Hypersonic weapons: fast and dangerous

Since the Gulf War of 1990-1991, a wide array of new military technology has been developed. This includes new risky techniques like machine learning to enhance nuclear C3 systems, with the huge danger of the US or its competitors inadvertently accelerate crisis instability. It includes adaptions to brains to make them more useful for military operations. It can also bring change to what seems to be traditional weapons, like making cruise missiles hypersonic so they can travel with at least 5 times the speed of sound. It is expected Joe Biden, if elected the next president of the US, will seek to limit the potentially destabilizing effects of hypersonic weapons. What are these weapons and why are they dangerous?

In March 2018, Vladimir Putin made public that Russia had these superfast weapons. His press conference made international headlines and the production of the enormously speedy cruise missiles, nuclear torpedo’s and hypersonic glide vehicles were pictured as a new danger. Although there was also some scepticism about the amount of bluff in the words of the Russian president. But a threat and a case for concern it is, now or in the future.

Russia, America and China

Not only Russia is developing hypersonic weapons. In April 2020 the US Air Force announced it was seeking industrial information about hypersonic cruise missile technology, with the hope of starting up a new prototyping program in the near future. The coronavirus means a small hiccup in US production but will not withheld the air force from these plans. The US Navy has its own hypersonic program focussed on the Standard Missile SM-6.

American hypersonic developments started in 2003 when the US president Bush wanted conventional capability to be able to strike targets anywhere in the world within an hour as part of his aim for pre-emptive strike capabilities. Hypersonics fit the picture. They are relatively cheap and veritable tools for punishment or to decapitate essential military infrastructure. The Obama Administration continued this development to strengthen the US position in Asia vis-à-vis China. That survivability of China’s limited nuclear arsenal could be jeopardized by the US global strike capabilities and thus undermine the nuclear deterrent, was part of the reason which spurred China to reorganise its nuclear forces. It created a next step in the great power competition

Russia originally began research into hypersonic weapons when president Reagan started his Star Wars program. Moscow revamped this research after president Bush withdraw from the Anti Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty (one of many major arms control withdrawals by the US this century). It was said by Moscow to counterbalance vulnerabilities. The Russian Avanguard Hypersonic Glide Vehicle shown by Putin in 2018 can travel with a speed of almost 5,000 km/h. This enables Russian weapons to reach any European capital within 15 minutes.

We see a new arms race unfold before our eyes.

A new danger

Why are these weapons so dangerous? The answer is threefold: a) because of their enormous speed, reaction time to a strike is reduced to minutes, b) manoeuvrability means the trajectory of the weapons is difficult or not to predict, limiting reaction times even more, and c) because the weapons can be armed with conventional and nuclear warheads they create a potential danger of over-reaction. While it is hard to establish a defence against hypersonic weapons, they give the first mover an advantage, leading to a ‘use-or-lose’ scenario. Sander Ruben Aarten, a researcher at the Netherlands Defence Academy (NLDA) calls this a new dynamics detrimental to strategic stability, because “such developments invite pre-emptive strategies, laucnch-on-warning policies and stir a dynamic in which competitors continue to seek ways to offset each other’s capabilities.”

Not only big powers, also smaller, regional, powers are developing this kind of weapons, like Australia, Japan, India, France and a number of other European countries. The European missile producers of MBDA (joint venture of Airbus 37.5%, BAE Systems 37.5%, and Leonardo 25% and operating in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK and US with a financial holding in the Netherlands) has its own program, as Aviation Week and Space Technology recently reported. “Be aware that MBDA is pursuing a European program for an interceptor against hypersonic and maneuvering ballistic threats that could be an application for this patent” the company told an editor of the magazine. MBDA is also creating the ASN4G air-launched cruise missile to replace the French ASMP-A nuclear deterrent by the mid-2030s.

To counter the danger of the hypersonic weapons there are annalist proposing the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) into air defence. But that will lead to a number of new insecurities, like attacks that uses adversarial data to fool the network into misidentifying false data. Machine learning is vulnerable to ‘data poisoning’ techniques that manipulate the data used to train a machine learning system, thus causing it to learn the wrong thing. AI-systems today, including those that do not use deep learning, have a set of safety challenges broadly referred to as ’the control problem.’ It does increase the threat of unintended escalation through miscalculation or misinterpetation, which consequently could result in war. Countering the danger of a new range or weapons by introducing a new kind of technology with its own dangers hardly seems a solution.

The arms market

The hypersonic weapons systems are in a development stage now by a limited number of countries, but weapons developed for armed forces have the tendency to be exported first to close and later to less close allies. In the long term they will be exported to countries using them against neighbours. Control of technology could and should be established in 35-nation Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which already incorporates some controls on hypersonic-related technologies. But that is not enough.

The solution is arms control instead of a policy of confrontation. We have to find a way out of this new and dangerous arms race. We must identify hurdles on the multi-polar negotiation table, which are major (like the disparity of nuclear arsenals between the two major powers and Russia: US, 6,185; Russia, 6,500; and China, 290) and solve them. So far, there seems to be a lack of interest to come to solutions in Washington and Beijing. It will be up to citizens to bring leaders to their senses. The world has a lot of knowledge, let us prevent technology to become the greatest enemy of its citizens.

Martin Broek 13/05/2020


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