President Vladimir Putin of Russia announced recently the deployment of the Avangard, among the first in a new class of missiles capable of reaching hypersonic velocity — something no missile can currently achieve, aside from an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) during re-entry.
Such weapons have long been an object of desire by Russian, Chinese and American military leaders, for obvious reasons: Launched from any of these countries, they could reach any other within minutes.
No existing defences — in the United States or elsewhere — can intercept a missile that can move so fast while manoeuvring unpredictably.
Whether or not the Avangard can do what Putin says, the United States is rushing to match it. We could soon find ourselves in a new arms race as deadly as the Cold War — and at a time when the world’s arms control efforts look like relics of an inscrutable past and the effort to renew the most important of them, a new START agreement, is foundering.
Hypersonics represent an apotheosis of sorts for many warfare theorists and practitioners, who have long contended that air power alone can have a decisive effect in a conflict.
They have always been wrong. The allies lost about 100,000 aircrew members in an attempt to destroy German industry and the popular will to fight during the Second World War, but the war in Europe was won with boots on the ground.
In Asia, the war was won at sea, though surrender was purchased with atomic weapons, delivered by long-range bombers. This seemed to vindicate the role of air power, at least until the superpowers concluded that such destructive weapons could not really be used to fight a war.
■ The have the speed of a ballistic missile with the manoeuvring capabilities of a cruise missile.
■ Their enhanced manoeuvrability and smooth flight path make them much harder to track than that of traditional missiles.
■ The phenomenal accuracy of hypersonic missiles minimises the risk of collateral damage, pose no risk to aircrews, and are unstoppable.
■ Each hypersonic missile can yield an impact equal to five to ten tonnes of high explosive without a warhead.
■ The missile is also capable of delivering a nuclear bomb, and can reach nearly every coordinate on the surface of the earth within 30 minutes.
Their primary strategic role devolved to deterring the other side from using its nuclear bombs in a vast, self-cancelling enterprise.
If strategic air forces did come into play, it would only be to ensure mutual destruction.
Hypersonic weapons, at long last, appear poised to fulfil the promise of air power.
In an era when the use of ground troops has proved costly, unpopular and generally ineffective, and where threats might be real but not necessarily “strategic,” they are a heavensend: missiles whose accuracy minimises the risk of collateral damage, pose no risk to aircrews, are unstoppable and phenomenally accurate, can yield an impact equal to five to ten tonnes of high explosive with no warhead at all — yet be capable of delivering a nuclear bomb, and can reach nearly every coordinate on the surface of the earth within 30 minutes.
Death from the air
Death from the air, guaranteed on-time delivery.
The United States has been developing its own hypersonic programme, under the project name Prompt Global Strike.
But the Russians got there first because they’ve made hypersonics a priority: They offset Russia’s inability to sustain an expansive high-tech military infrastructure, and they represent a direct response to Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
The president withdrew presumably so America could develop stronger defences against a nuclear attack; with the Avangard in its arsenal, Russia doesn’t have to worry too much about penetrating whatever defences Trump had in mind.
It gets worse. China, India, France and others are all developing similar weapons. The age of hypersonics, when even medium-size powers can deliver unstoppable damage on an American (or Russian, or Chinese) city, is a whole new game.
For starters, hypersonics change the way we think about crisis management. Suppose the United States detected an adversary’s launch of a missile — or mistakenly thought it had detected a launch, as American authorities had actually done in January 2018.
At a moment like this, the stakes are high, and the time frame for decision making is extremely compressed. Throw in exhaustion, intense emotions and uncertainty about the other side’s intentions, and you have a seriously volatile situation.
If the contending parties are armed with hypersonic missiles, the time frame for deciding what to do is even shorter, and the uncertainty about what your enemy is targeting and the nature of an incoming warhead — is it nuclear or conventional? — is virtually total.
In such a situation, the overwhelming incentive is to shoot first. Think of two gunslingers in a dark room.
Moreover, hypersonics are a weaponised moral hazard for states with a taste for intervention, because they erase barriers to picking fights. Is an adversary building something that might be a weapons factory?
Is there an individual in an unfriendly country who cannot be apprehended? The temptations to use hypersonic missiles will be many.
Hypersonics also push us toward a slippery slope.
They blur the line between conventional and strategic weapons, and their easy, justifiable use — say, to kill a single terrorist leader in a crowded city — could make it easier to accept their widespread use, with much more destructive consequences.
Hypersonics might look like just a zoomier version of existing weapons, but in fact they are game-changing. When the United States used nuclear weapons against Japan, they were thought to be a dramatic advance on bombs already in use, even those used to generate firestorms that had already devoured the cities of Germany and Japan. It was not until later that they were understood to be categorically different and ultimately too destructive to use.
If past is prologue, deployment of the systems is going to take place well before their ramifications are fully understood.
By 1950, as the Chinese Army was overrunning American and South Korean forces, the Truman administration had already grasped the dilemmas intrinsic to nuclear weapons; the Soviet detonation of a hydrogen bomb a few years later drove the lesson home.
But between the exuberance of acquiring a new military capability and the sobering realisation of its dangers, there is plenty of opportunity to use them.
As someone who worked on counterterrorism on the National Security Council staff, I feel my pulse racing just to consider these possibilities.
Allure of hypersonics
I’ve been in too many situations where I know hypersonics would have been compellingly presented as the best possible response. The allure of such a weapon would be nearly irresistible.
The biggest threat from hypersonics is that they come at a time when the world’s arm control treaties are falling apart.
We need a multilateral agreement to limit hypersonic arsenals and their use, but unfortunately, the United States, which would have to take the lead in orchestrating the negotiation of such an agreement, is uninterested in any deals that might tie its hands.
President Trump, who declared that trade wars are easy to win, has also welcomed an arms race on the grounds that the United States would beat all comers.
Congress has only rarely approved arms control treaties — and with the Senate in Republican hands, it seems scarcely likely that an agreement limiting hypersonic weapons would find favour.
Beyond American politics, the multilateral nature of an agreement would in itself impose obstacles, because of the number of countries that would need to be involved and the frictions between them.
Such agreements have been hammered out in the relatively recent past, including the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Missile Technology Control Regime, which imposed both range and payload limitations on a variety of missiles.
But those already seem part of a different era, when the world agreed on the importance of investing in arms control.
For the time being, it’s more likely that with the Avangard’s debut, other countries will want this capability for themselves.
As national programmes gain momentum, the development, acquisition, fielding and, ultimately, use of these systems will become very difficult, if not impossible, to stop.
As at the dawn of the nuclear era, when the advent of nuclear weapons became intertwined with an emerging Cold War, a new and radical development in military technology is emerging just as post-Cold War realities give way to new ones.
We need to channel the wisdom of the prudent arms controllers of the Cold War, who understood the urgent need to control weapons with terrifying implications.
— Steven Simon is an analyst at the Quincy Institute, professor of the practice of international relations at Colby College and was senior director for the Middle East and North Africa on the National Security Council from 2011 to 2012 and for counterterrorism from 1995 to 1999.