International Security

What are hypersonic weapons and how can we limit their spread?

A Russian Air Force MiG-31 fighter jet flies during the Victory Day parade, marking the 73rd anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, above Red Square in Moscow, Russia May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

A Russian fighter jet during the Victory Day parade on May 9, 2018. Image: REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

John Letzing
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  • A hypersonic weapon was recently used in combat for the first time, according to reports.
  • A handful of countries are believed to have hypersonic weapons programmes.
  • Despite the risks they pose, no comprehensive efforts have been made to check their spread.

Nearly four years ago, Russia brandished one of its newest armaments during a Victory Day parade in Moscow: a hypersonic missile that was fastened to a fighter jet, and described as a “doomsday super weapon.”

About four days ago, Russia reportedly made the first use of a hypersonic weapon in combat, during an attack in western Ukraine.

They’ve been a source of growing anxiety and a secretive arms race for years – yet there haven’t been any broad, multilateral efforts made to limit their spread.

They can fly faster than five times the speed of sound, but that isn’t their only distinctly dangerous quality. They’re maneuverable, could be used to modernize nuclear arsenals, and may eventually be released from space in ways that evade missile-defense systems. US systems facing north in anticipation of an attack, for example, may now suddenly be useless against missiles approaching from the south.

Some experts have dismissed the strategic value of Russia’s hypersonic weapons used in Ukraine. Others downplay the significance of the weapons more generally. But most seem to agree that the escalating pursuit of their development presents a real risk. “There is probably less than a decade available to substantially hinder the potential proliferation of hypersonic missiles,” the RAND Corporation warned us. That was about five years ago.

A report published by the UN in 2019 suggested an outright ban – or at least restricting hypersonic weapons systems to those countries that already have them.

Image: World Economic Forum

In addition to Russia, countries believed to have hypersonic weapons programmes include the US, China, Australia, India, France, Germany, and Japan.

Some or all of these countries have been parties to global efforts to govern the use of nuclear weapons over the years, ranging from the Antarctic Treaty to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Collectively, these have spurred healthy engagement and led to the destruction of large numbers of arms.

An issue likely to outlast the fighting in Ukraine

However, there are fewer nuclear arms treaties in effect – so, fewer that could be expanded to address hypersonic weapons. None of the countries thought to have hypersonic weapons programmes have signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that entered into force last year, including the only country to ever experience the trauma of nuclear weapons firsthand.

The US decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 has actually been cited as motivation for Russia to push forward with a hypersonic weapons programme.

New START, the only remaining nuclear arms-control agreement between the US and Russia, only indirectly addresses hypersonic weapons – which has been described as “better than nothing.”

Now, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and growing isolation may be catastrophic for global arms-control efforts generally.

Officials sign a report in 1989 on scrapping missiles in accordance with the Soviet-US Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
Officials sign a report in 1989 on scrapping missiles in accordance with the Soviet-US Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Image: RIA Novosti archive/Wikimedia Commons

The broader context for the development of hypersonic weapons is a notable increase in overall global military spending. According to one measure, spending rose in 2020 by its sharpest annual rate since the financial crisis, even as global GDP contracted.

Another analysis found that spending edged even higher in 2021, at least in nominal terms (surging inflation resulted in a decline in real terms). It noted that hypersonic “boost-glide” vehicles that can cover long distances in unpredictable ways are often conflated with hypersonic cruise missiles, though both present challenges for missile defenses.

In the US, the Navy requested $1.4 billion for fiscal 2022, an amount larger than some countries’ annual GDP, for its Conventional Prompt Strike hypersonic weapon system.

The hypersonic arms race will likely outlast the fighting in Ukraine, and may draw more countries into a costly and unnerving game of one-upmanship.

“It’s a consequential weapon,” US President Joe Biden said recently of the hypersonic missiles apparently used by Russia. “It’s almost impossible to stop it.”

More reading on hypersonic weapons

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • The term “hypersonic” can be confusing and potentially distorting when applied to a range of missile systems in different places, according to this piece – which suggests that a better understanding could help inform efforts to apply targeted arms-control measures. (SIPRI)
  • “Like picking out one light bulb against a background of light bulbs.” This report details efforts to develop a system that can detect and track hypersonic glide vehicles that exploit current blind spots. (Scientific American)
  • The strategic significance of hypersonic weapons has been exaggerated, according to this professor of international relations and security, but they do constitute an alarming signal about growing arms competition. (The Conversation)
  • Days after South Korean officials said earlier this year that North Korea was exaggerating its hypersonic weapons capabilities, North Korea conducted a missile test seemingly intended to address their scepticism, according to this report. (The Diplomat)
  • China’s hypersonic capability cannot go unanswered – not just by the US but equally by India, according to this opinion piece. (Observer Research Foundation)
  • Hypersonic missiles may not provide a definitive advantage, but according to this piece they’re part of a broader move among nuclear powers to add all sorts of new, potentially destabilizing capabilities to their military toolkits. (War on the Rocks)
  • With new announcements and reports of hypersonic developments coming along every few weeks, according to this analysis, it seems like a good time to move discussions of their implications along at a faster speed as well. (Australian Strategic Policy Institute)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to International Security, Global Governance and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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