Will Hypersonic Capabilities Render Missile Defense Obsolete?
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Will Hypersonic Capabilities Render Missile Defense Obsolete?


Throughout the nuclear era, and especially since the 1980s, the United States has been singularly obsessed with developing a strategic missile defense system. In some ways, this obsession seems to be growing.

A 2011 Arms Control Association report noted that to date the United States had spent over a $100 billion on developing strategic missile defense systems. A Council on Foreign Relations’ Backgrounder from last year contends that the U.S. Missile Defense Agency spent roughly $90 billion between 2002 and 2013, and plans to spend about $8 billion annually (2 percent of the Pentagon’s baseline budget) through 2017.

Strategic missile defense might therefore very well constitute the worst investment-return ratio of any major military system in U.S. history given that decades of work and billions of dollars have produced little in the way of results. To be sure, the U.S. has demonstrated some notable progress in the area in recent years. Still, at best, the missile defense systems the U.S. is developing might provide some unreliable protection against the currently non-existent North Korean and Iranian missile threats to the U.S. homeland.

Yet current missile defense efforts are probably at greater risk of becoming obsolete than at any time before. As Harry Kazianis noted on these pages last year, missile defense’s real enemy to date has been arithmetic. That is, missiles inherently favor the offense because they are exceptionally cheap to deploy and exceptionally expensive to defend against. Another factor that has long bedeviled strategic ballistic missile defense is the necessity of perfection given the sheer destructive power of just a few nuclear warheads.

But this is no longer the only threat to the missile defense systems the U.S. has invested so much in already, and continues to invest in the future. Notably, the emergence of hypersonic missiles could very well render these missile defense systems obsolete.

Hypersonic missiles pose two distinct challenges to current missile defense systems. First, they travel at speeds far greater than what the missile defense systems are built to counter. To be considered hypersonic, a missile must travel at speeds of between Mach 5 and Mach 10, or 3,840–7,680 miles per hour. By contrast, modern cruise missiles travel at speeds of between 500 and 600 mph.

Secondly, hypersonic missiles fired from intercontinental ballistic missiles travel at lower altitudes and have greater maneuverability than the ballistic missiles America’s BMD systems are being built to counter. As Richard Fisher explained to The Washington Free Beacon after the recent Chinese hypersonic missile test: “The beauty of the HGV [hypersonic glide vehicle] is that it can perform hypersonic precision strikes while maintaining a relatively low altitude and flat trajectory, making it far less vulnerable to missile defenses.”

None of this has done anything to diminish the United States’ enthusiasm for pushing ahead with missile defense programs. In fact, support for missile defense seems to be growing among U.S. leaders. Whereas missile defense had been a fiercely partisan issue in the United States for decades—with Republicans strongly in favor and Democrats against—both parties now seem to generally support it, albeit with different degrees of enthusiasm. Indeed, the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act ordered the Pentagon to review four sites on the eastern United States to build missile defense systems to protect the country from the ICBMs that Iran doesn’t have. Moreover, Reuters reported yesterday that the Pentagon now plans to ask Congress for an additional $4.5 billion in missile defense spending over the next five years.

Supporters of these efforts might counter that current missile defense systems aren’t intended to counter the ballistic missile threats posed by Russia and China—two of the four countries currently pursuing hypersonic capabilities (the others being the U.S. and India). Rather, the U.S. is simply trying to protect itself and its allies from less capable regional states like North Korea and Iran. Neither of these countries are known to be pursuing hypersonic capabilities.

This is perfectly true for the time being but it’s far from certain how long this situation will last. If the proliferation of missiles in general is any guide, hypersonic missiles are likely to proliferate across the globe before too long. It’s hardly unthinkable that North Korea and Iran will be among the countries that acquire them whether through indigenous efforts or by purchasing them from foreign sources. Both countries already have advanced missile development programs, as well as a history of foreign support for these “indigenous” efforts. China, in particular, has been quite generous to both when it comes to missile technology.

Therefore, at a time of fiscal austerity the U.S. is essentially investing billions of dollars in technology that will most likely be obsolete before its fully deployed.

B. Smith
February 14, 2014 at 09:55

Overwhelming offense trumps defense in this scenario. You will only have a small window to intercept an incoming HGV. Multiply this by ten or a hundred and deploy decoys, it becomes impossible to even to intercept a few. Math always wins.

February 10, 2014 at 00:31

I may be the only person posting here who actually served in an Aegis cruiser, so I’ll offer two points. First, this is not a new threat. The SS-N-22, (P-270 Moskit version) has been around a long time and is a threat that the Aegis community is familiar with. Nobody has quit and gone home yet because of the missile. Second, this threat will end war at sea in the same way machine guns, barbed wire, and gas ended war on land in 1917. I recommend reading a bit more widely in the naval technology areas. Google ‘naval laser’ and do a little math–hypersonic is still lower than c.

February 9, 2014 at 17:42

Ever thought of investing the billions in making more friends worldwide than bombing some over again producing long lasting enemies for decades?

February 14, 2014 at 01:18

very simple idea but those in power, every where, don’t like simple and cheap ideas like peace and friendship.

February 9, 2014 at 11:06

ONO! We have to surrender? How about if we upgrade low altitude capability and defensive response times? OK, I understand, that would take money away from the welfare programs that buy votes for Democrats.

February 8, 2014 at 17:53

HGV is GPS guided, and there was no GPS before 1990.

Also, google JF12 wind tunnels- the most advanced of its kind, and you’ll get the idea why China got such a jump on the hypersonic technology.

Wesley Parish
February 8, 2014 at 17:35

One thing this article could’ve done better was differentiate between theatre anti-missile defense (tactical nukes) and strategic anti-missile defense (ICBMs). As I understand it, hypersonic missiles would be intermediate between tactical missiles and strategic missiles – glorified (potentially) high-altitude cruise missiles in point of fact.

As far as strategic anti-missile defense goes, I think that’s a boondoggle – you can’t expect a potential adversary to submit ICBM flight plans the way you can expect the DoD to submit missile test flight plans to the interception team.

Oro Invictus
February 8, 2014 at 10:05

Well, I think I’d much rather prefer an Aegis than an Asi, quite frankly; it seems much more tenable and less prone to sudden miscalculation. Considering the vast advances made in DEWs (particularly the work done with the TJNAF FEL and the revelations it has generated regarding beam decoherence and HE power density), I think such a defensive program is still quite serviceable in the face of hypersonic munitions.

Granted, realistically there is still a need to strike back at a threat, however, in this regard the US is doing fine. The US currently boasts the most advanced hypersonic systems (though, they have not opted to begin laying out plans for serial production as in the case of the Brahmos-II), with Russia and India coming next (though, once again, they are closer to mass-production of their systems), and the PRC systems decades behind (the Soviet Union and US conducted successful tests with systems like the WU-14 as far back as the 60s).

My hope is, once defensive technologies such as these advance sufficiently and proliferate globally, these will make more traditional WMDs ineffectual to the point of being mostly discarded. Granted, there are other avenues for causing massive destruction not requiring such obvious means of conveyance (as well as ever greater advances in overcoming countermeasures), but it is still something.



February 8, 2014 at 09:04

Anyone who doubts the effectiveness of missile defence should take a look at the rockets fired at Israel in the Ghaza conflict.

So what is the author’s point? That missile defences are wasting money, or that they were somehow supposed to ignore this area just because, hypersonic missiles, like other game changing technology, routinely pop up in warfare anyway?

We Chinese have a saying about pretending to be the strategist at the aftermath of things. What is the point of this article? To say that there could have been a better way to deal with missiles before the hypersonic age, or otherwise to say that the decisions made were wrong or replaceable by other choices just because hypersonics showed up now?

February 8, 2014 at 11:59


Comparing homemade rockets fired from Gaza to modern ballistic missiles is like comparing a two-year old to Muhammed Ali at his prime.

There are also claims that Iron Dome is not nearly as effective as announced, with some estimates going as low as ten percent. And remember: the Patriot was lauded as having a 90% intercept rate during Desert Storm when in fact it had close to 9%.

Michael W. Perry
February 8, 2014 at 04:27

Quote: “That is, missiles inherently favor the offense because they are exceptionally cheap to deploy and exceptionally expensive to defend against.”

That’s beside the point. The issue is not the unfairness of having to expend a $10 million missile to destroy a $1 million one. It’s that if that nuke-equipped missile gets through it could do well over $10 billion in damages to people and property. (What’s 1/2 square mile of Manhattan worth?) At that sort of price, it’s a great bargain.

Technology arguments spin both ways. Now the technology is missile v. missile with hypersonic lurking on the horizon for the major powers. But neither offense nor defense owns a monopoly on killer technology. Missile v. missile may be all we need to stave off madman-driven disaster until a new (laser, particle-beam or whatever) technology arrives that can handle hypersonic as well as regular missiles.

In short, our ability to predict the future is so doubtful, that $8 billion a year is a bargain. Do the numbers. That’s less $27 per year per U.S. citizen. Many people spend more than that each year for sunscreen.

–Michael W. Perry, editor of Chesterton on War and Peace

February 8, 2014 at 12:11

Technology spin may work both ways, but reality does not.

If missiles were so easily countered by other missiles, we’d be doing it by now much more effectively than we are. Heck, we’d be countering bullets with active defense, ie, other bullets rather than relying upon passive defense such as body armor.

Using the theoretical (the cost of a successful nuclear strike upon our soil) to justify the actual (missile defense research and development costs) is only rational and justifiable the closer the probability of the theoretical approaches one.

But as China and Russia are unlikely to engage in an unwarranted nuclear strike, we have to ask ourselves what the true purpose of a missile defense is and if that goal is worthy of our tax dollars.

If our ultimate goal is to defend the United States from attack, there are more cost effective ways to do it. Diplomacy, human intelligence, and prompt global strike capability would render harmless 99% of the threats we face as a nation if we simply devoted enough resources to them.

Missile defense, on the other hand, relies more upon marketing than battlefield performance to justify its cost. The Patriot had a near zero percent interception rate during Desert Storm despite several hundred million dollars spent on it up until that time.

I am not saying that missile defense should be cut out entirely, but neither should it consume the amount of time and money that it does. Given our current economic landscape, improving upon proven methods makes more sense than trying to revolutionize warfare.

February 8, 2014 at 19:01

Comrade TDog,

You keep trying to sound like a dispassionate, neutral expert, even though you’re so obviously not. If you’re basing your example of why BMD isn’t worthwhile on a the Patriot which was first fielded 23 years ago in ’91, your example is sadly out of date and out of sync with the times.

What no mention of the best and most current anti-missile platforms including the SM-3 and THAAD?

Having spent years helping to validate these platforms, I’ve seen their performance in person and operations were as realistic as possible, from what I saw. For the SM-3: 16 out of 19 successful intercepts so far, where one “bullet” essentially nailed ” ‘nother bullet.” With all the science involved: It’s pretty damn impressive to see.

One would presume that if they were ever used, each incoming missile would have multiple interceptors launched.

Anyway: your so-called “dispassionate observer” role is as transparent as the emperor’s new clothes. You ain’t fooling no one; we all know who helps pay your bills.

February 8, 2014 at 19:09

BTW, Comrade TDog:

The goal of BMDS is not only to help protect this country, but our allies and their populations as well. I don’t think we need East Coast BMDS sites (esp. the ground based interceptors, which basically suck IMHO) but we should continue to improve the platforms that *do* work, while continuing to improve our laser weaponry.

Also, if one prefers allies, US military personnel, and innocent civilians to NOT be irradiated by nuclear weaponry in a “disagreement”, I’d say theatre defense capabilities like this could come in handy in the middle of a limited nuclear exchange.

Steve Roemerman
February 8, 2014 at 04:21

There is so much wrong about this article, and the thread it’s hard to know where to start.

First, “missile defense” is not, and has never been just a nuke issue. One of the main purposes for weapons like the Standard Missile is to defend against any incoming flying machine, with or without a human inside, and regardless of the payload being any kind of warhead or just large fuel tanks.

Second, most forms of missile defense are far less expensive than buying new platforms (ships, airplanes) because new capability is usually either an add on, or simply reconfiguring existing sensors and weapons. So, if one wanted to simply promote a way to spend more money, missile defense in it’s current form would be a bad idea. There are of course grandiose schemes for this, but there are such ideas for everything, not just in the defense world.

Third, the first strike idea is just loony. First strikes are tempting if you think you can get away with it. Defenses make first strikes dangerous. And, if your foe has defenses, and you don’t have them, a first strike (conventional or otherwise) is suicide.

Having done analysis in this area on and off for more than 30 years, it is clear there are some predictable themes, about how this cat and mouse game works. One is the long term trend toward making defense more affordable. The laser progress David McCarley mentions is a great example. The core technology is driven by the factory welding laser market, not defense, and the “weapon” part of the thing is cheap enough for a small business to buy.

February 8, 2014 at 02:42

This article is arguing more about the speed of the missiles and ignoring its other aspects.

For example, any such missile defence would work only work if it has the ability to correctly identify and recognize incoming missiles. What about the stealth missile? even while they are hovering with ballistic speeds, they would not be caught by the defense system whether hypersonic or not.

Another thing. none of the system will provide absolute immunity as every defense system would have to have a limit of handling simultaneous attacks. What if the thousands of attacks are done in synchronization ? How will any system work including the solid state/laser/hypersonic/supersonic?

February 8, 2014 at 02:08

Hmmmm, “hypersonic missiles fired from intercontinental ballistic missiles…” Mr. Keck must know something the rest of the world doesn’t. To my knowledge, no nation has tried to fire a hypersonic missile from a ballistic missile. Furthermore, the “ballistic missiles” the US system is intended to engage, by virtue of achieving intercontinental range (defined as about 7 Km per second, 15,700 MpH) are already well above “hypersonic” speed; they travel at Mach 20+. Why would one want to slow down to mere hypersonic speed? The article makes false assertions to build its argument and is therefore irrelevant.

February 8, 2014 at 01:59

The article raises some valid points. It overlooks the fact that the real challenges in missile defense (using ground-based missiles) are “hit-to-kill” with conventional warheads and sorting out decoys. Nuclear-tipped anti-ballistic missile systems are effective even against a mix of decoys and warheads, maneuvering or not. Their problem is EMP, temporary radar black-outs due to the detonation of the warheads and the effect on satellites. Within the context of a superpower confrontation, some of those things are manageable. On the hit-to-kill with conventional weapons, there were some prototypes of essentially MIRV’d ABMs in which a single missile could carry multiple, smaller interceptors (this would overcome the decoy problem, somewhat). Developments in laser technology adds another dimension to this. Note too, that protecting hard targets like missile silos remains inherently easier than soft targets like cities. Finally, I’d dispute that missiles are cheap to build and deploy. The real issue on that front is not the ICBMs or IRBMs are cheap but that the cost of interceptor missiles is too high relative to their targets.

David OHara
February 8, 2014 at 01:22

What a pathetic article. I remember when Sci. AM. had an article titled “Why Missile Defense Won’t Work” and of course it does work now. Every objection they had was easy to overcome except the requirement they gave for 100% success.
Does the author really think defensive technology stands still? All of the targeting technology used for the current systems can be used on a better system designed to deal with lower altitude agile targets. I’d suspect that by the time the hypersonic threat to US cities is real we will have a rudimentary defense against single missiles and a more robust system later.

David McCarley
February 7, 2014 at 22:59

This article totally ignores the development of solid-state and free electron lasers, already being used to intercept mortar and artillery shells, not to mention rail guns and our own hypersonic missile technologies. The automation of defense systems with advanced tracking technologies and lasers/particle beam weapons makes the argument in this article moot.

Kimbo Y. Laurel
February 8, 2014 at 01:34

@David McCarley. I have to agree with you on the development of laser but the problems with laser technology are power,cooling system, materials to withstand the head as it powers and ability to shoot down indirectly. For rail gun technology, it needs to with stand the heat from the friction of accelerated missile and to have a better cooling system as well. For the detection system, it needs to have strong calculating power. This problem will be solved within 20-30 years but for now, the technology is primacy stage.

February 8, 2014 at 02:44

“Solid state” and “free electron” lasers may sound mighty impressive, but have thus far yielded absolutely nothing in the way of results. Most laser tests involve test subjects whose trajectory and path are known – hardly a real world test.

Also, the range of current lasers is about one mile. By the time the hypersonic missile comes into the laser’s range, the system will have one-three thousandth of a second at most to hit and destroy it.

If the incoming missile is traveling faster than Mach 5, the time granted to the system is even less.

Even if the laser-based system gets a quantum boost in its killing range, hypersonic delivery systems still pose a serious problem. For one, even if you boost the killing range of a laser to 100 miles (greater than the current iteration of the Patriot), you still only have 1/30th of a second to hit at most and destroy an incoming hypersonic vehicle – which I will grant is possible, but that’s not a large amount of wiggle room, especially if there’s a nuke riding that vehicle.

And mind you, a 15-20 kW laser is expected to only have a range of about one mile. To get a laser with a range of 100 miles would require and exponential increase in power.

Secondly, if the hypersonic vehicle can maneuver, is there a system out there right now that can simultaneously track and correct its aim at the speed the hypersonic vehicle is moving? Anti-aircraft and anti-missile missiles can do midcourse corrections, but a laser needs to correct its aim at the source. The effectiveness of its coverage is directly proportionate to how fast it can maneuver itself. It will have a much more narrow angle of coverage than a Patriot or similar missile system.

As in most things, fortune favors the offense in this case. As Sun Tzu said, and I’m paraphrasing here, if you want to live, go on the defense, but if you want to win, go on the offense.

the relation that relates itself to itself
February 8, 2014 at 06:23

Your arithmetic confuses me.

By my calculation, if a missile is traveling at Mach 10 (~8000 MPH), it travels about 5.5 miles per second. That means a hypothetical one-mile laser beam has 0.18 seconds to destroy its target, not .0003. Similarly if its range is boosted to 100 miles it has a full 18 seconds, which sounds like a feasible window in which to destroy the missile.

February 8, 2014 at 07:04

I think the math is off.
Are you saying a missile travels 100 miles in 1/30th of a second?
This is equivalent to saying it has a speed of 3000miles/s
The earths circumference is 25000miles. So this missile could travel around the world in just over 8 seconds?

February 8, 2014 at 12:18

Math and therelation,

My math was indeed off. Hypersonic vehicles travel between 3840 and 7860 mph. At a range of one mile, a laser would have 1.067 seconds to destroy an incoming hypersonic vehicle traveling at Mach 5. It would have roughly half a second to do so to one traveling at Mach 10.

That having been said, with a range of one mile, the laser’s developers had better hope their laser is the target because even the most primitive nuclear weapons have a blast radius a little more than one mile.

J. Random Driveby
February 8, 2014 at 17:27

Taking Mach 10 to be 8000 miles/hour, that’s 8000 miles/hr / 3600 sec/hour = 2.22… miles/second. Assuming a laser range of 1 mile, you have 450 milliseconds to zap it. If the laser range is 100 miles, you have 45 seconds to play with.

Arithmetic is your FRIEND.

Brett McMillian
February 8, 2014 at 03:28

Spot on. The author clearly doesn’t understand current state-of-the-art missile defense technologies and is using his limited knowledge to complain about defense spending.

February 7, 2014 at 21:32

For dineros for the neo-con racket…

Jen Whitten
February 7, 2014 at 19:22

The implication of missile defense becoming obsolete is that combatants must strike first or lose the war. Which means that the deterrent effect of mutually-assured destruction is history.

February 7, 2014 at 23:06

Actually MAD doesn’t require any defensive capability.

February 8, 2014 at 06:01

That’s actually the whole point of MAD: you can’t defend against the enemy’s strike, but the enemy can’t destroy all of your missiles (there are too many and they’re too hard to hit) so you strike right back and destroy him too.

Missile defense was originally supposed to be a way to end the deterrent effect of MAD in nuclear war, but I don’t think it will ever be reliable enough to do that.

February 8, 2014 at 14:18

Actually, I though MAD was the ultimate defensive capability.

Which confuses me…everyone is hyperventilating about supposed Chinese missile capabilities, and their supposed ability to defeat our limited BMD, that was never intended to defeat Chinese missiles anyway. Isn’t that what we’ve been assuring the Russians and Chinese all along? Or was our BMD really supposed to be able to defeat Russian/Chinese missiles all along, and I just never caught the “wink-wink-nod”?

When did our national policy change to “we’re going to watch them fire off a wave of ICBMs, and not start flushing the silos immediately”? Isn’t the exact capabilities of their ICBMs really moot…as long as they’re not capable of taking out our own launchers and missiles pre-emptively?

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