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Beyond Mach 5: The new arms race

The race to warfare beyond Mach 5 has well and truly begun. The US has labelled hypersonic warfare a top defence priority and a recent Russian missile-test accident draw attention to novel weaponry. Other countries are following suit as well: France is the latest to announce a hypersonic programme alongside the US, China, India, Russia and Japan. The development of long-range hypersonic glide missile delivery vehicles (HGVs) is at a critical point. The arms control community must start pre-emptive consideration and paying close attention to HGV developments.  

A new arms race

HGVs are designed to travel over five times the speed of sound (Mach 5) and present radical new strategic challenges in speed and improved manoeuvrability compared to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Potential HGVs are not only more accurate, but their manoeuvrability presents difficulties in tracking and target ambiguity when compared to ICBMs as they operate in the upper atmosphere and are unconstrained by ballistic flight paths.They are stretching the limits of aerodynamics and warfare itself.  

Acquisition seems motivated by technological development as opposed to express military advantages. It is no coincidence that four of the P5 are in the midst of development programs, a clear arms race dynamic emerging amongst the major powers with rumours of Germany joining in. It appears the successful development of HGVs within the next five years is imminent: the US Army is on track for an experimental deployment by 2023 and France has promised a 2021 test flight.

So, what makes hypersonics noteworthy? Aside from the consequences of any new arms race, hypersonic weapons cannot be isolated from the wider strategic security environment. Crucially, HGVs can be armed with either a conventional or nuclear warhead. Indeed, only the US has stated it intends to use its systems for conventional purposes only, whilst others such as China and Russia have remained vague. This ambiguity in conjunction with the difficulty in determining the intended targets creates an environment with a greater chance of misunderstanding and misinterpretation of nuclear attack. With their immense speed, HGVs further squeeze the decision-making timeframe of attack situations.

HGV arsenals could have a highly destabilising effect on security and already fragile arms control architecture. Potential reactions to deployment could entail expanding the conditions for nuclear weapons use, placing weapons systems on higher alert levels and a dealing major blow to trust levels between states. This is particularly likely given the secrecy and lack of transparency surrounding military objectives in development programmes.

Additionally, the race for hypersonic warfare is not a race in isolation. As delivery vehicles, HGVs remain inextricably linked with missile defence systems, a parallel race occurring as hypersonic warfare is both a reaction to and driver for greater missile defence. Countering HGV technology is likely to rely on space-based interceptors stoking the fire for militarising the space domain.

With the collapse of the INF Treaty and as the New START appears in limbo, any change in long-range missile warfare toes a precarious balance. The spread of hypersonic weapons amongst both states in development stages and those without programs will not be without implications. Any worsening of the strategic environment – already unsettled – could unravel future arms control efforts and existing agreements central to stability.

The way forward

It is not all doom and gloom. The relatively early-stage of hypersonic development places these weapons in a unique position from the perspective of arms control. HGVs are both potential security game-changers and an opportunity for governance, but nations must act now. Pre-emptively addressing the emergence of hypersonic weapons will not only mitigate security risks but could be a progress point of convergence that unlocks the stalled crisis of strategic arms control.

Like all arms control efforts, the road ahead is not easy. It requires colossal levels of trust and political will. That said, there are stepping stones that can be achieved. Those in the midst of development programmes should start with greater transparency and dialogue on programs, testing and intentions. Reciprocal non-targeting and de-alerting alongside declaratory statements of solely conventional use could ease nuclear tensions as crucial trust-building measures. Multilateral efforts should look to begin with clarifying how existing ballistic missile agreements cover hypersonic weapons and preventing their possible future exportation to other countries. Most of all, progress necessitates greater anticipatory awareness and dialogue regarding hypersonic weapons amongst all actors. When it comes to hypersonic weapons, as the saying goes – prevention is the ultimate cure.   

Su-Yin Lew is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. 


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