During his annual state of the union address on March 1st, 2018, President Vladimir Putin touted Russia’s newest acquisition in nuclear capabilities, claiming that they now possessed “invincible” arms, immune to any missile defence system currently deployed. The two-hour address featured videos of nuclear weapons striking North America. Putin stated: “You didn’t listen to our country then. Listen to us now”, adding that this was “not a bluff”.
The presentation introduced the Kanyon nuclear undersea drone, the RS-28 Sarmat (a replacement for the SS-18 Satan and a response to the obsolescence issues facing the current Russian ICBM fleet), and Avangard. The Avangard, a Hypersonic Weapon (HSW), was described as a “low-flying, difficult-to-spot cruise missile (…) with a practically unlimited range and an unpredictable flight path, which can bypass lines of interception and is invincible in the face of all existing and future systems of both missile defence and air defence.”
Analysts quickly labelled the dramatic presentation as sabre-rattling, particularly since at that time the Russian Presidential elections were to be held only a few weeks later. Defence organizations, Pentagon included, played down the announcement stating that these technologies have been in development for a long time. Despite these overtures, the presence of hypersonic technologies presents a profound risk to international stability.
A Silent Arms Race
Russia is not alone in their development of HSWs. The big 3 (the United States, Russia, and China) are leading the race with France trailing behind. Australia, Japan, and India are all developing the subcomponent technologies necessary for hypersonic platforms. The cause for concern comes from the dual-use character of the underlying technology. The same technology that supports hypersonic travel can be used for non-military purposes including, but not limited to, space launch, spacecraft retrieval, and civilian transportation.
Nuclear technology programs can be launched for supposedly civilian purposes, but as history has shown, intentions can change. Technology that was originally acquired for non-military purposes can be transferred without much difficulty and they can be exported to other nations. The market for the commercial application of the technology, including hypersonic airliners, is still economically uncertain, further raising doubts against any claim that the technology is being pursued for any other reason than arms proliferation.
The strategic implications of hypersonic weapons are significant. It renders current missile defence systems virtually ineffective due to their non-linear flight path and speed. Traditionally, a ballistic missile would follow a hyperbolic trajectory, facilitating the calculation of its future position at any given point along its path. Figure 1 from the RAND corporation illustrates the problem of non-linear flight.
Even countries that do not have missile defence systems will find themselves impacted. They will not necessarily become more vulnerable since they are already exposed to the current arsenal. But these countries rely predominantly on a nuclear deterrence model in which the risk of retaliation would act to dissuade any attack. In this scenario, an HSW attack would occur with little warning and compress the timeline for response. In response to this possibility, countries will have to rely on more aggressive policies such as the devolution of command and control of nuclear forces, increasing the unpredictability of a crisis. Hypersonic weapons could even encourage changes in strategic postures including launch-on-warning or preemption. In short, this dynamic could lead to “hair-trigger tactics that would increase crisis instability”1
There are still formidable barriers to achieving hypersonic travel. Everything ranging from thermal management and materials to hypersonic propulsion and flight control remains to be solved before the platform becomes stable enough to be deployed. At such high speeds, the structure of the vehicle needs to be able to withstand high temperatures from the friction and still maintain control.
The challenges have proven significant enough that many of the development programs have met setbacks. The United States has made its own advances in the development of HSWs, particularly since their tests in 2012 featuring a hypersonic rocket failing seconds into flight. The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) intends to further develop America’s hypersonic capabilities over the next years but no date has been fixed yet for their deployment.
Current limitations on the export of hypersonic technology are limited to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a multilateral export control regime, that is both informal and voluntary, intended to prevent the proliferation of missile platforms and technologies.
Despite this measure, this regime was developed before the prospect of HSWs and the subcomponent technologies of hypersonic weapons are not included in its definitions and are at risk of proliferation. Experts at RAND predict that there is less than a decade left for the United States, China, and Russia to cooperate on nonproliferation to hinder the availability of HSW and its component technologies.
With relations between these countries under heavy strain and the withdrawal by the US from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), the prospects for cooperation are unlikely.
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