Just when we thought that humanity have reached the peak of making weapons lethal enough, major powers are now competing to make weapons even faster than ever before. Breakthroughs such as the Falcon HTV-2 are an unmanned, rocket-launched aircraft that can glides through the Earth’s atmosphere at approximately 13,000 miles per hour. The United States, Russia and China are waging a secret arms race that could soon usher in a new generation of high-speed weapons never before seen in warfare. In one test, a missile built by Boeing flew more than 230 miles in just four minutes. In another, a prototype designed by Lockheed Martin blasted off like a rocket and streaked back through the atmosphere at more than 20 times the speed of sound. China has reportedly tested its version over a lake in Inner Mongolia and in February, Russia joined the fray when it tested a similar model that intelligence experts assert could be designed to carry a nuclear warhead.
Super hypersonic weapons are intended to attack targets many times faster than the speed of sound have become the newest hope for military commanders seeking to gain an edge over potential adversaries. While most details and the level of funding remain classified, some predict they could be perfected within the next five years. Critics both inside and outside of the military fear these futuristic missiles could be dangerously destabilizing, but Congress is pushing to accelerate development of these weapons. The missiles could render obsolete even the most advanced missiles defences and provide a new means to deliver nuclear warheads, prompting some to call for an outright ban.
Those who are sounding the alarm, including some members of the military itself, will have to turn the tide of growing enthusiasm. As one senior Pentagon weapons scientist recently assured Congress, hypersonic weapons “will provide us an advantage in a contested environment in the future.” A top missile-builder, Raytheon, calls hypersonic weapons “the new frontier of the missile business.” And new legislation working its way through Congress, which seems firmly on board, urges the Pentagon to step up development, including seeking new ways to defend against hypersonic missiles. The U.S. is seeking conventional hypersonic weapons, not nuclear ones. But China and Russia are believed to be developing weapons that carry both types of warheads, likely designed to evade U.S. or other missile defense systems. One much-discussed Chinese system, the DF-21D, is built to launch from a rocket and then plunge down from space to attack U.S. aircraft carriers in the Pacific.
The skeptics warn that their use in war would almost certainly ratchet up the stakes of a conflict to dangerous levels at dangerous speeds. With nuclear technology the adage that ‘you can’t put the genie back in the bottle’ is widely used. What if we are standing at the threshold of a technology that we could keep in the bottle before it runs amok in the international system? Overall I assert that the window for action is open right now and the U.S. should weigh the long-term strategic advantages of these weapons against the possible risks that they could destabilize the international system and may very well have the opportunity to lead the world out of an arms race that no one can survive through.
References and courtesy: DARPA, CFR, DOD and defense expert Philip Ewing