A Mach 5 Arms Race? Welcome to Hypersonic Weapons 101

Robert Farley

State of the Military, Defense, United States

They travel many times faster than sound, and defending against them won’t be easy. Oh, and by the way, the United States, Russia, China and India all want them. 

According to some analysts, the development of hypersonic weapons creates the conditions for a new arms race, and could risk nuclear escalation. Given that the course of hypersonic research has acknowledged both of these concerns, why have several countries started testing the weapons?

The United States is building hypersonics for two reasons. First, we want to kill people fast, without the messy danger of a global thermonuclear war. Second, we want to be able to punch through the defensive systems of peer competitors.

Unfortunately, these two justifications contradict one another. Given that China, Russia and even India appear on their way to similar systems, we should take care before letting the technology outpace the politics.

What Are Hypersonic Weapons?

The term “hypersonic” generally refers to a class of long-range precision strike weapons that travel at Mach 5 or better. This definition generally excludes such munitions as the LRLAP (long-range land attack projectile), fired by the Advanced Gun System, which can only travel sixty miles, as well as traditional cruise missiles such as the Tomahawk, which travel under the speed of sound.

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Medium-range, conventionally armed ballistic missiles with precision-guidance (such as those operated by China and Russia) are arguably hypersonic weapons. The United States doesn’t operate any of this type, but it provides effectively the same capability as that offered by new hypersonic systems.

Indeed, initial U.S. plans for hypersonic-capable systems concentrated on conventionally armed ballistic missiles, but concerns over attribution and identification (conventional missiles look a lot like nuclear missiles to Russia and China) have shifted attention in the direction of suborbital platforms, including cruise missiles.

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