The need for speed: Why we should expect no deal on hypersonic weapons

Elliot Shuwei Ji

President Vladimir Putin watches the launch of the new Avangard hypersonic missile system from Russia’s National Defense Management Center, Moscow, 6 December 2018. Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev/TASS via Getty Images.

When it comes to weapons, the Olympian phrase ‘citius — altius — fortius’ (faster, higher, stronger) is ironically apt to describe the unsportsmanlike world of military competition. After developing ‘higher’ missiles that can reach the orbit and ‘stronger’ bombs that can obliterate cities, the new round of competition now focuses on getting ‘faster’. Capable of traveling at Mach 5 or above, hypersonic missiles can arrive at their targets within minutes with little or no warning, potentially overwhelming any missile defence system currently deployed. This new technology not only presents new dangers in contentious regions, but also introduces strategic escalation risks that major military powers must soon confront.

The development of such seemingly ‘unstoppable’ weapon by the likes of Russia and China has already prompted fear in the US. To many US strategists, these systems pose unacceptable risks to US carrier battle groups and forward bases. In testimony to the Senate Armed Service Committee, the head of US strategic command General John Hyten confessed that ‘We don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us’.

At the same time, the Pentagon is aggressively pursuing development of its own hypersonic weapons, having successfully tested the Common-Hypersonic Glide Body (C-HGB) in March 2020, and is set to test the air-launched boost-glide AGM-183 ARRW in July 2021. Despite this progress, the US has yet to field any weapons with hypersonic capabilities. In contrast, Russia fielded the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal in December 2017 and have successfully tested the 3M22 Zircon in December 2020. China tested its DF-17 in November 2017 and announced at a 2019 military parade that the missile has achieved operational capability. In addition, on August 26, 2020, China fired two types of hypersonic ballistic missiles (DF-21D and DF-26B) into the South China Sea, demonstrating the country’s advancement in maturing the hypersonic weapons technology.

Feeling the danger

The danger of hypersonic weapons goes well beyond the tactical. Scholars have worried that the potentially un-interceptable nature of these weapons will lead to greater strategic instability and a new round of aggressive arms races. First, there is an incentive for countries to consider striking preemptively, fearing that its critical military infrastructure, especially the nuclear assets, might be vulnerable to preemptive hypersonic attacks.

Second, the unique designs of hypersonic gliders and cruise missiles create dangerous ambiguities in a conflict scenario. The major powers are bundling hypersonic missiles with nuclear warheads, resulting in a dangerous warhead ambiguity where an alarmed country cannot assess whether the incoming missile carries a conventional or nuclear warhead. The maneuverability of these weapons also poses a destination ambiguity where a concerned regional power like Russia or China cannot be convinced that the highly maneuverable missile is not heading to its territory as a preemptive strike. This concern for unintended escalation has resulted in reduced funding for conventional prompt strike programs in the US and a debate on a test ban for hypersonic missiles on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

The slim prospect of arms reduction

Experts have called for expanding the existing arms control framework or a risk mitigation agreement on hypersonic missiles. Yet, despite a mutual incentive to reduce the risk of inadvertent escalation brought on by hypersonic weapons, three major obstacles will strategically lock the US, Russia, and China in the hypersonic game and thus prevent the three major powers from collectively committing to reduction.

The unseen prowess of hypersonic missiles

To reach an arms reduction agreement, the countries that have these weapons must conclude that the cost of retaining these weapons is real and is something for which it is worth giving up a tactical advantage. But for the United States and Russia, many of their hypersonic systems are still in the testing phase and may take some years to achieve initial operational capability. Since no country can be convinced of the full potential of this seemingly game-changing weapon at present, there is no credible perception of mutual risk and benefits they pose to the big players.

The lack of tactical substitutes

Even if countries agree that possessing certain weapons carry risks, they may nevertheless cling to them if this weapon fulfills a critical strategic or tactical role. In China’s case, the DF-17 and DF-21D are the cornerstones of its defensive strategy, and non-hypersonic options such as bombers and ship-launched missiles cannot impose the same risk to US carrier battle groups due to their vulnerability to air defence. Similarly, the US must deploy the high-risk forward-deployed stealth bombers and the relatively less effective subsonic cruise missiles in an intervention scenario. Hypersonic weapons would offer a solution to counter China’s hypersonic superiority by targeting its land-based missiles. Agreeing to reduce or limit the development and fielding of hypersonic weapons would entail a loss of a tactical option that cannot be easily compensated using existing platforms.

The China challenge: not so mutual vulnerabilities

It takes all major powers involved in the hypersonic race to reach a deal. Asking China to forgo a superior weapon is unrealistic, especially since China got this far in part by being outside of the INF Treaty and the country’s nationalism is at all-time high. China has explicitly rejected American attempts to bring China into the INF framework, citing the country’s smaller nuclear arsenal compared to those of the United States and Russia. This renders the mutual vulnerability logic that underpins stable strategic deterrence inapplicable. Besides, China may be reluctant to allow the form of intrusive verification mechanisms that were essential to monitor and enforce the arms reduction agreements of the Cold War.

What does this mean for hypersonic arms reduction?

Until they are deployed and reach operational capability, uncertainty about the impact of hypersonic weapons will persist. In the meantime, we should be skeptical about the prospect for any reasonable arms control framework. The United States, Russia, and China may not have reasons to sit at the negotiating table until all three have a meaningful stockpile of reliable, deployable hypersonic weapons in their arsenal. When this happens, the lessons from the INF and New START might provide a useful framework for initial talks.

This also suggests that escalation remains a real danger until there is some level of ‘hypersonic saturation’. Conscious efforts to mitigate these risks must include concrete, credible reassurance and reliable communication channels, rather than seeking an arms control agreement that is unlikely to succeed at this time.

Future arms control frameworks must evolve to cover asymmetric reduction where one country may have more to lose tactically by joining. Additional commitment device and enforcement provisions could involve scale-backs of forward-deployed force and defensive technology sharing. Without innovations in these frameworks and with the pace of modern technological development, old arms control models may find themselves with little to contribute to the regulation of new capabilities.

Elliot Shuwei Ji is a doctoral student in the Department of Politics at Princeton University.

This blogpost is part of a collaboration between International Affairs and the Future Strategy Forum (FSF). FSF is an organization and annual conference series that seeks to elevate women’s expertise in national security, build mentorship, and connect graduate students to policymakers.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.

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