Will the race to develop hypersonic weapons spark the next global arms race?

On May 28 in Arctic waters not far from Finland and Norway, Russia’s Northern Fleet blasted a missile from a frigate in the Barents Sea that was no ordinary projectile. According to Tass, the Russian news agency, the test of the Tsirkon hypersonic missile, believed to be capable of traveling nine times the speed of sound, was a success, hitting a target 625 miles away in the White Sea.

The May 28 test of the hypersonic missiles, which were designed to evade air defense systems, was the 14th conducted by Russia in the previous five months and hypersonic weapons are increasingly seen as a possible threat to the U.S. and NATO.

“You have failed to contain Russia,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said when he first announced his plans for the hypersonic arsenal in 2018.

On April 20 of this year, the Kremlin boasted that it had conducted a successful test-launch from its northwest of the new intercontinental missile Sarmat, which barreled high above the Arctic to hit a target 3,500 miles away in easternmost Russia. While the Sarmat itself is not considered to be a hypersonic weapon, the Kremlin plans to couple it with a hypersonic, nuclear-capable boost-glide vehicle, Avangard, which detaches from missiles and, according to the Kremlin, blasts down at 20,000 miles per hour in unpredictable trajectories before slamming targets “like a meteorite, like a fireball” as Putin has described it.

A still from a video shown on Russian TV reported to be a Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile being launched from Plesetsk, Russia,1,000 miles north of Moscow on April 20, 2022. (Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation/Cover Images/Zuma Press)
A still from a video shown on Russian TV reported to be a Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile being launched from Plesetsk, Russia,1,000 miles north of Moscow on April 20, 2022. (Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation/Cover Images/Zuma Press) (ZUMAPRESS.com)

Calling it “a truly unique weapon,” Putin said that it would “provide food for thought to those who in the heat of frenzied aggressive rhetoric try to threaten our country.” Celebrating the launch, Russian state TV released a video, showing the European capitals the missile could hit within five minutes, and Putin ally Aleksey Zhuravlyov, Duma defense committee deputy chairman, told state media that from Russia’s Arctic bases, hypersonic weapons could reach Finland in “even 10 seconds” and underscored that Russia’s hypersonic nuclear weapons could reach the U.K. in 200 seconds.

A senior State Department official told Yahoo News that the department is closely monitoring “the testing of some of the novel weapons systems in the Arctic.”

“These have all been of concern to us,” the official said. Moscow recently announced it will conduct another 19 weapons tests in the Arctic by the end of this year, the official added, including “long-range, high-precision, hypersonic weapon systems."

By definition, all hypersonic missiles fly at speeds of over Mach 5, five times the speed of sound, and several countries are now racing to develop their own. The U.S. has so far spent roughly $10 billion to develop hypersonic weaponry over the past three years, Russia and China are aggressively testing them, and another nine countries are pursuing them, sparking fears that another arms race has already begun.

May 30, 2022, Russian Federation: This footage, published Sunday (29May2022) shows the Frigate Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Gorshkov conducts a test firing of Zircon hypersonic cruise  missile in the Barents Sea...According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, the test firing hit a target in the White Sea. It was part of a test of new Russian weapons.. .Russian officials claimed the missile successfully hit a sea target located at a distance of about 1,000 km. (Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation/Cover Images via ZUMA Press)
Russia conducts a test firing of Zircon hypersonic cruise missile in the Barents Sea. (Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation/Cover Images via ZUMA Press) (ZUMAPRESS.com)

Barreling at top speeds in the upper atmosphere and able to easily change directions mid-path, the trajectories and targets of hypersonic missiles are almost impossible for conventional missile defense systems to predict, according to experts — and the difficulty in tracking them has been documented in congressional hearings. As Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, noted in a Senate hearing of the Committee on Armed Services last summer, when it comes to hypersonic weapons, Western missile defense systems can’t “track, much less intercept, them.”

In March, after news broke that Russia had used a semi-hypersonic weapon in Ukraine, President Biden said as much himself, calling them “almost impossible to stop.”

Speaking in a personal capacity, Carrie Lee, chair of the Department of National Security and Strategy at the U.S. Army War College, told Yahoo News that “because hypersonics are so fast, and they can take warning systems by surprise, they compress the amount of time between launch and impact.” With intercontinental ballistic missiles, she noted, it “takes about 26 minutes or so between when you first detect it and when it impacts,” but hypersonic missiles might only be detected at the last moment. “There’s not a lot of time to make a decision about what the missile is, where it’s coming from…or to investigate if it’s a real threat. You have to assume the worst. So that [has the potential to make] people trigger-happy.”

The X-51A Waverider
The X-51A Waverider is capable of hypersonic flight. (U.S. Air Force graphic)

While Russia is believed to be the country that has tested the most hypersonic weapons, China’s appear more sophisticated, at least to judge from a globe-orbiting hypersonic trial run last fall. An October 2021 Chinese “fractional orbital bombardment” test was so impressive that, in an interview with Bloomberg TV, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley called it “a very significant technological event.” “I don’t know if it’s quite a Sputnik moment,” he said, “but I think it’s very close to that.” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall echoed Milley’s concerns, telling reporters, “It's a way to avoid defenses and missile warning systems." Kendall admitted that the U.S. Air Force is currently in a hypersonic arms race against Russia and China, though he emphasized it’s more a race about the quality of hypersonic systems versus their quantity.

Some legislators, such as Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., have criticized the Pentagon for falling behind Russia and China on hypersonic development, a charge the Defense Department denied to Yahoo News. Congress, meanwhile, has stepped up Pentagon funding for its hypersonic program, allocating $4.7 billion in 2023 on top of $3.8 billion for 2022.

Each hypersonic missile in the U.S. currently costs around $100 million, according to Lee, versus about $1 million for a cruise missile — a figure confirmed to Yahoo News by a Defense Department official.

“Hypersonics are a brand new class of weapons and we’re currently developing prototypes for testing,” a Defense Department official who requested anonymity told Yahoo News. “Once they are tested and a regular part of our arsenal, we expect costs will be considerably less.”

Thus far, however, U.S. tests have been hit or miss. On Wednesday, a hypersonic missile test in Hawaii failed to properly launch, as did a similar test last October in Alaska, although the Air Force announced a successful launch of a hypersonic missile last month.

Nevertheless, “Hypersonics is a critical technology area,” Defense Department spokesperson Oscar Seára told Yahoo News. “In concert with select allies” — which include Australia and Britain — “DoD is pursuing multiple hypersonics-based capability solutions,” he added.

Some experts believe that the rush to develop hypersonic weapons is, in part, the byproduct of the development of sophisticated missile defense systems, as well as the U.S. decision to pull out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with Russia in 2002.

In 1972, the U.S. and the then-U.S.S.R. signed the treaty, underscoring that global nuclear deterrence was based on the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) — “meaning if I strike you, you strike me back with everything you’ve got, and that’s the end of the world. So that’s why we are going to restrain ourselves,” Sanne Verschuren, a fellow at the Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation, told Yahoo News.

But in the 1980s, when the U.S. began developing its Strategic Defense Initiative system, known as “Star Wars,” and exploring “ballistic missile defense, particularly in outer space, to try to intercept incoming missiles, it upset that MAD dynamic,” Verschuren said.

A depiction of Russian nuclear strikes on European countries, shown on Russian state TV
A depiction of Russian nuclear strikes on European countries, shown on Russian state TV. (Screengrab of Russia-1)

Investments in missile defense soared during the George W. Bush administration, which abrogated the ABM treaty with Russia because it prevented the U.S. from building up extensive missile defense systems. So a massive constellation of satellites and radar systems to track missiles, Verschuren said, shot up in the skies and across the U.S. and allied countries, along with Aegis systems that could shoot at missiles following their predictable ballistic trajectories. “Except for President Trump, who said in 2019 that he was going to take out all missiles” — including those from Russia and China, said Verschuren, who is writing a book about the development of military technology, “the official line has always been that [missile defense systems were built] only for the North Korean and Iranian threat — not for Russia and China.” But Russia and China, looking around at all the Aegis systems and the space-based system and lasers, didn’t buy it, she said. And they responded “by investing in all sorts of exotic equipment, including hypersonic missiles,” which she believes is fueling an arms race. “What’s remarkable is we now find ourselves in a world that we decided in the 1960s was not a feasible world — but here we are.”

Not everyone agrees with her views that the current situation constitutes an arms race.

“It makes little sense to respond to someone's deploying hypersonic missiles by deploying your own hypersonic missiles,” Pavel Podvig, senior researcher at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research told Yahoo News. “For this to be a race, these systems would have to give you some serious military advantage,” he added. “It’s not exactly the case here.”

And not everyone believes that the U.S. should heavily invest in hypersonic weaponry.

“The U.S. sees new technologies being developed and we don’t have them and this gets into arms racing,” said Lee. “My personal opinion is the U.S. has a lot less to gain from developing hypersonic missiles and the money we’re putting into missile development should instead be put towards better defense systems.”

But while many are worried about Russia’s hypersonic weapons, Mathieu Boulègue, senior research fellow for the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House, isn’t one of them.

“Russia doesn’t really have working hypersonic systems,” he told Yahoo News. “I’ll be worried when Russia has a standing force of heavily deployed hypersonic systems that can actually create strategic effects in a standoff against the West. But right now, it’s just tests” of what he calls “asymmetric enablers.” Ten or 20 years down the road, “hypersonics could be a game-changer. But it’s still very early.”