Hypersonic missiles are coming, upending arms control

Hypersonic missiles are coming, upending arms control

Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.” This motivation kept the US-Russia rivalry neck-to-neck during the Cold War, drives China’s emerging motivations to be a world leader in current times and continues to fuel the US defence industry, which continues to remain technologically ahead of most other counties. And fulfilling Sun Tzu’s criteria is one of the emerging technologies of war – hypersonic missiles. Only a few countries are working on hypersonic missiles, and mastering them remains a challenging job even for them.

On December 27, Russia’s first missile regiment armed with the Avangard Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV), with a top speed of 27 Mach, officially entered combat duty. Russia’s deployment of Avangard follows 30 years of research into hypersonic vehicles that started during the mid-1980s Soviet era. In December 2018, the Avangard was launched from the Dombarovsky air base in the southern Urals and successfully hit a practice target on the Kura shooting range on Kamchatka, 6,000 km away.

Broadly, missiles travelling at more than five times the speed of sound (Mach 5) are categorized as hypersonic missiles. Two areas in which hypersonic missiles are set to change the face of future wars are speed and maneuverability. Imagine a hypersonic missile launched from Moscow to hit New York on the US East Coast. Without interception, it would leave the US under 30 minutes to prepare for an incoming strike. This is more important from the point of view of contrasting how a hypersonic missile flies to how a ballistic missile does. Traditional intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) boost their nuclear warheads as high as into low-earth orbit and then send them shooting down toward their targets, forming an arch. On the other hand, the Avangard uses the ICBM booster to rise to a height of just 100 km, or one-third the distance to low-earth orbit and then zooms down toward its target at Mach 20-27.

America’s ballistic missile defences are designed to shoot down incoming nuclear warheads in space. Avangard simply doesn’t go into space and flies below engagement range of the US ballistic missile shield. A hypersonic missile uses an initial booster (often a rocket motor) to initiate a fast start before the glide vehicle, which has air-breathing technology, takes over. The air-breathing technology leaves a different signature than a rocket motor thereby reducing its detectability by space-based surveillance assets. The ability of these vehicles to change course both horizontally and vertically makes it further difficult to detect and intercept them.

Avangard is designed to carry multiple warheads. It can carry both conventional and nuclear payloads of more than two megatons. It has the ability to make sharp manoeuvres on its way to a target, making its trajectory unpredictable and difficult to intercept. The use of various types of manoeuvres by Avangard leaves the best of missile defence systems in the world ineffective, including that of the US. Critics have, however, doubted Russian claims of Avangard’s effectiveness.

The existing missile defences against conventional and nuclear ballistic and cruise missiles comprise effective surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles for interception and powerful radars for early detection. Hypersonic missiles could penetrate through all these defences. More importantly, hypersonic missiles can also penetrate integrated defence systems like the Russian S-400. The emerging ineffectiveness of existing missile defense systems in the world to tackle hypersonic missiles, along with the latter’s ability to carry nuclear payloads, has not only underscored the need to obtain credible deterrence but has aggravated the race for hypersonic technologies. Putin has linked the development of Russia’s strategic weapons, including hypersonic missiles, to the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) in 2002.

In the US, Lockheed Martin has led from the front in the R&D of hypersonic technologies. In 2014, NASA awarded $892,292 to the defence giant to study the development of a hypersonic spy plane. In April 2019, the company secured a $928 million contract to build an unstated number of hypersonic conventional strike weapons. Further, in August 2019, Lockheed again won a $480 million contract to design a hypersonic weapon prototype. The US has successfully flight-tested a hypersonic weapon from a B-52 Stratofortress bomber and is in the process of developing the SR-72, a hypersonic unmanned plane dubbed the “son of Blackbird.”

China first claimed a hypersonic flight test in 2014 and had conducted six successful hypersonic tests by 2016. In September 2018, China created a record by testing three types of hypersonic vehicles at one go. In 2019, China became the first country in the world to announce the deployment of hypersonic weapons in the form of its DF-17 missile.

India has to catch up with most countries in hypersonic technology. In June 2019, the DRDO launched a Hypersonic Technology Development Vehicle (HSTDV). Although there is no official information available about exactly what the test achieved, there is broad expectation that the test was successful in propelling the next steps. The Brahmos II, which is in the pipeline, is also slated to be a hypersonic missile.

As countries compete in hypersonic technologies, it threatens to upend future regional balances. With hypersonics, distance will cease to be a factor and retaliatory time will diminish significantly, raising the stakes for escalation like never before. On the contrary, if countries focus on the peaceful and civilian uses of hypersonic technology in areas like commercial flights and satellite launches, the world could take a transformational leap.

(Surbhi is Doctoral Research Scholar, Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, JNU; Mishra is Deputy Director, Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies, New Delhi)

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