The US General in charge of nuclear arsenal issued a warning that Russia and China are "aggressively" developing new high-speed, or hypersonic, weapons that the US currently has no defense against.
The word “hypersonic” indicates immense speed. The word itself refers to any speeds in excess of five times the speed of sound. Growing hypersonic technologies are challenging strategic stability between major military superpowers of the world. In the recent past, the United States, Russia, and China have invested considerable resources into research and development of hypersonic vehicles, which are now seeing extensive interest across the globe.
These weapons engage a simple trade-off that differentiates them from their ballistic missiles. Hypersonic weapons forgo long-range ballistic missile re-entry speeds for better range and their flight pattern permits them to offer unique challenges to existing ballistic missile defense systems. Hypersonic boost-glide weapons feature more sophisticated trajectories when compared to the parabolic ones seen in ballistic missiles, creating additional challenges for missile defense.
Presently, China is seen to be in the lead with hypersonic weapons technology, especially with regard to battlefield-ready implementation. In November 2017, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force conducted the first flight tests of a new missile known as the DF-17. The DF-17 was the first missile system to use a hypersonic glide vehicle as its payload and is intended for operational deployment.
Although the United States and Russia have both conducted developmental tests, neither of them is known to have taken concrete steps towards deploying these systems. The US intelligence is looking forward for the DF-17 to enter service around 2020. Its deployment in Asia is considered to be destabilizing. With a nuclear payload, the DF-17 poses a threat to US missile defense systems and military infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific region.
Both Russia and China’s militaries are known to be extraordinary and extremely modern military forces. Their respective fleets are comparable to that of the US. In the past few months, Russian President Vladimir Putin has increasingly spoken about the advancements in Russia’s military. According to Putin, the weapons developed by Russia will easily render NATO defenses "completely useless.” The country is known to have developed a highly sophisticated arsenal of nuclear weapons and Putin’s statements have caused concern in Washington which perceives Russia as a challenger and a threat to its sovereignty.
According to General John Hyten, the head of US Strategic Command, the hypersonic weapons developed by Russia and China might not be operational for many years to come. However, he warned that changes to missile defenses are immediately required, otherwise the US may not be able to detect them when they become operational.
"China has tested hypersonic capabilities. Russia has tested. We have as well. Hypersonic capabilities are a significant challenge," Hyten stated. "We are going to need a different set of sensors in order to see the hypersonic threats. Our adversaries know that."
Hyten and other officials, including those from military, conveyed that the present generation of missile detecting satellites and radars are not enough to detect new generation weapons. Hypersonic is typically described as having a speed of Mach 5 or over 3,806 miles per hour.
"We've watched them test those capabilities," Hyten added. In order to avoid public speculation about potential US military shortcomings, he acknowledged "we don't have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us, so our response would be our deterrent force, which would be the triad and the nuclear capabilities that we have to respond to such a threat."
As mentioned in our previous article titles ‘Russia’s weapons,’ the lower trajectory of hypersonic weapons makes it difficult for US missile defense satellites and radars to detect. Previously, Russia has mentioned that it is developing high-speed air-launched missiles as well as underwater hypersonic drones. As a result, the Pentagon is conducting a review of its missile defenses to try and determine new capabilities that might be needed to deal with new classes of attack weapons. The Pentagon has also been coming up with concepts for interceptor missiles that keep enemy attack missiles at bay. US missile defenses currently being used are intended to destroy only a small number of missiles.
The US Missile Defense Agency has already begun work on next-generation point-defense systems to guard against these new hypersonic ballistic missiles. As China and Russia develop other new hypersonic weapons, the United States is believed to possibly catch up, especially with regard to missile defense.
Our assessment is that the advancements in the development of such hypersonic weapons could spark further conflict in the arms race between Russia, China, and the United States. Nevertheless, the hypersonic ambitions of these superpowers appear set to march ahead unabated.