3.4. Hypersonic Missiles and Global Security
The session analyzed the implications of the emergence of hypersonic missile technologies. The panellists covered both the technological aspects of the technology and the geopolitical disruptions anticipated as more countries (dominant players in the international system and emerging powers) are investing in the research, development and testing of hypersonic missiles. Simultaneously, the prospect of a new arms race was brought forward and with it, the potential for a test ban to be successfully implemented. The session started off with a few introductory points on the classification of missiles (classified by criteria such as range, launch platform, trajectory or guidance system and speed) and raised a series of questions about hypersonic missiles and the international context in which they emerge: will they lower the threshold for nuclear war? Will they lead to a new arms race? Is a moratorium or a test ban needed and desirable?
The panellists’ subsequent presentations revolved around three main questions.
Why are hypersonic missiles disruptive for international relations and could they entail an arms race?
The technological arguments were straightforward: hypersonic cruise missiles or boost-glide vehicles are disruptive insofar as they can be employed for time-critical targets and can make air defence systems extremely vulnerable. While they entail immense costs and defence expenditures, as well as technical hurdles that are still to be overcome (such as need for new navigations systems, heat load and a very complex operating cycle), hypersonic missiles have super capabilities compared to subsonic systems. They can be game changers for existing counter-measure mechanisms and can overcome restraints of time, distance of advanced early-warning systems. However, even with superior capabilities, the question was asked whether they were worth all the resources put into developing them. A supersonic missile can reach a distance of 1,000 kilometres in 17 minutes, whereas a hypersonic missile could reach the same distance in 9 minutes. This could be quite critical in an offensive action, but is the 8 minute-difference really worth all the investments of time and money? The disruptive nature of the technology could then also be assessed in geopolitical terms. Hypersonic technologies were tested by China (which already conducted seven tests, six of which were successful), which pledged it could have a fully operational hypersonic system before 2020. This has created anxiety in Washington and a sense that hypersonic missiles could undermine the US missile defence architecture. The panellists, however, shared divergent viewpoints on how disruptive the technology is for international peace. The views ranged from considering the technology a profoundly destabilizing factor in international relations and a major threat to power relations in the first half of the 21st century, to viewing it as a moderate threat.
What can arms control initiatives achieve and could a test ban be implemented?
Hypersonic systems are currently not covered by existing arms controls mechanisms and they are not covered by the new START treaty.
A view commonly shared during the session was that there is little that would prevent countries from developing and deploying hypersonic missiles if they considered them vital for their strategic interests. Arms control mechanisms were considered “unrealistic” if countries thought this technology would work.
Considering China’s already high investments in the technology in a short period of time, it is highly unlikely it would commit to a test ban, and in general, its running of seven tests in only 18 months is seen as indication of an ambitious project to continue the development of the technology in full speed. There was a general agreement that a test ban would be very difficult to achieve and that the international community, already overwhelmed with numerous other issues, does not have the time and resources to discuss a test ban. A potentially motivating factor would be if the US were to provide a plan for a ban or call for a moratorium but the problem is that no country is fully committed and interested to make a first step.
What are the implications of Russia’s acquisition and deployment of hypersonic missiles?
While the development of a hypersonic missile delivery vehicle by China was received with great apprehension, Russia’s testing of on hypersonic missiles was regarded as less destabilizing for international security. Effectively, it was considered that they would change little in the long run because they offer one niche capability but with limited overall impact. Hypersonic systems were slow to develop in Russia. The projects formally started in 1987 in the context of the Cold War and the antagonism with the United States and its “Star Wars” programme. It soon reached a stalemate and it was only reinvigorated in 2001. The biggest ‘selling point’ of the technology then and now rests in its capability to counter missile defence systems. A fair amount of scepticism was expressed about Russia’s more recent interest in the technology, as well as its superiority over the well-known ICBMs. However, this is not to claim that Russia’s hypersonic missiles (which could have operational capacity within a few years) will not complicate the balance of military power in the world.
Hypersonic missiles made the headlines for their outstanding capacity to evade existing defence systems but this remains a contested topic, with conflicting scenarios anticipated. Ultimately, the plans to develop the technology are defined by secrecy. We can be reassured that no major disruptions will occur in the next few years but there is little to be certain about in the medium and long term, especially as a test ban and other arms control mechanisms are very slow and difficult to develop. Given the extremely high costs of striking with hypersonic systems, they would, however, have a very limited target set. In the meantime, many questions remain about the technological challenges that still need to be addressed as well as about the motivations of the countries seeking to acquire such systems.