Photo credit Wikimedia Commons

They move at more than five times the speed of sound and can maneuver in unpredictable patterns previously unthinkable at high velocities. They’re nearly impossible to stop. And they can carry thermonuclear payloads. In the relentless global arms race, maneuverable hypersonic weapons look like the next step.

If either the U.S., China and Russia are able to perfect the technology on their maneuverable hypersonic weapons programs in the next 15 or 20 years, the world could potentially face a devastating nuclear imbalance.

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In August of 2016, Lockheed Martin was awarded a $147 million contract to build a weapon capable of reaching speeds of Mach 20; at such a speed, it could travel from New York City to Los Angeles in 12 minutes. Russia reportedly conducted a successful test of its Zircon hypersonic cruise missile that is capable of traveling between 3,800 mph and 4,600 mph, or Mach 5 or 6 and has a known range of roughly 250 to 300 miles.

Leadership at the highest levels of government admitted hypersonic weapons pose a serious threat to America’s defense capabilities, per Defense News:

“Hyper-glide vehicle research and development are also challenging our planning calculus,” STRATCOM commander Adm. Cecil Haney said at the symposium’s first day. “The ability to find, fix and track and hold … these types of capabilities are becoming increasingly more difficult. Hyper-glide vehicle technology can complicate our sensing and our defensive approaches.”

While it’s one of those things that seems far-off, the world’s leading nuclear powers are working tirelessly to prefect the technology. Last year, China tested for the seventh time a new hypersonic glide vehicle last year. Russia tested its own just days before. America tested its version back in 2014, but it failed soon after take off.

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Yet nuclear states are actively pursuing them, putting an already nuke-nervous world possibly further at risk.

What Is A Maneuverable Hypersonic Weapon?

Let’s get the language down first. You’ll see a lot of publications describe hypersonic missiles without qualifying it with the term “maneuverable” or “guided.” But that’s actually what makes them such a game changer, Dr. Phillip Coyle, the Senior Science Fellow is Senior Science Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told me.

“The difference is that ICBMs are ballistic with a relatively predictable trajectory, while maneuvering hypersonic missiles, such as boost-glide vehicles, are more unpredictable and not simply ballistic,” he added.

Simply put: A ballistic missile goes up and down. Maneuverable weapons are much less predictable and straightforward.

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Hypersonic weapons fall into three categories, according to James Action, Co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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First, there is the hypersonic ballistic missile, such as the Trident D5 that is nuclear-armed and launched from submarines. Once the motor pops off, the missile is unguided and travel high above the earth, around 1,500 kilometers or more. When people discuss hypersonic ballistic missiles, they generally do not include ballistic missiles because they do not have the ability to maneuver. But flaps could be built on the reentry vehicle, thus giving it the ability to maneuver after it reenters the atmosphere. This is also referred to as a terminally-guided ballistic missile.

Another type of hypersonic technology is the boost glide vehicle, which is launched by a large rocket similar to a ballistic missile. The United States has used retired ballistic missiles to launch boost glide vehicles. The very beginning of the flight looks similar to a ballistic launch. However, with a boost glide vehicle, rather than arching high over the atmosphere, it is designed to reenter the atmosphere very quickly and glides very quickly at high speeds. An example of this is America’s Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW). It has a range of around 3,700 kilometers. Unlike a ballistic missile that spends most of its time in space, the glider spends most of its time in the atmosphere. Once the rocker motor detaches, they’re unpowered.

The third of these weapons is the hypersonic cruise missile. Think of the cruise missile like an airplane in that it stays in the air through aerodynamic lift. They have small wings to keep them in the air. This weapon has an engine that fires throughout the flight.

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An example of this is the X-51A WaveRider. After two failed tests, it managed to reach speeds of more than Mach 5, or more than 3,000 miles per hour, at an altitude of 60,000 feet in May of 2013.

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The first test took place in 2010 and was hailed a success, the missile failed during testing in 2011 and 2012, according to Space.com.

Video of it being launched from a B-52 is below:

As fascinating and terrifying as these weapons are, perfecting the technology is tricky. David Wright, co-director of the UCS Global Security Program, told me maneuverable hypersonic weapons cannot travel that far when compared to ballistic missiles.

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Traveling thousands of miles per hour through the atmosphere, the missile gets very hot and moves slower because of atmospheric drag, as opposed to traditional ballistic missiles, which cover most of their range by flying through the vacuum of outer space.

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A standard ballistic missile can easily go 10,000 to 15,000 kilometers, but, in general, the longest range many hypersonic maneuverable weapons have gone is 2000 to 3000 kilometers, Wright said.

“The problem is that if I have one that goes 500 miles and I want to make it go longer than that, it means I have to make it go much faster,” he added. “But when I make it go faster, it has much higher drag in the atmosphere and it slows down quicker. You hit diminishing returns trying to make these things go farther and father.”

So Why Does The U.S. Want A Maneuverable Hypersonic Weapon?

The Pentagon has been vague about this, but Tom Collina, director of policy at the anti-nuke Ploughshares Fund, told me one argument for this type of weapon is to be able to quickly take out a terrorist cell planning an attack from long ranges without using a missile designed to carry a nuke. A Carnegie Endowment paper points to a report by the National Research Council (NRC) that connects counterterrorism missions with hypersonic long-range weapons capabilities.

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Say the Pentagon found a terror target and wanted to hit it with cruise missiles, like the BGM-109 Tomahawk. The target could be warned before the missile arrived. However, it would be much harder to tip off a terror target with a long-range maneuverable hypersonic weapon.

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These missiles are conceived to be conventional. But the counter argument is that if they can carry a conventional warheads, why couldn’t they carry a nuclear ones?

Action said there is a way Russia, the U.S. and China could get around that concern.

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“If Russia deployed both conventional gliders and nuclear gliders at the same site, we wouldn’t necessarily know if something headed towards us was conventional or nuclear,” he said. If, on the other hand, it deployed them at separate sites and we had a reciprocal inspection regime in which U.S. inspectors and Russian inspectors verified how gliders were armed on one another’s territory, then you may be able to distinguish between a conventional or nuclear glider. It depends on how they are deployed and what arms control arrangements are in place.”

Action does believe this would require a new treaty, but it could mirror New START.

“I agree it wouldn’t be likely but, given the risks, I wouldn’t totally preclude a specific narrow confidence-building measures focused on these systems,” he added.

Are Current Missile Defense Systems Capable Of Shooting Down Maneuverable Hypersonic Weapons?

This is not a straightforward question.

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We have to distinguish between area defenses and point defenses. Action told me that area defenses, like the Ground Mid-course Defense system (GMD) that is based in Alaska and California, are designed to protect wide areas. It would be challenging for a GMD to shoot down a glider or maneuverable hypersonic reentry vehicle because they travel far lower in the atmosphere than ballistic missiles do. Gliders may travel at 50 or 100 kilometers whereas ballistic missiles may max out at 1,500 kilometers.

It is very challenging to see a glider from long distances with existing U.S. sensors like radars, Action told me. You have to be able to track something very accurately before you destroy it. The higher above the earth’s surface something is, the further it can be seen by a radar. As for maneuverable hypersonic weapons, a GDM would not be idea because they travel at a lower in the atmosphere.

However, Action believes the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system may be able to defend against maneuverable hypersonic weapons better than GMD. Point defenses, like THAAD and the MIM-104 Patriot system, are designed to protect small chucks of assets. Though they are designed to target ballistic missiles, they could be reworked to take out maneuverable hypersonic missiles.

“A system like THAAD has already been effective short to medium-range ballistic missiles,” he said. “The speed of a glider is not a particular problem for THAAD. Secondly, gliders get incredibly hot when they are traveling through the atmosphere and that creates a very read infrared heat signature. That is something potentially THAAD can lock on to. THAAD has an infrared seeker already. Thirdly, you have this issue of countermeasures. Because ballistic missiles are in space where there is no friction, you can protect them with countermeasures, like decoy warheads. That is basically impossible to do for something that is in the atmosphere like a glider.”

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That said, the main unknown is their maneuverability. Action says one way to defeat an area missile defense system is by having a target that can maneuver very quickly. Theoretically, you can do that with a glider or any other hypersonic maneuverable weapons.

“In practice, however, there is very little evidence that gliders are anywhere close enough to being able to maneuver quickly enough in order to be able to defeat defenses,” Action said. “In order to beat defenses, you need to be pulling tens and tens of Gs (or G-Force) and that is something I don’t believe gliders are anywhere near being able to do.”

A Potential Arms Race For The Future

Generally speaking, one thing all of the experts I spoke with agree on is that maneuverable hypersonic weapons are destabilizing.

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According to a 2017 Congressional Research Service report, these weapons are apparently designed for conventional use—though, conceivably, they could be tipped with nuclear warheads. They are designed to trick current anti-ballistic missile systems that are created to take out targets on a ballistic trajectory, which is why they would be particularly devastating if the technology were ever perfected.

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Action told me these weapons are not a concern for the immediate future, but warns they could be a problem twenty years down the line if the technology is nailed down by either side. As they are currently being designed, maneuverable hypersonic weapons do not go far up in the air like ballistic missiles, significantly reducing reaction time.

Fears over a future arms race have some calling for a ban on researching maneuverable hypersonic technology because nuclear powers are still trying to figure out how to address the world’s 15,000 nuclear warheads.

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“The rationale for needing these hyper-velocity weapons is highly questionable, particularly when you get into this game of everyone trying to develop them at the same time and this potential arms race in hyper-velocity weapons and what does it mean,” Collina said. “Plus, the Russians are concerned because these things are so accurate. If you put a high yield conventional warhead on them, you can target nuclear weapons in Russia. So you begin to mess with the nuclear balance.”