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.
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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).
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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.
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The Obama administration goes so far as to advocate for the development of a family of long-range systems at the heart of which lies the CPGS program. Setting aside the austere fiscal environment, from the long-range family of systems, hypersonic versions of CPGS appear to be the fastest and most survivable option with no need of forward deployment. It becomes obvious that especially after hypersonic weapons survived sequestration and their plethora of testing failures notwithstanding, U.S. civilian and military circles appear to be deeply invested in the further development of these systems. Any doubt regarding further funding of the program evaporated after the Chinese tests in January and August 2014, which confirmed the pursuit of similar systems by a U.S. peer competitor. Congressmen Buck McKeon (R-CA), Randy Forbes (R-VA), and Mike Rogers (R-AL) expressed their concern in a letter stating that “other competitor nations push toward military parity with the United States.” Following the Chinese testing, Congress prioritized hypersonic weapons programs, with raises in funding and testing. In fact, Congress allocated $70.7 million for FY15, specifically supporting the Army’s Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW).
Moving to China, U.S. policies and investments in BMD and CPGS, even though not directly linked to Chinese capabilities, created gaps in perceptions and exacerbated fears about U.S. intentions to contain China. According to Chinese experts, a few main reasons lurking behind Chinese concerns were the traditionally small size of its nuclear arsenal and questionable second-strike capability. Specifically, Chinese experts talk about the scenario of China being subject to American coercion, a concern that is mainly due to U.S. nuclear superiority, which—married to BMD and a conventional pre-emptive strike enabled by CPGS—puts at risk the Chinese retaliatory capability.
The United States, through numerous consultations and track-two dialogues, tried to communicate the details of each program’s development to assuage Chinese fears. Most U.S. documents, in trying to reassure China and Russia, also refer to the development of both BMD and CPGS in small numbers,since a small development is deemed unthreatening to both arsenals. China, on the other hand, felt deeply influenced by U.S. actions, expressing fears regarding the survivability of its nuclear forces in the scenario of a conventional disarming first strike.
Another part of the confusion can be attributed to Chinese fears, which skyrocketed after President Barack Obama’s Prague speech and the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The Chinese understood America’s decreasing reliance on nuclear weapons as being tantamount to a greater reliance on conventional weapons—especially CPGS—where the United States enjoys an undeniable superiority. Thus, the Chinese regard President Obama’s vision for a nuclear-free world as a trap that aims at containing China’s rise to power.
With regard to Chinese hypersonic weapons, their development is mainly driven by the objective of penetrating American ballistic missile defenses. For China, hypersonic weapons targeting forces that try to enter its theater of operations, in the event of a regional conflict, breaks the American advantage in both offensive (CPGS) and defensive (BMD) systems. Over the last several years, talk has heated up over Beijing's DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), with a maneuverable warhead and range at around 1,500 km, taking many U.S. experts and high echelon officers by surprise. Pundits characterized the missile as a game changer that will have profound consequences on the regional strategic and diplomatic dynamics. Apart from the missile’s evident mission to target aircraft carriers, the missile is of great importance because it is China’s stepping stone from a ballistic technology to a hypersonic weapon and a CPGS capability, according to a Project 2049 report. China’s tests of its WU-14 hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) in January and August 2014 follow the lines of development as described by Mark Stokes in the above mentioned report. Experts who follow modernization of the Chinese armed forces stressed China’s commitment to hypersonic technology given the short period separating the two tests.
Having referred to the drivers of hypersonic weapons development, the question regarding their impact at the operational and strategic level still begs for an answer. Hypersonic weapons appear to be what both sides are after in terms of seizing the initiative and surgical targeting of key points that lie at the heart of the adversary’s war effort. Surprise at the tactical level as well as preemption in case of an ASAT strike appear to be feasible missions for hypersonic weapons, which could be aimed at crippling the enemy’s C4ISR systems. Thus, hypersonic weapons could be a valuable addition in both A2/AD and counter-A2/AD strategies. In the first option, these systems’ long ranges help the United States avoid entering the contested zone. Strikes from outside the theater of operations would pose no risk for U.S. forces.
For the second strategy, counter-intervention missions could be executed successfully with hypersonic weapons—the accuracy and speed of which penetrate BMDs, adding another layer to the Chinese strategy of keeping U.S. forces outside the theater of operations in accordance with the “using the land to control the sea” concept Andrew S. Erickson and David D. Yang stressed in 2009.
Both strategic perspectives would be based on firm ground if the East Asian context did not lend itself to what Herman Kahn calls “two-sided escalation situations.” In such a situation, no state can sufficiently claim to be capable of achieving escalation dominance where it can credibly negate its adversary’s efforts of escalating further as a response to previous actions. Even though there is a general tendency for military planners to opt for direct escalatory strategies, in a U.S.-China conflict scenario, such predetermined and rigid strategy paths might have deleterious consequences, forcing both parties into a highly escalatory conflict that could otherwise be avoided.