How Hypersonic Missiles Work and the Unique Threats They Pose

Hypersonic missiles threaten to upend the relative stability of the current era of nuclear weapons. They are not as fast as intercontinental ballistic missiles, but are able to vary their trajectories. These missiles pose a new proliferation challenge.

A Pakistani defense expert says:

  1. Hypersonics are aerodynamic bodies flying at speeds in excess of Mach 5 ( five times the speed of sound).
  2. We already have delivery means in the shape of ICBMs which fly much faster, but they follow predictable ballistic trajectories, which can be tracked and intercepted by suitable interceptors ( exosphere or endosphere).
  3. While the Americans were busy in their War against Terror, the Chinese, and to some extent the Russians, stole the race and invested in and developed hypersonic missiles.
  4. They fly much depressed trajectories and are detected much late, and given their higher velocities, they give little or no time to the defenses to intercept them.
  5. This will make the strategic stability more fragile for some time till the time all the parties acquire compatible retributive capabilities.

Until then, these missiles pose a new proliferation challenge.

Iain Boyd writes in The Conversation: I am an aerospace engineer who studies space and defense systems, including hypersonic systems. These new systems pose an important challenge due to their maneuverability all along their trajectory. Because their flight paths can change as they travel, these missiles must be tracked throughout their flight.

A second important challenge stems from the fact that they operate in a different region of the atmosphere from other existing threats. The new hypersonic weapons fly much higher than slower subsonic missiles but much lower than intercontinental ballistic missiles. The U.S. and its allies do not have good tracking coverage for this in-between region, nor does Russia or China.

Russia has claimed that some of its hypersonic weapons can carry a nuclear warhead. This statement alone is a cause for concern whether or not it is true. If Russia ever operates this system against an enemy, that country would have to decide the probability of the weapon being conventional or nuclear.

In the case of the U.S., if the determination were made that the weapon was nuclear, then there is a very high likelihood that the U.S. would consider this a first strike attack and respond by unloading its nuclear weapons on Russia. The hypersonic speed of these weapons increases the precariousness of the situation because the time for any last-minute diplomatic resolution would be severely reduced.

It is the destabilizing influence that modern hypersonic missiles represent that is perhaps the greatest risk they pose. I believe the U.S. and its allies should rapidly field their own hypersonic weapons to bring other nations such as Russia and China to the negotiating table to develop a diplomatic approach to managing these weapons. More in The Conversation here.

Hypersonic missiles travel at a speed of one mile per second or more—at least five times the speed of sound. They are able to evade and conceal their precise targets from defenses until just seconds before impact. This leaves targeted states with almost no time to respond. Additionally, such weapons are capable of destroying targets without any explosives, using their kinetic energy alone. Hypersonic missiles require a reconsideration of traditional second-strike calculations, as they have the potential to decapitate a nation’s leadership before it has the opportunity to launch a counter attack.