Hypersonic missiles are a new category of weapons that are being developed by the world’s leading military powers. Armed with either conventional or nuclear warheads, they are practically impossible to intercept with the current technology due to their extremely high speed. In this report, we will examine the main types of hypersonic missiles being developed and the strategic rationale justifying their deployment. We will also discuss the geostrategic implications of Hypersonic Missiles.
WHAT ARE HYPERSONIC MISSILES?
A missile is considered as “hypersonic” if it is capable of travelling at five times or more the speed of sound. In more technical terms, this means that they are missiles that can fly at Mach 5 or higher. As a result of this impressive speed combined with the ability to perform evasive manoeuvres, they can bypass nearly all existing anti-missile defence systems; thus, leaving the target exposed to an attack.
Hypersonic missiles can be divided into two sub-categories. The first group is made of hypersonic glide vehicles, or HGVs. This definition does not apply to a missile in its entirety, but only to the re-entry vehicle containing the warhead, which is launched into a high-altitude ballistic trajectory by a rocket.
The second kind of systems are hypersonic cruise missiles, also called HCMs. These are missiles which exploit rockets or scramjet engines to reach hypersonic speeds and follow an aircraft-like flight path; and are relatively slower than their ballistic counterparts.
Today, the US, Russia and China are all developing such weapons, albeit with different purposes; and a few other states are also considering hypersonic missiles.
AMERICA’S HYPERSONIC MISSILES
The United States has considered hypersonic missiles as a possible solution to meet the requirements of the Conventional Prompt Global Strike concept, or CPGS; whose objective is to enable the US to conventionally strike a target located anywhere in the world within one hour.
Dating back to the George W. Bush administration, the CPGS has become a major strategic programme since 2008; with a growing attention to hypersonic missiles.
The concept was revived in a context of mounting rivalry with China and Russia, who are both implementing a so-called Anti-Access / Area Denial strategy (or A2/AD) to create “bubbles” around their territory in order to undermine the ability of American forces to operate within certain areas.
In this optic, hypersonic missiles would enable the US military to conventionally strike targets from beyond the range of enemy defences, thus overcoming the A2/AD challenge and preserving America’s ability to project its power abroad. As such, all the branches of the US Armed Forces have separately experimented hypersonic systems; but after many attempts, a joint hypersonic missile programme was finally announced in October 2018. Yet, it seems that America is lagging behind Russia and China in actually fielding operational hypersonic systems.
It should be stressed that US hypersonic missiles will be exclusively armed with conventional warheads, at least officially; in accordance with the CPGS. However, apart from such declarations, there is practically no mean for other powers to verify the actual nature of the missiles’ payload. As a result, there are concerns that the ambiguity characterizing America’s hypersonic systems will destabilize the existing nuclear equilibrium; notably by enabling the US to perform a rapid and unstoppable counter-force first strike to destroy Russia’s or China’s nuclear weapons and undermine their ability to retaliate.
In reality, such concerns are largely unjustified by the fact that both powers have ballistic missiles submarines that guarantee the survivability of a second-strike force large enough to ensure credible deterrence.
This is especially true for Russia, whereas China is more vulnerable in this sense since it has fewer and less capable ballistic missile submarines. Nevertheless, the US hypersonic missile programme has caused criticism from both out of concerns over their potential destabilizing effects.
RUSSIAN AND CHINESE HYPERSONIC MISSILES
Russia’s and China’s quest to deploy hypersonic missiles respond to the reverse side of the strategic logic. The two powers plan to use them as Anti-access / Area Denial assets conceived to keep the US military, and especially its aircraft carriers, away from their territory. Moreover, hypersonic systems are also a response to American anti-ballistic missile defences that for Moscow and Beijing break the long-standing nuclear equilibrium based on Mutual Assured Destruction or MAD.
According to its principles, nuclear-armed powers would never attack each other, knowing that this would trigger a nuclear retaliation that would annihilate the aggressor. This would nullify any possible gain and make victory unachievable. But in theory, missile defence systems could end this balance by shielding who deploys them from retaliation. In reality, even the most advanced anti-missile systems can only protect relatively small areas from limited attacks, and would not be able to shield the whole country from a large-scale nuclear strike. Yet, their existence is considered a threat to the strategic balance. In this logic, hypersonic weapons are a mean to bypass such defensive assets and restore the ancient equilibrium. It should be noted that while the US is allegedly focusing on exclusively conventional systems, Russia and China are openly working also on nuclear-capable ones.
More specifically, Russia is developing three main types of hypersonic systems. The first is the Kinzhal, an airborne-launched missile reportedly capable of travelling at Mach 10 and having a maximum range of 2,000 kilometres. It can be loaded with either a conventional or a nuclear warhead, and was tested (allegedly with success) in March 2018. It is likely capable of attacking both land-based targets and ships.
The second system is the Zircon cruise missile, which has an estimated range between 400 and 1,000 kilometres and is mainly meant as an anti-ship weapon for striking US carriers. Capable of reaching speeds up to Mach 6, the missile will be carried by the Kirov-class battlecruisers and possibly by the upcoming Husky-class attack submarines. An airborne version is also scheduled to equip strategic bombers.
The third and final system is the Avangard, a hypersonic glide vehicle which can be mounted atop ground-launched ballistic missiles. It is claimed that the weapons can manoeuvre and reach a speed up to Mach 20. It can carry both a conventional and nuclear payload and has a range of at least 6,000 kilometres.
As far as China is concerned, its main hypersonic missile will be the DF-ZF8, previously known as Wu-14. This hypersonic glide vehicle, whose speed is estimated between Mach 5 and Mach 10, is supposed to be capable of carrying either conventional and nuclear warheads, and could be mounted atop anti-ship ballistic missiles such as the DF-21D and used as a “carrier killer”. As of today, various tests have been performed, apparently with success.
HYPERSONIC MISSILES FROM OTHER POWERS
In addition to the US, Russia and China, there are also two other powers that are conducting research on hypersonic missiles.
The first is India, who is working on a hypersonic cruise missile in cooperation with Russia. The weapon, known as BrahMos II, is the evolution of the existing BrahMos cruise missile. The programme has been delayed multiple times and there is little available information. Apparently, it will have a speed comprised between Mach 5 and 7; with a maximum range of 600 kilometres. It will be possible to fire it from different platforms and it will be able to strike both land and naval objectives. It is not clear whether it will capable of carrying nuclear warheads or not. Its most notable feature is that it is reportedly optimized for mountain warfare, meaning that it can manoeuvre and hit targets located beyond or within tall mountain ranges; making of it a very useful asset in case of war with Pakistan or China in Kashmir or, in the latter’s case, in other high-altitude areas.
The other power who is showing interest for hypersonic missiles is Japan. At the moment, it is only known that it has allocated $57 million for technological research on a hypersonic glide vehicle to be used for the defence of remote islands. Considering Japan’s concerns over China’s military build-up, the aim of the project could be to develop an Anti-Access / Area Denial missile to deter and if necessary, block Chinese forces. However, it is much more likely that the objective is more limited in scope: Japan wants only to create a working prototype to demonstrate its technological know-how and convince the US to jointly produce fully operational hypersonic missiles.
THE RACE FOR HYPERSONIC MISSILES
As we have seen, various major military powers are developing hypersonic missiles, albeit with different objectives; and other powers may also join the race in the future. Several voices have already raised about the potential risks linked with the proliferation of this new category of missiles and the possible risks of crisis escalation associated with their deployment. It is legitimate to believe that such innovative weapon systems will play a central role in weapons procurement and in strategic planning in the years ahead, and their development should be carefully monitored to understand the evolving balance in military power as well as their possible effects on international stability.