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Hypersonic weapon – A new arms race among major powers

Currently, there are many rapid changes and complex, unpredictable developments in global and regional security environment. Major powers are also proactively adjusting their strategies. These factors have led to fierce competitions among these powers in many fields, including the development of hypersonic weapons, those that are capable of engaging targets at stand-off range with devastating effect and high kill probability. The development of such type of weapon has raised concerns about a new arms race between major military powers.

The push for hypersonic weapon development

The main reason for major powers to pay special attentions to the development of hypersonic weapon is that this type of weapon is capable of performing attack from extreme range with great speed, making them impossible to be detected and intercepted with current missile defence systems. Typically, a hypersonic weapon can travel at Mach 5 (5 times faster than the speed of sound) and some can even achieve Mach 25. Currently, hypersonic platforms are divided into two subtypes: hypersonic cruise missiles, powered by engine during their entire flight and hypersonic glide vehicles with flight trajectory similar to gliders, hence they are also known as hypersonic gliders. Hypersonic cruisers are developed based on the principle of improving the maximum speed of current platforms from Mach 2 to Mach 5, and potentially Mach 10. A hypersonic cruise missile is equipped with a special scramjet engine in which the fuel is burnt in a pressurised supersonic air chamber.

Hypersonic glider is a special type of reentry vehicle attached to a delivery platform, typically a ballistic missile. A hypersonic glide vehicle can reach the maximum speed of Mach 20 or higher when launched from an InterContinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). The current focus of hypersonic glider development is not on increasing its own speed, but on the weapon’s ability to glide through the atmosphere at multiple altitudes between 40 km and 100 km and use aerodynamic force to adjust its trajectory, and even completely remove the use of a propulsion system. Presently, Russian Avangard hypersonic glider has been successfully tested and entered combat duty. Meanwhile, China has tested its DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle multiple times. At the moment, the US is considered to be lagging behind in this field, currently its C-HGB hypersonic glider program is only at development phrase.

The most impressive breakthrough in Russia’s hypersonic weapon program is the successful development of Avangard hypersonic glider. As Russian President Vladimir stated, with Avangard – “an undefeatable weapon”, Russia has become the first country in the world to successfully develop this type of weapon and it would ensure Russian national security and the safety of Russian people in decades to come. Avangard hypersonic glider has intercontinental range and can reach the speed of Mach 20, upon approaching target, the weapon will detach from the delivery missile and glide through the air with extreme speed, maneuvering to adjust altitude and direction to evade the enemy air defense.

Recently China also succeeded in developing DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle, with short-range ballistic missile DF-17 as the delivery platform. DF-ZF’s role is participating in the implementation of anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategy, mainly focusing on intercepting hostile carrier strike groups approaching Chinese waters. In a hypersonic weapon program, the development of the reentry glider is the key. In this field, many military experts believe that China is only a few years behind Russia. To conduct tests for its hypersonic platforms, China has been actively developing related infrastructure, including the construction of a wind tunnel that can be used for Mach 9 flight tests on the outskirts of Beijing.

Meanwhile, the US shows no interest in developing strategic nuclear hypersonic glider. Instead, it focuses on three systems with similar potentials to hypersonic glide vehicle, including: Air-Launch Rapid Response Weapon AGM-183A, Long-range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) and Prompt Global Strike (PGS) to provide the US the capability to quickly engage multiple targets at long range. This controversial move has led many to believe that the US is developing a new intermediate range missile after its withdrawal from INF.

Enhancing the strategic and tactical deterrent capability of hypersonic weapon

In reality, Russia, the US and China all aim to develop hypersonic weapons to enhance their strategic deterrence capability and effectively deal with external threats. Presently, Russia has been heavily investing in developing hypersonic weapons, aiming to take the leading position in the new military technology revolution. This is due to the fact that Russia considers hypersonic platforms as its main weapons in future space warfare. This new type of weapon, with its great speed, high precision and flexibility, is expected to have a decisive role in future warfare. In fact, Russia called weapons with hypersonic strike capability “the 6th generation of military technology”. Thanks to its special attention and huge resource allocation toward hypersonic weapon, Russia is now believed to have surpassed the US in hypersonic weapon development. For decades, Russia viewed INF as the foundation of US – Russia strategic balance. However, recent US’s moves such as the deployment of ballistic missile defence systems in Romania and Poland or the continuous Eastward expansion of NATO have led Moscow to believe that its national security and “post-Soviet space” are seriously threatened. At the same time, the US’ “Prompt Global Strike” program further undermines US- Russian strategic balance. In case of a geopolitical crisis, even if the US only use conventional warhead for its “Prompt Global Strike”, it can still be perceived as a strategic offensive weapon by the Russians. Therefore, hypersonic weapon will be an effective tool for Russia to deal with external security threats as well as the US’ “Prompt Global Strike”.

Meanwhile, Russia also views hypersonic weapon as the basis to enhance its non-nuclear deterrence capability. Russian strategic nuclear force is undergoing vigorous modernisation, and because of the high “threshold” of the use of nuclear weapons, they do not have much use in a conventional conflict. Russia, in its latest Military Doctrine, introduced the new strategy of “non-nuclear deterrence” and its hypersonic weapon program is the key to realise this strategy. Non-nuclear strikes with hypersonic weapons, which have much lower threshold of combat use compared to ICBMs such as Topol-M or RS-24 Yars, provide a more practical solution for strategic deterrence. Russia’s efforts in developing modern nuclear-capable and preemptive hypersonic weapons like Avangard present a special strategic thinking. This thinking focuses on the development of hypersonic platforms and the modernisation of the nuclear force. To be more specific, it prioritises the development of nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle as well as the application of tactical nuclear weapon in combat.

As for the US, right from the beginning of 21st century, it introduced “Prompt Global Strike” to develop hypersonic technology with the goal of containing potential adversaries, such as: Russia and China. Accordingly, the US has increased its military presence in Europe to deter Russia, and in East China Sea and East Sea (South China Sea) to contain China. It also plans to deploy a certain number of hypersonic weapons under EUCOM and INDOPACOM. This move indicates that the strategic aim of the US’ hypersonic weapon program is to deter its adversaries. According to “Prompt Global Strike” initiative, after the operational decision has been made, US hypersonic weapons can strike any target around the globe within an hour. For the US, “Prompt Global Strike” is a versatile combat solution with high price/performance ratio. In addition, a hypersonic glider normally has low chance to cause collateral damage, so it can be used flexibly in combat. This shows that the US military clearly intends to use this weapon against high value, time-sensitive targets. Besides, thanks to its extreme speed and high precision, even a hypersonic weapon without a warhead is still able to destroy the target with its kinetic power, very suitable for preemptive strikes against high value targets such as enemy heads of state, terrorist leaders, strategic nuclear facilities, military headquarters and missile defence systems, etc.

China is also aiming to penetrate the US’ missile defence network. Currently, the US has deployed a large number of missile defence systems in the Asia – Pacific region, seriously threatening US – China strategic balance. If China manages to develop conventional and nuclear hypersonic gliders, it will be able to penetrate the current US’ missile defence network. In addition, for China, another important role of hypersonic weapon is that it can directly threaten US carrier strike groups in the Pacific. According to military experts, although air defence systems of a US carrier strike group can deal with enemy supersonic bombers, it cannot effectively deal with hypersonic gliders. If a hypersonic glide vehicle directly hits an aircraft carrier, even a conventional warhead is enough to neutralise the target.

Nevertheless, hypersonic weapon is also a “double-edged sword”, which, if not controlled effectively, will become a destabilising factor for global and regional security and the source of a new arms race, even threatening the survival and development of all mankind. Therefore, to ensure the global strategic balance, major powers must reach an agreement on the development of this dangerous type of weapon and strictly limit its proliferation. This is also the prerequisite for creating the strategic balance between major powers, as well as maintain a long-term peace and stability in the world.

Senior Colonel DANG DONG TIEN

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