Don’t Believe in Arms Races? We Are in One
Roopinder Tara posted on June 22, 2020 |
Hypersonic missiles have created a new arms race. You just weren’t listening.

A hypersonic warhead may be no warhead at all. Flying at more than 15 times the speed of sound, the kinetic energy alone of a missile with no warhead whatsoever can wreak devastation equal to 5 to 10 tons of high explosives. At only 1150 mph, one missile sans warhead can penetrate any building material, armor, any hardened silo with the equivalent of three to four tons of TNT, according to a June 19, 2019 article in the New York Times.

If that isn’t bad enough, there are plans to put a warhead on it. A nuclear warhead, no less.

You may have missed it. With our news dominated with reports on COVID-19 and the social tumult of riots, who could blame you? During a calmer time, the hypersonic weapon threat, as voiced by Russian leader Vladimir Putin in a recent June Reuter’s story, would be all that's needed to plunge the population and politicians into a hyperpanic.

Said the Russian president: “We are so far ahead of Americans that we will have a defense against hypersonic weapons by the time other nations caught up to where we are now with offensive weapons” (italics ours).

Technology challenges notwithstanding, the idea of a hypersonic nuclear arms race has all the earmarks of the last great arms race—one that consumed the attention of both sides of the post-World War II alliances for decades. 

In the history of flight, supersonic flight has been relatively recent, but there was a time when the sound barrier was the challenge of the day. Engineers were not prepared for air molecules to bunch up, effectively making a wall that a dart of an aircraft (the X-1) had to punch through. The challenges of hypersonic flight will have us overcome not one but multiple shock waves. One of the latest designs is a hypersonic glide vehicle, or HGV.

If you need to trace the gunshot that started this arms race we are in, it may have been towards the end of 2019 when Russia had announced that the Avangard, a nuclear-tipped HGV launched by a modernized SS-19 intercontinental ballistic missile, was operational.

But Russia is not the only horse in the hypersonic race. China, India, France and others are all developing hypersonic weapons. This changes everything, says a New York Times editorial. “Even medium-size powers can deliver unstoppable damage on an American (or Russian, or Chinese) city.”

That was certainly enough for alarm bells to go off in the Pentagon and leave everyone else asking, “Are we in a new arms race?”

Not only is a hypersonic missile able to reach an intercontinental target in minutes, but an HGV is able to maneuver in flight, unlike ballistic missiles. Deviating from a ballistic trajectory allows the HGV to evade missile defenses. Also, a glider lacks the hot gas and light produced by a rocket engine, which also make it hard to detect.

Defending against hypersonic weapons may be a more expensive proposition than building and flying them. The Pentagon has committed $10 billion to make three versions of HGV offensive rockets, which are scheduled to appear sometime this year, but it has yet to reveal the magnitude of spending for an HGV defensive system, according to Aviation Week.

Proponents of hypersonic weapons believe them to be a “better alternatives” to nuclear weapons, which would be true if they lacked warheads. Despite the devastation at ground zero of a hypersonic no-warhead hit, there is no nuclear fallout. War historians will be quick to point out that such weapons would even signal a turn away from “total war,” the concept that makes no distinction between killing civilians and the military, and which was responsible for utter devastation of cities in World War II—not just with nuclear weapons, like those used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also with fire, in cities like Berlin, Tokyo and London … to name a few.

But again, nuclear changes everything.

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