The Cable

Report: Hypersonic Missiles Could Trigger a War

With these new weapons, countries might become “trigger-happy.”

The X-51A Waverider is a hypersonic vehicle designed to ride on its own shockwave and travel at speeds of up to Mach 6.
The X-51A Waverider is a hypersonic vehicle designed to ride on its own shockwave and travel at speeds of up to Mach 6. U.S. Air Force

Imagine if a foreign country launched a nuclear attack on the continental United States and the Pentagon had only six minutes to respond. That’s the potential of a new generation of weapons on the horizon, according to a recent Rand Corp. report.

Rand is urging the United States, China, and Russia to form an agreement on how to handle hypersonic missiles, which travel at more than five thousand kilometers per hour (about 3,100 mph). Hypersonic weapons are more than five times faster than a regular cruise missile and would not be detected by U.S. air defense systems as early as ballistic missiles.

The United States, China, and Russia are all known to be close to achieving deployable hypersonic systems and are ahead of other countries, according to Rand.

“Hypersonic missile proliferation would increase the chances of strategic war,” said Richard Speier, lead author of Rand’s report, in a press release.

The speed forces quick military counter-decisions with potentially disastrous effect. “It would give nations an incentive to become trigger-happy,” he said.

The United States likely has less than a decade to counter the proliferation of hypersonic missiles, though they are not yet operational, according to the report. Current missile defense systems would not be effective at defending against hypersonic missiles, and Rand urges changes to the existing missile technology control regime to anticipate and address them.

Crunched for time with dire stakes, countries might adopt a so-called launch-on-warning doctrine, or they might just strike first. Without time to consult a traditional chain of command, nations might feel compelled to give the military command and control, increasing the likelihood of accidental war. Countries might also scatter their weapons in order to better respond, which would give terrorists greater opportunity to steal the weapons for themselves, the report said.

“None of these options is very good,” Speier said.

The broad term “hypersonic missiles” actually refers to two distinct weapons: hypersonic cruise missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles. The former is propelled throughout its flight by a specialized “scramjet” engine, while its glider counterparts are propelled at the start by a rocket but glide dexterously using aerodynamic forces in flight. That maneuverability means gliders can conceal their eventual target until seconds before they hit.

Yet the very complexity of the technologies needed to develop a usable hypersonic missile could on its own limit the spread of such weapons, according to Werner Dahm, a former chief scientist of the U.S. Air Force and the founding director of the Security and Defense Systems Initiative at Arizona State University. “Hypersonic missiles are not transformative in the way that nuclear weapons were in the late 1940s,” he wrote to Foreign Policy. “Instead, the warfighting capabilities they can provide are best viewed as part of the natural evolution of missile technology. As such, the existing [Missile Technology Control Regime] or additions to it may be sufficient to support efforts at limiting access to those technologies.”

The United States, in the meantime, is making progress on its own hypersonic technology, and not just in missiles. A suspected “demonstrator vehicle” related to Lockheed Martin Corp.’s hypersonic activities was sighted in July flying into the U.S. Air Force’s Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif., according to an Aerospace Daily & Defense Report story on Wednesday.

Lockheed did not comment on the sighting in that report, but Orlando Carvalho, its executive vice president of aeronautics, speaking at an exhibition in Texas, gave a clear picture of the future. “The United States is on the verge of a hypersonics revolution,” he said.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

John Kester is a Washington, D.C.-based reporter.

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