russians and Chinese so keen on developing elusive hypersonic weapons in the first place?
As a result, nuclear deterrence is still based 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.”
However, there are two major concerns about hypersonication.
They make catastrophic miscalculations more likely. Because they arrive much faster and more unpredictable than conventional ballistic or cruise missiles, they give officials and generals less time to assess the threat and decide on an appropriate response. Not only does that raise the stakes — and the stakes — in the heat of the moment, but it also makes wary nations more vulnerable to attack first so they aren’t surprised by a hypersonic attack, nuclear or not.
Also, there are no universal rules for hypersonic weapons. The current arms control treaties have nothing to say about them. Like other frontier military technologies—such as AI weapons or cyberattacks—there are no testing or deployment limits, no understandings about relative retaliation, and no mechanisms for exchanging information about who owns which weapons and where.
The New START Agreement Between Russia and the United States, for example, is the last important strategic arms control agreement in the world: it does not cover hypersonic cars. Even if it did, China would not sign it.
Looking back. The world lived through decades of fear and cover before exploring plausible deals to limit nuclear weapons, and even that could have been mistaken like the Cuban Missile Crisis.
I look ahead. We are still only in the early days of the era of hypersonic weapons. Will it take a new missile crisis to get world leaders to make rules for these things?