How Hypersonic Missiles Push America and China towards War

"Hypersonic weapons add to the complexity and elusiveness of the escalatory dynamics and this is something both sides will need to plan for."

Hypersonic weapons can achieve speeds over five times faster than the speed of sound (Mach 5) and they are the latest version of precision guided munitions (PGM) that make up part of the larger family of long-range strike weapons systems.

In the United States, hypersonic weapons are pursued in the context of the conventional prompt global strike (CPGS) commonly defined by officials as a technology of “high-precision conventional weapons capable of striking a target anywhere in the world within one hour’s time.” Outside the United States, states such as China or Russia have been pursuing this promising technology in secrecy. Therefore, we have little information regarding the stage of development the Russians or Chinese have achieved.

Nevertheless, what became evident from the short period that separated the two Chinese tests is the emphasis given to a rapid-paced development and the strategic value of the new weapon for China. Shorter-range hypersonic weapons appear to be a more feasible technology, while global-range weapons are a goal that is still far from being reached. Nevertheless, states invest heavily in both variants, and it looks like operational capability is only a question of time. That said and given the technology’s almost disruptive potential in terms of both range and speed, can we really claim that we have a deep understanding of the drivers as well as the consequences—operational and strategic—of hypersonic weapons? Probably not.

(Recommended: Welcome to Hypersonic Weapons 101)

Starting from the drivers in the United States, the idea of developing a conventional global strike goes back to a RAND report from the 1970s that suggested the mating of conventional warheads to nuclear delivery systems (ICBMs). The program gained traction again during the Bush administration in the highly uncertain strategic environment after 9/11, while the Obama administration has appeared to be equally eager to invest in the new weapons system.

It needs to be noted that no administration explicitly articulated the missions of CPGS. The program’s versatile and multifaceted operational potential allows for funding requests without specifically advocating a concrete mission. Nevertheless, it was mainly the strategic environment that dictated strategic thinking regarding CPGS missions in each period. During the Bush administration, CPGS was primarily directed toward counterterrorism operations targeting counter-proliferation efforts or gatherings of terrorists. Conventional long-range, prompt strikes can more effectively deter terrorists, since the U.S. threat is more capable and materially implementable (deterrence by denial).

(Recommended: Russia's Super Weapon of War in the Sky)

With regard to rogue states, CPGS could offer feasible preemptive options that would prevent the adversary from being able to use its forces in the first place. The new term that arose from this strategic thinking is coined “counternuclear” strikes. Counternuclear is broader and more comprehensive than counterforce since it targets nuclear warheads, C4ISR systems as well as production and storage facilities. Finally, CPGS, after the Chinese anti-satellite (ASAT) test in 2007, was also considered as a plausible option against missile strikes that aim to degrade America’s C4ISR systems (decapitation strategies).

 The Obama administration continued the policy as it was articulated in the QDRs of 2001 and 2006 with further investments in Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) and CPGS. However, the focus appears to be shifting from time-urgent and pop-up targets to missions that require the high survivability of weapons that need to travel in environments where access is denied. Hence, the 2010 QDR talks about possible combat scenarios in theaters of operations characterized by A2/AD components.

(Recommended: 5 Chinese Weapons of War America Should Fear)