According to the mainstream conceptualization of hypersonic weapons, the United States—with its Western allies—are on a verge of becoming vulnerable to Russian and Chinese hypersonic weapons. According to this narrative, there are no defenses against hypersonic missiles—or Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGV). As Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2018, "[w]e don't have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us". According to the dominant Western way to depict the threat from Russian or Chinese hypersonic weapons, the United States has become surprisingly quickly—within some months or years—defenseless to these weapon systems that have been in the making for at least a decade and a half. As was reported in February 2018, “America Is Desperate to Stop Russian and Chinese Hypersonic Weapons“.
The ongoing Western “hypersonic hype” is a very familiar phenomenon. The profession of security and defense analysis is flooded with buzzwords, high-tech silver bullets and slogans. Can you remember the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA)? It was supposed to remove friction and the fog of war from the battlefield. This never materialized, although the United States and many European countries did try to ride the revolutionary wave during the late 1990s and the following decade—pouring in hundreds of billions of dollars to maintain military “edge” against all potential adversaries. Similarly, Cyberwar has supposedly been coming ever since 1993—although we have not seen one instance of cyberwar, yet. Nor do we have any solid indication that future cyberwars—if they actually will be waged—will radically alter the character of war, or how wars are waged. All defense-related buzzwords hinder—rather than help us—to understand the complex security environment and the associated military threats that already exist or those that will exist in the future. In sum, hypersonic weapons will be fielded in the near future, but there is no evidence that would suggest that the basic logic related to defence and strategy was going to change radically because of these new weapon systems. More likely, new technologies and weapon systems continue to develop and spread around the globe—and with them a new buzzword will replace hypersonic weapons—or Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is another hype of the day—within a few years.
There are many reasons why hypersonic weapons will not revolutionize strategy or warfare in the future. Not at least for the United States, which is the hub of hypersonic frenzy these days. Firstly, the military power of the United States will remain second to none for years—and more likely for decades to come. Hypersonic threats do not require hypersonic responses. The United States has a broad repertoire of effective military responses to potential hypersonic threats even if it lagged a few months or years behind Russia and China in hypersonic missiles. In addition, to think that any potential weapon system that has no known defenses is an existential threat to the United States is based on unrealistic thinking. Even if for a very brief period after the end of the Cold War this kind of thinking made some sense, it would be hubristic to assume that the United States could be a world leader in all fields of technologies at all times.
In short, if one’s strategy is based on striving for total invulnerability vis-à-vis one’s adversaries, it will inevitably end up being a failure. As John Lewis Gaddis has so eloquently noted, strategy requires balancing almost infinite aspirations (goals) with the limited means available to the actor. Striving for primacy in all possible weapons technologies is a way for disaster. The sooner the military planners and political decision-makers realize this, the better. Understanding the limits of strategy will make them think more, instead of trying to achieve the unachievable: total invulnerability vis-à-vis a very broad hodgepodge of adversaries—varying from “rogue regimes” near-peer adversaries.
The second aspect that will mitigate the threat posed by hypersonic weapons is related to the fact that in many future scenarios, the projections of adversaries’ possibilities to develop and field hypersonic weapons ignore or downplay one’s own efforts to do the same. The development of military capability is a long-term effort. Today’s wars are fought with weapon systems that have been developed and procured during the last fifty years. Some have an even longer pedigree—like the B-52 Stratofortress. Russia and China cannot escape this long-term character of defense planning and military capability development. Even if Russia or China have made some strides in developing hypersonic missiles lately, this will not turn automatically into usable military capabilities en masse. A state—any state—can regenerate approximately 2-3 percent of its total military capability during the period of one year. The long shadow of history or the long “tail” of military capability development is a fact of life in the field of defense. There just are no U-turns or quick transformations within the sphere of defense—even if some advocates of these revolutions think and speak otherwise.
Finally, the strategy of deterrence—based on real warfighting capabilities—should not be underestimated when trying to prevent adversaries from using their “hypersonic edge” against the United States. It is really a stretch to try to imagine any regime in the world that would be so suicidal that it would even think threatening to use—not to mention to actually use—hypersonic weapons against the United States or its troops deployed almost globally would end well.
Hypersonic weapon systems are coming. That is a fact. But these new weapons will not change the fundamentals of strategy, the long-term logic of defense planning or military capability development. Hypersonic missiles will not become a panacea or a silver bullet, which could give Russia or China an edge against the United States on the battlefield. Nor will hypersonic weapons derail the United States from the top position of the global military power pecking order.
Conversely, the development and fielding of hypersonic weapons by the United States will not remove the pressure that Russia and China are increasingly exerting against the liberal world order or against the United States. New technologies and weapon systems may be important, but they are not that important. Rather than being scared about the ongoing hypersonic arms race, one should take a hard look at the state of defense today—based on the long history of post-Cold War era of counterinsurgency warfare. Are the armed forces of the United States or European countries up to the task of defending against a traditional large-scale offensive with massed troops and fires?
Lt. Col. Jyri Raitasalo is military professor of war studies at the Finnish National Defence University. The views expressed here are his own.