Don’t believe the hyperbolic hype

On May 4, 2023, Ukraine used a US-supplied Patriot battery to shoot down a Russian Kinzhal missile, which Russian President Vladimir Putin said in 2018 was a “hypersonic” weapon capable of defeating all existing air defense systems. : Russia’s state-run news agency tried to maintain this claim, claiming the shooting was a fake report. But just 12 days later, Ukraine destroyed six Kinzhals fired by Russia during its attack on Kiev. Both shootings were verified by US government sources. Is this story of a Cold War-era defense system defeating one of Russia’s most advanced conventional systems a sign that the hypersonic hype bubble has finally burst?

By first touting the Kinzhal as a hypersonic missile and then using it against Ukraine, Russia raised unnecessary alarm about both Ukraine’s air defenses and its lead over the United States in the hypersonic arms race. When similar alarm bells about related capabilities were sounded during the Cold War, it played into the myth of the missile gap, intensifying the missile arms race. Today, however, these Ukrainian wiretaps have helped further undermine the tarnished reputation of advanced Russian weapons and their ability to evade defenses. Ukraine’s defensive success here could also help correct perceptions of the need and value of hypersonic weapons, which some see as essential at any cost. To help with this, we break down five hypersonic myths.

1) Russian hypersounds are already here

The first part of the fun is Putin’s claim that Russian hypersonic devices are already here and in use on the battlefield in Ukraine. Hypersonic weapons are a broad category of missiles whose only common feature is that they can reach speeds of Mach 5, which the German V-2 achieved in 1944. The term “hypersonic” is now commonly used for only two types of weapons. which are being developed by modern defense programs: Hypersonic Gliding Vehicles (HGV) and Hypersonic Cruise Missiles (HCMs). The Kinzhal is neither, as it is an air-launched ballistic missile. Moreover, Ukraine’s ability to intercept an entire volley of six Russian Daggers suggests that the missile’s purported status as a hypersonic system is dubious at best.

2) Hypersonics cannot be intercepted

HGVs and HCMs are indeed more difficult to intercept than ballistic missiles using current missile defenses, although producing hypersonics may be even more difficult in the first place; test The technical challenges of developing HCMs are even greater, raising serious questions about whether and when the Russian HCMs allegedly deployed have been sufficiently tested or will be useful. Moreover, even these bleeding weapons are not impossible to detect. Existing missile defenses can already intercept missiles that travel much faster than HGVs or HCMs, and can be adapted to intercept hypersonic missiles as well. A constellation of satellites to track HGVs is planned to be in orbit by 2025. Moreover, as of 2022, the US Aegis sea-based terminal defense system already had a nascent hypersonic capability.

3) The United States lags behind in the development of hypersonics

The US appears to be well ahead of Russia and China in its ability to defend against hypersonics. However, if one measures success by allegedly deployed offensive hypersonic systems, the US is indeed lagging behind. But that would be like measuring the success of the Chinese military’s adoption of artificial intelligence by statements made at the National Congress of the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China.

We know a lot about how well tested China and Russia’s HGV systems are because they are fired from easily detectable ballistic missiles; the open source community alone has reported numerous Chinese and Russian HGV tests. While some Chinese HGV systems have been tested frequently, Russian ones have not, and both have been criticized. For example, some technological developments presented as news are simply not. Although China made international news in July 2021 by testing an HGV that was also a Fractional Orbital Bombing System (FOBS), an “exotic” hypersonic weapon that could allegedly fly. around the world and carrying a nuclear warhead; FOBS is an old technology, first developed and used by the Soviet Union in the 1960s. Likewise, while the Russians have tested their Avangard HGV four times (with one failure), it’s unclear whether that’s (or should be) enough to deploy the system. Russia’s Zircon HCM allegedly has a questionable perfect test track record, but also suffers from the inherent limitations of existing HCM technologies. Rather than being truly “behind,” the United States’ more cautious approach to its own programs and announcements likely reflects its reticence toward insufficiently tested systems.

4) Hypersonics threaten strategic stability

There is also the question of whether being “behind” in the development of new hypersonic capabilities actually matters, or whether asymmetry undermines fragile stability. China and Russia already have sufficient intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities to swamp US missile defenses, and thus the marginal incremental cost of an additional system defeating the same defenses is questionable. Furthermore, a recent report by the Congressional Budget Office found limited roles in which hypersonic devices are clearly superior to other existing weapons systems, noted that they are more expensive than other options, and questioned whether hypersonic devices are more survivable. : Determining whether hypersonics will produce net increased or decreased incentives to strike first is highly contingent; current plans and deployments do not appear to do so. It is possible that future developments will change this equation, but predicting the future of strategic stability is speculative rather than a basis for engaging in another arms race.

5) Weapon control is useless for hypersonics

A trilateral hypersonic arms race appears to be gathering steam between China, Russia and the United States. China’s heavy investment in hypersonics appears to echo the hypersonic development of the United States, suggesting the dynamics of a security dilemma ripe for arms control measures. Given the unclear long-term implications for strategic stability, the technical difficulties with engineering and deployment of such systems, the dynamics of the obvious security dilemma, and the associated costs, arms control has a clear role to play here.

Instead of being trapped by narrower notions of arms control, we need to think about creative solutions. Simple, easily verifiable measures, such as a moratorium on testing hypersonic gliders, would help freeze this race to nowhere. since China believes it is ahead in the development of offensive hypersonic devices, this may be a rare issue on which they would prefer to close that lead. While Russia is busy breaking arms control treaties and thus won’t participate, it is also heavily sanctioned and embroiled in a conflict that makes it difficult for Russia to build a hypersonic program that can beat the United States right now. Confidence-building measures that address deployments that threaten strategic stability, such as a clear separation of nuclear and non-nuclear forces, will also be attractive to all parties because they do not require reductions but can still be stabilized. Quantitative limits may also be more tolerable, perhaps in the form of asymmetric arms control for hypersonics, where parties agree to different force reductions or ceilings, or exchange one weapon for another type of weapon that has a history of success where symmetric reductions have failed. and can prevent costs from quickly spiraling out of control. But none of these measures can stand a chance as long as we remain exposed to hypersonic noise.

Thus, the report about the destruction of Russian hypersonic devices by Ukraine tells only a partial truth. Russian hypersonic missiles still do not represent the terrible threat to the interests of the West, about which so much has been breathed in the media. This makes it an opportune time to invest in defenses and devote resources to arms control before a real Russian hypersonic threat emerges.

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