This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform

Hypersonic missiles — specifically hypersonic glide vehicles and hypersonic cruise missiles — are a new class of threat because they are capable both of manoeuvring and of flying faster than 5,000 kilometers per hour. These features enable such missiles to penetrate most missile defences and to further compress the timelines for a response by a nation under attack.

Hypersonic missiles are being developed by the United States, Russia, and China. Their proliferation beyond these three could result in other powers setting their strategic forces on hair-trigger states of readiness. And such proliferation could enable other powers to more credibly threaten attacks on major powers.

The diffusion of hypersonic technology is under way in Europe, Japan, Australia, and India — with other nations beginning to explore such technology. Proliferation could cross multiple borders if hypersonic technology is offered on world markets.

Hypersonic cruise missiles (HCMs), are powered all the way to their targets by rockets or high-speed jet engines.
Image: Defense Advanced Research Projects

There is probably less than a decade available to substantially hinder the potential proliferation of hypersonic missiles and associated technologies. To this end, the RAND Corporation report, Hypersonic Missile Nonproliferation. Hindering the Spread of a New Class of Weapons, recommends that:

(1) The United States, Russia, and China should agree not to export complete hypersonic missile systems or their major components.

(2) The broader international community should establish controls on a wider range of hypersonic missile hardware and technology.

Key Findings

New Class of Threat

Hypersonic missiles are a new class of threat because they are capable both of manoeuvring and of flying faster than 5,000 kilometers per hour, which would enable such missiles to penetrate most missile defences and to further compress the timelines for response by a nation under attack.

The proliferation of such missiles beyond the United States, Russia, and China could result in other powers compressing their response timelines in ways that set their strategic forces on hair-trigger states of readiness — such as a strategy of "launch on warning." And such proliferation could enable such states to more credibly threaten attacks on major powers.

Time Is Key

There is probably less than a decade available to substantially hinder the potential proliferation of hypersonic missiles and associated technologies.

There appears to be interest in hypersonic missile nonproliferation and at least a few years available for relevant governments to put a policy in place.

International Concern

The unavoidable requirement is for the United States, Russia, and China to agree on a nonproliferation policy.

France could play a key role in bringing other governments into agreement on a broader control policy.

The technical and economic barriers to developing hypersonic technology are great enough to add to the effectiveness of a nonproliferation policy.

Recommendations

A two-tiered approach to containing the spread of hypersonic systems and components appears to be the most promising.

First, we recommend a policy of export denial for complete hypersonic delivery vehicles and enough major subsystems to effectively provide access to complete hypersonic missiles.

Second, given dual-use concerns, we also recommend a policy of case-by-case export reviews for scramjets and other hypersonic engines and components, fuels for hypersonic use, sensors, navigation, and communication items for hypersonic flight, hypersonic flight controls, design tools and modelling for such uses, and ground simulation and testing for hypersonic systems.

The necessary first step is for the United States, Russia, and China to agree not to export complete hypersonic missiles or their major subsystems. Beyond that, the control list recommended in this report can be the basis for international discussions.

Hypersonic Missile Nonproliferation. Hindering the Spread of a New Class of Weapons, Richard H. Speier, George Nacouzi, Carrie A. Lee, Richard M. Moore