The Buzz

Hypersonic Boom: The Rise of Lethal High-Speed Warfare

Of all the potentially transformational military technologies that will appear over the next ten years, hypersonic strike weapons, and ultimately, hypersonic platforms, could radically transform future military operations as well as open up the prospect of cheaper and more responsive access to space. The United States, Russia (here and here), China (its programs discussed below) and India (and here) as well as Australia (here and here) all have R&D projects aimed at developing hypersonic propulsion or understanding the science of hypersonics.

Hypersonic flight occurs at velocities five times above the speed of sound (Mach 5 = 6,174km/hr), and current research into hypersonic propulsion is focusing on the Mach 5 to Mach 10 (12,348km/hr) realm based around supersonic combustion ramjets, or ‘scramjet’ engines. The United States’ X-51 scramjet demonstrator flew twice successfully (though three times unsuccessfully) between May 2010 and May 2013, and in the process provided valuable data that may lead to the development of scramjet-based weapons in the future. China also claims to have flown their own scramjet in October 2014, and the United States and China have both tested hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs). China’s DZ-ZF (previously known as the Wu-14) HGV has flown several times, most recently on November 23, 2015.

The development of hypersonic weapons implies that in future warfare, particularly between major states, speed will assume prominence as a factor for determining victory, alongside information. For example, in considering the implications for the survival of naval surface combatants of China’s early tests of the Wu-14, Andrew Davies noted that hypersonic weapons reduce time of response for defenders to the point where a viable anti-ship missile defense with the traditional layered approaches becomes largely impossible. Instead, naval forces will need new and more responsive technologies like directed energy weapons, electromagnetic railguns or defensive hypersonic missile systems. Ben Schreer suggests that hypersonic weapons indicate a new era of high speed warfare, which reinforces a first strike incentive in a manner that’d be highly destabilizing in a crisis, and suggests a new “cult of the offensive,” where the side which strikes first most likely wins.

Hypersonic weapons will depend on an effective and resilient “kill chain” to function effectively. That means a state that invests in hypersonic weapons must also invest in advanced sensor systems that can detect and track a specific target, and have secure data links from the sensor to the decision-maker and then to the “shooter.” It’s not just about faster missiles—it’s about the technologies that come together to either use such weapons or defeat them. Equally important is a requirement for more agile and responsive command structures that function at a vastly accelerated pace measured in seconds or minutes, rather than hours or days. In a looming age of high-speed warfare, command must be executed equally rapidly, and there cannot be any bottlenecks. High-speed warfare leaves little room for political micromanagement, conferring with legal advice on rules of engagement, or second-guessing tactical decisions. It may be that, as with the debate over lethal autonomous weapons, decision-making is compressed in high-speed war such that a degree of automation is necessary, in some cases taking the human out of the loop entirely, and therefore raising challenging policy issues for many western governments. Conversely, this may not be a problem for states who have no media scrutiny and aren’t constrained by the “Jus in Bello” principles of modern warfare that require discrimination and proportionality in generating military effect.