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Monthly Archives: December 2019

Hypersonic Missiles in Asia

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On October 1, China impressed the world on the 70th anniversary of Communist rule with a military parade that highlighted the technological progress and investment into military might China has made[1]. Among these technologies is the deployment of hypersonic missiles; weapons that have worrying implications for the nature of security and warfare in the Pacific.

China’s D-17 hypersonic missiles have a range of 1000 to 1500 miles, and can travel at speeds over 5 times the speed of sound[2]; fast enough to hit China from Guam in 15 minutes, or the Pentagon from Bermuda in 5 minutes, drastically reducing a country’s response time[3]. They are able to use both conventional and nuclear warheads, and they are specifically designed to defeat existing missile defenses. They are extremely maneuverable midflight, making it nearly impossible to intercept them with defensive missiles, and makes recognizing their intended target very difficult. Another concern is the trajectory traveled by a hypersonic missile. Ballistic missiles fly out into space and rely on earth’s gravity for reentry. This allows them to be quickly detected by radar and security responses can be implemented. However, a hypersonic missile is powered by scram jets and travels at high speeds while remaining in the atmosphere. Their low trajectory prevents radar from sensing the missiles until they are already nearing their target.

The ability to strike quickly without response injects crisis instability into military strategy and threatens to alter the nature of warfare in the Pacific. During the Cold War, many people saw the embers of conflict burning in US-USSR relations and expected the onset of a war, but a direct war never occurred. This is due to crisis stability and the deterrence from nuclear weapons. While nuclear weapons are a huge threat to national existence, their development actually prevented a direct conflict. To all parties involved, it was apparent that aggression would be met with mutually assured destruction. Any country using overwhelming force would be met with the same destructive attack. However, hypersonic missiles do not have the same benefits of mutually assured destruction. First, these missiles are only really useful offensively. They are useful in a quick, decapitating strike that destroys an opponent’s ability to respond. This incentivizes militaries to strike preemptively, rather than risk losing their capability to an enemy strike. It is similar to the military theory that was widespread at the start of World War I. Military generals thought that an attacking military had the advantage, and so a preemptive attack would raise their chances of winning. As we see from WWI, this mindset led countries to attack others, despite the opposing parties desire to not get involved in a war, so conflict became far more widespread than was expected. Hypersonic capabilities may lead countries to make similar mistakes and strike without waiting for a provocation, because waiting for a reason may mean losing the ability to retaliate in the first place.

The capabilities of hypersonic missiles also complicates a nation’s response and lends itself to nuclear war. If a missile was fired, how would the attacked country know if it is a conventional warhead, or a nuclear one? A country would assume the worst and perhaps fire their own nuclear missiles in response. The maneuverability of the missiles adds another dimension to the problem; a missile’s trajectory could be changed midflight, and so the area it can threaten approaches the size of Rhode Island[4]. Could the missile be targeted at communications? Or decision-making centers? Or at stores of missiles or nuclear weapons? In this situation as well, countries are forced to use their capabilities before they lose them. The chance of an accidental war becomes very high.

Hypersonic missiles do have several uses. The missiles can be used to quickly and accurately destroy threats to national security, such as terrorist leaders and weaponry. Response time to information from intelligence agencies could shrink significantly. Their ability to give an advantage at the start of a conflict cannot be understated as well. A quick strike could remove an enemy’s defensive capabilities and bring a swift victory with fewer casualties.

If these technologies become widespread, it may lead to a new arms race for years to come. Recent estimates say that systems that are capable against hypersonic weapons would not be ready until the mid-2020s[5]. Until then, one of the only ways to deter attack is to develop and deploy your own hypersonic missiles.

Response protocols put in place to prevent an accidental launch would have to shrink. There would not be time to receive all the authorization that is currently needed or get the information necessary to identify how serious a threat is and decide on a measured response. Decision makers may have itchier trigger fingers when they do not have enough information and have a much more limited window of response.

One possible solution to this problem, especially with the development of AI, is to give decision making and identification up to computers and machines. AI would identify the threat, input relevant information, and decide on a course of action based on pre-planned responses. However, it is dangerous to remove humans from the process of war. What if a sensor malfunctions and a war is started accidentally by AI? The idea is not without precedent. In 1983, Stanislav Petrov, who was responsible for reporting enemy missile launches for the USSR, was faced with a concerning decision; USSR early warning systems reported several US missile launches. However, he thought it could not right, it must be a mistake. He reported it as a false alarm which it eventually turned out to be. His decision prevented a war between the two largest powers of the time, the US and USSR[6]. If the systems had been under the control of AI, retaliatory missiles would have been launched, and a war would have ensued. While humans are not perfect, they may be necessary to guard against technical failure.

China and Russia have both revealed hypersonic capability, with the United States close behind. Russia and China have justified their development as a means to balance US power and military incursions in the Pacific and Asia and prevent a preemptive strike from the US[7]. The claim is not entirely unfounded. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has said he intends to put missiles capable of reaching China in Asia as soon as possible to counter Chinese military intimidation in the South China Sea[8].

Both the US and China are making moves to ensure their own security, but they also threaten the security of the other. Each move and provocation will be matched with another and the tension will escalate. However, before it gets out of hand, there are ways to limit the effectiveness and danger of hypersonic missiles.

With a range of less than 1500 miles, China and the United States cannot strike the other from their own mainland. The missiles would need to be deployed to pose a security threat. If an agreement was made to limit their production, or prohibit their deployment, tensions could be relaxed, and the weapons would not incite conflict in the region. However, this would remove all strategic value of having the missiles, and countries may be hesitant to tie their hands with a treaty.

Warhead ambiguity has also shown to be a destabilizing factor that could provoke an overreaction from a country with nuclear weapons. However, if Russia, China, and the United States set markers to differentiate nuclear and conventional weapons, countries would be able to quickly identify the extent of the threat and decided whether to respond with nuclear weapons or not. While not ideal, it would remove a degree of uncertainty from the decision-making process.

While the technology is dangerous, it is hard to find a military niche for hypersonic missiles. They have enormous potential, but little tangible application as of yet. Weapons of war have become so powerful, and conflict has become so expensive, that countries are very hesitant to get involved in a drawn-out war, even if they could gain a slight advantage in the first attack. Hypersonic missiles have the ability to destabilize the security of the Pacific, but with the right discussions and cooperation between the major world players, they can be controlled.

[1] Chan, Minnie, Zhen, Liu. “China rolls out new weapon systems, nuclear-capable missiles in military parade.” South China Morning Post. Oct. 1, 2019. Accessed Oct. 5, 2019

[2] Sayler, Keeley M. (2019) Hypersonic Weapons: Background and Issues for Congress (CRS Report No. R45811)

[3] Smith, R Jefferey, Dean Wilkening, Amy F Woolf, and James Acton. July 9, 2019.

[4] Smith, R Jefferey, Dean Wilkening, Amy F Woolf, and James Acton. July 9, 2019.

[5] Sayler, Keeley M. (2019) Hypersonic Weapons: Background and Issues for Congress (CRS Report No. R45811)

[6] Aksenov, Pavel. ”Stanislav Petrov: The man who may have saved the world.” BBC. Sept. 26, 2013. Accessed Oct. 5, 2019

[7] Sayler, Keeley M. (2019) Hypersonic Weapons: Background and Issues for Congress (CRS Report No. R45811)

[8] Ali, Idrees. “U.S. Defense Secretary says he favors placing missiles in Asia.” Reuters. Aug. 3, 2019. Accessed Oct. 5, 2019