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Hypersonic Weapons: A Threat to Stability

‘A particular urgency attaches to defence at this very moment, for the weapons are now being tested may determine America’s ability to survive.’1

William Borden’s words from 1946 that reflect his thoughts and concerns about the V2 would sit comfortably inside the pages of the latest US National Defence Strategy which also links technological advances as threats to prevailing security threats.  Borden believed the V2 would quicken the tempo of war and magnify the advantage of the attacker over the defender.2Forty years earlier, in a fictional look into the future, H.G. Wells’ ‘War in the Air’described how America’s North Sea Fleet was attacked and destroyed in short order by German airships which bore down on a nation that was ‘unwarned and unprepared’.3Technology can be seductive, especially to those who believe in quick victories and winnable wars and the lure of hypersonic weapons may well prove to be irresistible to those who believe in and seek that particular ‘silver bullet’.  This paper will argue that although there is a compelling technological case for suggesting that hypersonic weapons will affect the existing stability between states and alliances, they will fail to do.  As seductive as it is, Freedman points out, technology’s influence on warfare has invariably been shaped by the political context at the time.4We must also be mindful of man’s ability to adapt and innovate when faced by any threat, be that asymmetric methods or using technology of their own.  Hypersonic weapons are already taking their place on a noteworthy and lengthy list of weapons that promised to revolutionise warfare; it is a list that already includes Wells’ airships and the V2.

Since the Second World War, the security and stability of states and alliances have operated against a backdrop of nuclear deterrence, but this has not prevented proxy wars from taking place at either the state or sub-state level.  Initiatives such as America’s Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS) are not new but have been given a new lease of life by hypersonic weapons.  Before examining the prevailing factors that are likely to limit their impact, this paper will consider two types of hypersonic weapons: glide vehicles (HGV) and cruise missiles (HCM) which have different capabilities, but both have the potential to impact on the relative security between states.5

Hypersonic speeds have been a reality for several decades through intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and experimental aircraft such as the X-15.6Hypersonic weapons are at the very top of the technological food chain and even though the current technology readiness level is 6, meaning prototype demonstration, progress is expected to be rapid.7The generation of hypersonic weapons under development reach speeds in excess of Mach 5 and travel at altitudes between 10 and 100km.  Their speed and manoeuvrability, which threaten to make existing anti-missile defences at best ineffective or at worse redundant, are already causing organisations as the RAND Group to call for arms limitations agreements to be put in place.8

It is the HVG’s combination of manoeuvrability and high speed that make them a real game changer.9Although existing ICBMs reach hypersonic speeds, they follow a ballistic trajectory with little, or no, ability to manoeuvre and anti-missile defences and radars are designed to act against their predictable flight path.  HGVs operate in the lower atmosphere where their flight surfaces allow them to change direction and manoeuvre against static defences and, of course, to change target in its terminal phase.  Marrying this ‘target ambiguity’ with reduced warning times means that should their potential be realised, HGVs could make existing anti-missile technologies redundant.10The fact HGVs, such as China’s DF-17, are mounted on top of a conventional missile gives further cause for concern as their initial launch signature could be mistaken for that of a ballistic missile attack.  An ambiguous launch process coupled with compressed warning times, means that HGVs could well cause protagonists to ‘launch on warning’ whereby a retaliatory attack is initiated before incoming missiles have reached their targets.11Fear, according to Thucydides, is one of the enduring human characteristics that has been the cause of many wars throughout history. The fear of a nation rising up and threatening the status quo of another Great Power can itself be sufficient to trigger conflict.12The nuclear age has already had its share of fear-induced crises.  It was fear that almost had disastrous consequences in 1983 when America sought to improve the credibility of its nuclear forces in 1983 using a command post exercise codenamed Able Archer where the then Soviet Union misinterpreted America’s actions as intimidation rather than deterrence.13

The characteristics of HGVs mean they form an integral element of America’s CPGS which is seen as a way of deterring adversaries by striking high value targets at the very outset of any conflict.  The concept of CPGS first appeared during the 2001 Bush Administration; today’s Department of Defence is tasked by the current Congress with delivering an initial capability by September 2022.14With its focus on the nuclear arena, it is perfectly understandable that America’s Nuclear Policy Review (NPR) does not reference the CPGS Programme, but the synergies would seem obvious.  Indeed, Putin’s recent announcement of Russia’s intent to develop a nuclear-capable missile with an ‘unlimited’ range that was capable of eluding air defence systems suggests Russia is already thinking along those lines.15Threats such as this from either Russia or elsewhere will have a further destabilising effect on security as the NPR makes it clear that the role of the American nuclear capability is to protect the United States as well as its allies and partners.16

The nuclear age meant that more than ever before, any plan to conquer an opponent would have to gamble everything on a successful first strike.17The potential for hypersonic weapons to reduce the relevance of existing ballistic missile defences means that the nuclear stand-off that took the world through the cold war and beyond is now being challenged.  Hypersonic weapons could conceivably challenge the present notion of nuclear deterrence.18

By operating at the strategic level with the ability to launch both conventional and nuclear strikes, HGVs present a real risk to the relative stability between states and alliances.  The same can also be said of shorter-ranged HCMs which can still have a coercive effect on opponents at the operational level.  HCMs such as Russia’s SS-N-33 Zircon, are designed to travel several hundred miles at speeds much faster than existing cruise missiles such as Britain’s Storm Shadow or America’s Tomahawk.  They also present existing defences the same challenges as HGVs – target ambiguity, reduced warning times and manoeuvrability.  The technology level for HCMs is still very much cutting edge but they offer relative simplicity and affordabilitywhen compared to HGVs and can be launched from conventional platforms such as aircraft, ships or submarines.  Proliferation is almost inevitable with such weapons and lesser nations that acquire them may see HCMs as a deterrent against greater power intervention.  HCMs provide a number of characteristics that appeal to the military in that they can strike at range whilst evading existing defences; this would include target sets that are difficult to hit using subsonic weapons.  HCMs are likely to form an important element of any anti-access area denial (A2AD) strategy designed to either deny an opponent’s access to a particular region or restrict their ability to manoeuvre.  HCMs could, for example, force US Carrier Strike Groups to operate further out to sea or threaten key locations such as the UK’s forward mounting base in Cyprus. In the context of the OODA Loop, HCMs also ‘compress’ the time available for a commander to engage or act.19Whilst the presence of HCMs in an inventory is itself is unlikely to trigger military conflict, they may embolden nations or regimes to pursue potentially destabilising regional agendas in parts of the world such as the Middle East or in the Sea of Japan and in this respect, they can certainly reduce the stability between states and alliances.

The drive to develop new technologies is relentless and is embracing more actors, both state and non-state, all of whom are presented with lower entry requirements.20Whilst Freedman acknowledges technology as the main agent of change in warfare, he is quick to point out that its influence has invariably been shaped by the political context at the time.21For all of technology’s seductiveness, it does not operate in a vacuum.  McMaster believes that those who believe technology will make the ‘next war’ fundamentally different to the previous one are neglecting its political and human dimensions.  They are also rather conveniently forgetting that wars are invariably fought against determined and elusive opponents who will seek to adapt and overcome.22Insurgents operating in conjested cities in Iraq to counter coalition air power or swarms of light attack craft in the congested seas of the Middle East are recent examples.  Over 100 years ago, the French Navy’s ‘Jeune Ecole’ movement espoused the use of emerging technology in the shape of torpedoes and torpedo boats to overcome more powerful enemy capital ships.23Who is to say that other emerging technologies will not blunt or even erase the threat of hypersonic weapons?

Politicians and indeed the military both focus on new technologies and concepts that promise fast, cheap and efficient victories. Look no further than Pearl Harbour, Baghdad 2003 or the Schlieffen Plan to witness the appeal of the short war where a decisive knock-out blow is the silver bullet to anyone charged with taking the military initiative.24McMaster also believes the Revolution in Military Affairs and Shock and Awe tactics are further examples of what he calls a ‘Vampire Fallacy’ where the lure of a rapid and decisive victory is a difficult concept to kill off and it keep on re-appearing. Hypersonic weapons will also have to compete against and could be potentially neutralised by other disruptive technologies such as big data analytics, robotics, directed energy and artificial intelligence that the US National Defence Strategy considers areas that must be mastered to ‘fight and win the wars of the future’.25If technology cannot be relied upon to deliver as advertised, predicting the future muddies the water further.  Only six years ago, the then Major General McMaster admitted “We have a perfect record in predicting future wars…and that record is zero percent.”26

The imminent arrival of hypersonic weapons would appear to herald another step change in technology’s ability to influence the level of security between states and alliances. The HGV’s ability to marry rapid and perhaps unstoppable global reach with a nuclear warhead will no doubt cause major powers to re-think the validity of nuclear deterrence.  At the operational level, the relative accessibility of HCMs may well allow either major powers to enhance their A2AD programmes of lesser powers to flex their political aspirations in areas of the world already experiencing varying degrees of tension.  Those who worship at the altar of technology may well have found their promised land – as long as, of course, the other disruptive technologies also bursting onto the scene, do not blunt or even negate the seductive lure of hypersonic weapons.  Stepping away out of the technological arena for a moment, a common thread that weaves its way around the complexity of any new weapon system or strategy is man’s ability to adapt.

The world has been here before. Although the speed and manoeuvrability of hypersonic weapons would suggest they may well be about to bring McMaster’s vampire back to life, they cannot be considered in isolation.  It is not the ability of hypersonic weapons to win the next war that will decrease stability between nations and alliances, it is their false promise of a quick and bloodless victory that has the potential to prove fatal to commanders and politicians alike. History would suggest that their allure will be blunted by the constraints and conditions that this new type of weapon find itself operating in.  Hypersonic weapons are not a zero-sum game, as history has shown us – it is more complicated than that. 

Phil has over a decade of military experience, on and off operations, in single service and joint environments.

Footnotes

  1. W.L. Borden, There Will be no Time(The Macmillan Company, 1946), 225.
  2. W.L. Borden, There Will be no Time(The Macmillan Company, 1946), 225.
  3. H.G.Wells,War in the Air(The Macmillan Company, 1908), 106.
  4. L. Freedman, The Future of War – A History(Allen Lane, 2017), xviii.
  5. Rail gun technology is not considered in this paper. Although the rounds fired by such weapons attain hypersonic speeds, their limited range restricts then to the tactical level.
  6. The X-15 and NASA’s Dyna Soar both feature in Volume 12 of the Eagle Annual (Longacre Press, 1962).
  7. Besser, Hans-Ludwig, Dennis George, Michael Huggins, Alan Shaffer, Dirk Zimpler. Hypersonic Vehicles – Game C hangers for Future Warfare? Joint Air Power Competence CentreJournal24 (2017): 13.
  8. R.H. Speier, G. Nacouzi, C.A. Lee, R.M. Moore, Hypersonic Missile Non-proliferation(RAND Corporation, 2017), xi.
  9. Speier et al, Hypersonic Missile Non-proliferation, 8.
  10. A. Lele, Hypersonic Weapons, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses Occasional Paper Number 46, July 2017, 36.
  11. Speier et al. Hypersonic Missile Non-proliferation, xi.
  12. Thucydides, translated by R.B. Strassler (ed), The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to The Peloponnesian War(Touchstone, 1998), 43.
  13. Milevski, Lucas. “Deterring ‘Able Archer’: Comments Arising from Adamsky’s ‘Lessons for Deterrence Theory and Practice’.” Journal of Strategic Studies37:6-7 (2014): 1050-1065.
  14. A. Woolf, Conventional Prompt Global Strike and Long-Range Ballistic Missiles: Background and Issues (Congressional Research Service, Jul 7 2017),30.
  15. https://edition.cnn.com/2018/03/01/europe/putin-russia-missile-intl/index.html, March 1, 2018
  16. United States, Nuclear Policy Review, 7.
  17. Freedman,The Future of War, 278
  18. Lele, Hypersonic Weapons, July 2017, 35.
  19. Lele, Hypersonic Weapons, July 2017, 35.
  20. SSummary of the United States National Defence Strategy(US DoD, 2018), 3.
  21. Freedman,The Future of War, 278
  22. H.R. McMaster, “Discussing the Continuities of War and the Future of Warfare: The Defence Entrepreneurs Forum.” Small Wars Journal10:10 (2014).
  23. M. Harris, La Jeune Ecole – Origins, Impact and Legacy.  Admiralty Trilogy Seminar, 2017.
  24. Freedman,The Future of War, 278
  25. Summary of the United States National Defence Strategy(US DoD, 2018), 3.
  26. Wall Street Journal, 11 May 2012.

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