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Hypersonic Missiles: A New Arms Race

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Hypersonic Missiles: A New Arms Race

China, Russia and the United States are all pursuing hypersonic weapons technologies, setting the stage for an arms race.

Hypersonic Missiles: A New Arms Race
Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Joshua Armstrong

The Biden administration is making a big push for hypersonic-related research funding in the fiscal year 2022 budget. The administration has requested $3.8 billion, almost 20 percent more than the Trump administration’s allocation of $3.2 billion for fiscal year 2021. There is no guarantee that this will encounter smooth sailing in Congress, considering that one of the two hypersonic missile prototypes had to be cancelled last year after criticism from the House appropriations defense subcommittee. This is the latest indicator of a spiraling arms race in this new technology.

A recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office on hypersonics noted that there are “70 efforts to develop hypersonic weapons and related technologies that are estimated to cost almost $15 billion from fiscal years 2015 through 2024,” most of which belong to the Department of Defense. In a speech at Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Mike White, who directs the hypersonics program in the office of the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said that the United States’ adversaries have made that decision for the U.S., pushing Washington to prioritize hypersonic systems. Earlier in June, Vice Admiral Jon Hill, director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), told the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces that “U.S. aircraft carriers are already facing risks from hypersonic weapons that are now entering the inventory of American adversaries and the Navy has developed early defenses for the threat.” Both China and Russia are reported to have deployed early versions of their hypersonic weapons, putting U.S. ships at risk.  

Additionally, the MDA has made a budget request of $8.9 billion in the fiscal year 2022 budget, with the goal of developing capabilities such as “a next-generation interceptor for homeland missile defense, hypersonic defensive capability, and space-based tracking critical to detecting challenging threats.” By way of defending against hypersonic threats, MDA is reported to be pursuing a hypersonic and ballistic tracking space sensor (HBTSS). The agency has made a funding request of $256 million for the research, development, testing, and evaluation of HBTSS. 

China and Russia have been pursuing the development of hypersonic capabilities for a decade now. Alexander Fedorov, a professor at Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology claims that an arms race is already on in this area but adds that Russia “has experience without much money, China has money without much experience, and the United States has both, although it revived its efforts later than did Russia or China and is now playing catch-up.”

China has already made significant progress in the area of hypersonics and is considered an equally consequential actor. Similar to Russia’s rationale, China claims that the logic behind its development of hypersonic missiles flows from “a concern that U.S. hypersonic weapons could enable the United States to conduct a preemptive, decapitating strike on China’s nuclear arsenal and supporting infrastructure. U.S. missile defense deployments could then limit China’s ability to conduct a retaliatory strike against the United States.” 

Irrespective of the veracity of this logic, China has made systematic progress in its pursuit of hypersonics. At the October 2019 military parade in Beijing, marking the 70th anniversary of its founding, China paraded for the first time the DF-17 missile. With a range of 1,800-2,500 kilometers, the DF-17 is a medium-range missile system equipped with a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV). 

The U.S. acknowledged the existence of the DF-17 prototype in 2014. In 2018, Mike Griffin, undersecretary for research and engineering at the Department of Defense said that China has done “20 times as many hypersonic weapons tests as has the United States over the last decade.” China’s pursuit of the DF-17 and other hypersonic weapons are reportedly undertaken to “counter adversary missile defenses, as well as to develop a fast, long-range, high-precision strike capability that ‘leaves enemies with little time to react.’” The HGV’s higher maneuverability and ability to fly at lower altitude make them difficult to track and their flight path unpredictable. These are attractive aspects of HGVs, which could also reduce the effectiveness of ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems. 

In early 2019, Chinese military officials stated that they are also developing “an antiship DF-17 variant.”  Media reports in October 2020 said that “the air-launched ballistic missile that China has reportedly been developing appears to be a hypersonic warhead boosted by a conventional rocket.”  

Meanwhile, Russia is also pursuing hypersonic weapons, and according to the state-run think tank IMEMO, hypersonic weapons are “a priority for the Russian government.” Talking about the benefits of hypersonic weapons, one Russian security analyst, Dmitry Stefanovich, said that they provide “new, combined abilities for missile weapons: increased speed and maneuverability, and improved accuracy.” Even though Russian research on hypersonic technology dates back to the 1980s, the program began to pick up momentum after the U.S. withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2001.

President Vladimir Putin last year identified this as a key reason for Russian development of hypersonics. He said, “While developing their anti-ballistic missile system, the Americans wanted to upset… strategic stability and balance thinking that if they created a missile defense umbrella, then the other side wouldn’t be able to respond adequately if they use nuclear weapons… However, after having developed these modern [hypersonic] systems, including those which easily evade any anti-missile ballistic system, we maintain… strategic stability and strategic balance.”  

The Russian military currently has two hypersonic missiles: the Avangard and the Kinzhal. The Avangard is a nuclear-capable missile that can fly at 20 times the speed of sound. The Kinzhal is also a nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile fielded first in December 2017, and according to reports from January this year, it is being prepared for deployment with the Northern fleet. In October 2020, Russia conducted a successful test launch of the new Zircon hypersonic cruise missile test from the Admiral Gorshkov frigate in the White Sea. 

The U.S., Russian, and Chinese pursuit of these technologies will have cascading effects. It is unlikely that such developments will end with the three. Other countries like India and Australia are also pursuing hypersonic technologies, either on their own or in partnerships. A new arms race involving hypersonics is clearly already underway.