An arms race in hypersonic missiles: burning billions to accomplish nothing

Summary: Along with a new Cold War we get a new arms race. Hypersonic weapons are one of the expensive new military toys the major nations will spend tens of billions to build, after which neither they nor the world will be safer. It is a cycle of madness. Americans, of the exceptional nation, see ourselves as world leaders. Here is an opportunity to show leadership, helping the world to divert these funds into more productive uses.

Boeing X-51A Waverider
Artist’s painting of the X-51A Waverider. U.S. Air Force graphic. Often used as an image of Russian or Chinese hypersonic missiles.

It’s time for Americans to again wet their pants in fear —
and send more money to the Pentagon!

TASS: “Russia’s hypersonic Zircon missile to go into serial production in 2018 — source“, 19 April 2016. Excerpt…

“State tests of Zircon are scheduled for completion in 2017 in accordance with the contract, and the missile’s serial production is planned to be launched next year”, the source said. In mid-February, a source in the Russian shipbuilding industry told TASS that Russian cutting-edge hypersonic missile 3M22 of the 3K22 Zircon system was in the development trials. …

“The tests of the 3K22 Zircon system are planned for completion by 2020. The system is expected to be unveiled in the air-launched and ship-based variants. Its characteristics are classified. According to open sources, the new missile’s range may reach 400 kilometers and it will travel five to six times faster than the speed of sound.”

The National Interest: “The Most Expensive Warship Ever Built Might Already Be Close to Obsolete” by Harry J. Kazianis, 12 February 2016 — “The simple fact is this: no one really knows for sure, but the trends all point to dangerous times ahead. We do know one thing with certainty—the mighty aircraft carrier is under siege …”

The Times: “Russia’s ‘unstoppable’ missile“. 27 November 2016 — “Pete Sandeman, a naval expert, said: ‘If this technology can be perfected, it will be almost unstoppable.’”

Fox News: “Russia develops hypersonic 4,600 mph Zircon missile“, 1 April 2017 — “The race to develop an unstoppable and unbeatable weapon capable of defeating all the military defense systems in the world is getting much too close for comfort. …And they’re coming, whether we like it or not. And they’ll be on our doorstep sooner, not later.”

Online journal of the Strategic Culture Foundation: “Zircon Missile to Be Produced in 2018: Russia Leading in Hypersonic Arms Race” by Andrei Akulov, 16 December 2016 — “With the success of Zircon program, Russia appears to lead the race. It will not be long before the weapon enters into service to make targets – especially large naval warships, such as aircraft carriers – more vulnerable to attack.”

To learn about the US hypersonic missile program (probably the most advanced) see The X-51A is $300 million of fun. Can we spend our money smarter and build a better future? For a more accurate forecast than from Russian press releases, let’s turn to Stratfor. They give a well-researched but optimistic and pro-DoD perspective on military issues.

“What the Next Arms Race Will Look Like”

By Stratfor. Lead Analyst: Omar Lamrani. Published 21 March 2016.

Forecast highlights.

  • The design, production and fielding of hypersonic missiles — though expensive and technologically complicated — is becoming more feasible.
  • The United States and China will likely incorporate the first operational long-range hypersonic missiles into their arsenals by 2025, with Russia lagging a few years behind.
  • Once they are deployed, hypersonic missiles will revolutionize warfighting in certain conventional and nuclear settings.

Forecast details.

A new arms race is unfolding between the world’s great powers. Hypersonic missiles, which are both accurate and extremely fast, stand to change the face of modern warfare by rendering the current generation of missile defense systems ineffective. As competition heats up among Russia, China and the United States to be the first to deploy hypersonic missiles, each will become more vulnerable to attack by the others. If tensions rise, so will the risk of pre-emptive strikes among the longtime rivals.

Hypersonic missiles travel at least five times the speed of sound. Only a few other manmade devices are capable of reaching hypersonic speeds, including ballistic missiles, space launch vehicles and unmanned spacecraft such as the Boeing X-37. The only manned aircraft to achieve hypersonic speed is the rocket-powered North American X-15, which broke speed and altitude records when it was introduced in the 1960s.

X-15 in flight
X-15 in flight. NASA photo.

Recently, the focus of research in hypersonic technologies has shifted toward missile development, but several challenges must be overcome to make hypersonic missiles a reality.

  • First, it is difficult to create a weapon that can reach hypersonic speeds while enduring the stress and extreme temperatures of hypersonic flight. It is harder still to ensure that the weapon can maintain those speeds for an extended period — enough time to reach its target.
  • Second, high velocities can make a hypersonic vehicle sensitive to changes in flight conditions, resulting in instability in the missile’s airframe during flight. Coupled with the fact that high speeds leave less time to course correct, this instability can make guidance of hypersonic missiles problematic.
  • Finally, hypersonic vehicles’ actual flight paths often do not match the predictions researchers derive from ground tests and theoretical models, lengthening the process of development.

Despite these obstacles, hypersonic missiles have some considerable advantages. Their speed enables them to reach their targets much more quickly than other missiles and to better penetrate enemy defense systems. Those with gliding capabilities can also cover great distances, enabling one country to strike at another from farther away. Guided hypersonic missiles would be more accurate than traditional ballistic missiles, and they could conceivably be armed with nuclear warheads, becoming a strike asset or a deterrent in nuclear warfare.

From Theory to Reality.

It will not be long before hypersonic missiles find their way out of the lab and onto the battlefield. In late February, U.S. Maj. Gen. Thomas Masiello announced that the U.S. Air Force plans to have operational prototypes ready for testing by 2020. The U.S. Air Force already conducted four flights of the experimental X-51 hypersonic cruise missile from 2010 to 2013, two of which were considered successes.  {Ed. note: realistically only one of the four tests was successful, with six minute of powered flight.}

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin has made substantial progress on its Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept and Tactical Boost Glide vehicle.  {Ed note: both are DARPA research projects.}

Boeing X-51A Waverider on a B-52 in 2009
X-51A Waverider on B-52, 17 July 2009. U.S. Air Force/Chad Bellay.

China is close behind, and it appears to be on track for deployment by 2020 as well. In 2014, China conducted three tests of its DF-ZF hypersonic strike vehicle, followed by three more in 2015. The U.S. military deemed all but one of the tests successful.

Russia is developing its own hypersonic glide vehicle, the Yu-71, though its ambitions of fielding the vehicle in the next four years may be overly optimistic. (Moscow’s sole test of the Yu-71, in 2015, was a failure.) But one of Russia’s relatively short-range hypersonic missiles, the 3M22 Zircon, underwent its first test on March 18, and a second model (the BrahMos-II) will be ready for testing around 2017.  {Ed. note: the BrahMos-II is a joint Russia-India project.}

Brahmos-II at Aero India 2013 show.
Brahmos-II at Aero India 2013 show. Wikimedia Commons photo.

As the world’s biggest powers race to build up their hypersonic arsenals, the nature of battle will fundamentally change. Missile defense systems will struggle to counter hypersonic flight, making targets — especially large naval warships — more vulnerable to attack. In time, this could drive the development of directed-energy weapons (such as high-powered lasers or microwaves) as a possible way of countering hypersonic missiles. But as has been the case for revolutionary military technologies in the past, the best defense will be to destroy the missiles before they can launch, increasing war planners’ emphasis on offensive action.

Countries will have an incentive to launch pre-emptive strikes against their enemies to knock out hypersonic missile caches before the missiles can be deployed. Moreover, guidance systems, along with command, control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance networks — the weakest components of hypersonic missile capabilities — will become critical targets. At the same time, states with hypersonic missiles (and the bigger offensive advantage they bring) will have less need for stealth technology to penetrate enemy defenses.

Nuclear warfare — and strategies to deter nuclear conflict — will be altered as well. Though increasingly effective anti-ballistic missile technologies will continue to be important against opponents that lack hypersonic weapons, they will be of little use in countering hypersonic missiles equipped with nuclear warheads. Because hypersonic missiles are so difficult to detect and counter, countries could be motivated to pre-emptively strike at an enemy developing a hypersonic capability. As hypersonic missiles undermine the fragile balance among global nuclear powers more and more, many countries will be forced to re-examine their deterrence and national security strategies, potentially contributing to greater uncertainty and instability in the long run.

What the Next Arms Race Will Look Like
is republished with permission of Stratfor.


Technology and War
Available at Amazon

About this tech and its potential

There have been two major reports about this new tech. But first, remember three things.

Now, for the papers…

Hypersonic Weapons and US National Security: A 21st Century Breakthrough” by Dr. Richard P. Hallion and Curtis M. Bedke (Major General, USAF, Ret.) at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, January 2016. See the press release and the slides.

“Whether holding hardened nuclear facilities at risk or targeting an enemy’s mobile ballistic missiles, the US faces severe challenges when it comes to striking high value targets in heavily defended regions around the globe. Hypersonic air-delivered munitions hold much potential for addressing key capability gaps. While this technology has existed for decades in the science and technology community, recent achievements paired with burgeoning requirements suggest it is time to transition this capability to the operational realm.”

A Threat to America’s Global Vigilance, Reach, and Power – High-Speed, Maneuvering Weapons” by the National Academies, 2016.

“High-speed maneuvering weapons (HSMWs), whether self-propelled or launched by rocket booster, operate in regimes of speed, altitude, and maneuverability that have the capability to frustrate existing missile defense systems. With other world powers actively flight-testing HSMWs, the USAF and Joint Forces face an emerging threat that may impede operations and constrain the United States’ global presence.

“At the request of the U.S. Air Force, the National Academies …conducted a study to assess the current status of high-speed weapons and identify opportunities to improve the United States’ ability to defend against high-speed threats. The report finds that existing doctrine and organizational structure may not be adequate to defend against the threat of high-speed maneuvering weapons and that no single technology offers a straightforward countermeasure.”

Stratfor logo

About Stratfor

Founded in 1996, Stratfor provides strategic analysis and forecasting to individuals and organizations around the world. By placing global events in a geopolitical framework, we help customers anticipate opportunities and better understand international developments. They believe that transformative world events are not random and are, indeed, predictable. See their About Page for more information.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about Russia, and especially these…

  1. An autopsy of the 2002 Millennium Challenge war games — Supercarriers are vulnerable to swarming attacks that overload their defenses.
  2. Slashing R&D in favor of more important things, like wars and profits. Who cares about America’s future?
  3. Men in space: an expensive trip to nowhere.
  4. The X-51A is $300 million of fun. Can we spend our money smarter and build a better future?

See the X-51A WaveRider in action

10 thoughts on “An arms race in hypersonic missiles: burning billions to accomplish nothing”

  1. FM- Tongue in cheek.

    Clearly, you don’t get economic theory. With this new arms race, we’re creating jobs, real “American” jobs, and we’ll bankrupt the USSR.

    Then, with the new jobs and new money that will trickle down, the middle class will rise again.

    I don’t see how this could go poorly.


  2. How many military revolutions have we had, now, since the end of the cold war? Yet all our tech has done nothing to end the military black hole that is the middle east. Why, exactly, do we want to fight China or Russia? They’re not communists, they’re not plotting to take over the world, what’s the fucking point? Every state that we’ve fought in the 21st century has been destroyed, and every single fucking time something far worse moved in to take advantage of the state’s collapse.

    If anything I say we need to reduce military expenditure and R&D. All this fancy military bling is being paid for by loans, like everything else in the budget. (since we have trillions of dollars of debt)


    1. bwf,

      (1) “How many military revolutions have we had, now, since the end of the cold war?”

      Many. All successful! That is, officers’ careers were advanced and another generation of defense contractors profits assured.

      (2) “Yet all our tech has done nothing to end the military black hole that is the middle east.”

      That’s by design. As the great guru Fred Reed explained:

      “Be ready for wars past and future, but not present. The Pentagon does this well. Note that the current military, an advanced version of the WWII force, is ready should the Imperial Japanese Navy return. It also has phenomenally advanced weaponry in the pipeline to take on a space-age enemy, perhaps from Mars, should one appear. It is only the present for which the US is not prepared.”

      (3) “Why …do we want to fight China or Russia?”

      We don’t. They don’t, either. We’re locked in a dance of mistrust, both arming in case the others attack us. The solution is diplomacy. But that’s not as profitable as defense spending. Hence the growth of DoD since WWII has been matched by a shrinking of State’s influence. Team Trump want a great leap forward in this process, with massive new funding for war and large cuts in State.

      (4) “we need to reduce military expenditure and R&D.”

      That’s a futile goal. Diplomacy must come first, to reduce the tensions. The special interest in America that will fight this are immensely powerful.

  3. Duncan Kinder

    “As the world’s biggest powers race to build up their hypersonic arsenals, the nature of battle will fundamentally change. Missile defense systems will struggle to counter hypersonic flight, making targets — especially large naval warships — more vulnerable to attack.”

    Hypersonic missiles apparently therefore threaten aircraft carriers.

    So would it economically cost the United States more to defend its carriers against hypersonic missiles than for Russia or China thereby to threaten them?

    1. Duncan,

      “So would it economically cost the United States more to defend its carriers against hypersonic missiles than for Russia or China thereby to threaten them?”

      What is the most economical method of suicide? Do people compute the cost of various methods before deciding?

  4. I read this essay this AM and it stuck with me all day. I have never posted on FM though I have admired the site for years. My father, a retired USMC vet, would have loved it as well.

    I have very dark thoughts about the coming decades of the 21st century when I read essays about military technologies that reduce human decisions to smaller and smaller increments of time. I feel very fortunate in surviving the first Cold War. Was it dumb luck? Do humans have a death wish? Is Fermi’s Paradox a warning that civilizations may advance with killing technologies while ignoring basic common sense? I am pretty old, 61, lucky to have lived the life that I have, but I worry about what is coming.

    Because this site often refers to TV shows, which I think is great because popular culture is so powerful in influencing public opinion, I was greatly affected by Battlestar Galactica. Civilizations can make poor decisions that seem foolish to outside observers. Unlike BS we have nowhere to go once the SHTF.

    In 2016, we had two terrible major candidates running for president. Both were irresponsible and reckless in their own ways. Most of us, certainly outside the 1%, were simply bystanders as we watched a train wreck in November.

    So, every day, I wake up happy to be alive another day. Not what you call a great way to live a life. With scientists and technicians working day and night to develop weapons systems with mass killing capabilities I have to wonder how long will our luck hold out. Next year? Five years? A decade? Will a decision be made in Beijing or Moscow or Washington that’s it’s time to roll the dice and go for it with the new weapons?

    It feels like 1914 but this time rather than simply those unfortunate conscripts all of us might pay the ultimate price. We have three dogs and we love them deeply. They believe humans are benevolent beings based on our care for them. I guess we fooled them if fireballs drop out of the sky.

    1. Portlanta,

      You easily win best comment of the month, raising a host of important issues.

      “that reduce human decisions to smaller and smaller increments of time.”

      That’s an interesting observation. The good news: what sparks escalation of conflicts is not so much the speed of the weapon, but the strategic and operational dynamics. WWI resulted in part from the perceived advantage of the offense and the time required to mobilize in defense. There was a large first mover advantage, or so they thought.

      That was the horrific problem with the early cold war. To avoid being destroyed leaders had to “launch on warning” of an attack. That was vulnerable to mistakes (hence several anecdotes about close calls) and gave them too little time to react. The development of a hard counterforce — distributed missiles in armored silos and sub-launched missiles — fixed that. Our current situation is more safer!

      “Is Fermi’s Paradox a warning that civilizations may advance with killing technologies while ignoring basic common sense?”

      Got to worry about that! On the other hand, we have passed the date in Star Trek for the Eugenics Wars (1992-96), but only because genetic engineering has advanced so slowly (i.e., they might lie in our future). On the other hand, Star Trek dates WWIII from 2032-2056. But it can’t be too bad, because we bounce back fast.

      “Civilizations can make poor decisions that seem foolish to outside observers.”

      I worry about that, too. Look at Japan in 1941. They started a war with almost everybody, with no plan for winning. Madness. Or look at the Roman Empire — done in mostly by factors they didn’t even understand (e.g., economics, lead toxicity).

      “In 2016, we had two terrible major candidates running for president.”

      I don’t share the hysteria about this. It’s a commonplace in US history, and was expected by the Founders. The system is built to run anyway. The hysteria about our presidents all being Hitler (Bush Jr, Obama, Hitler) shows that we’re either stone ignorant or just having fun (i.e., unserious). I vote for the latter.

      “I wake up happy to be alive another day.”

      Always a good idea.

      “Not what you call a great way to live a life.”

      Think of the people living in really bad times. The early 14th century Europe. WWII. Or about our legitimate fears of WWIII during our childhood (I’m also 61). In grade school we had drills, getting under our desks, practicing for the Commie nukes. Times are much better today. Even better, Steve Pinker’s evidence suggests that this improvement (less violence) is a structural feature of our time.

      “It feels like 1914”

      My guess (guess!) is that results more from the continuous fear barrage our elites drop upon us – makes us easy to manipulate — than any actual basis in reality.

    2. This is a great post and as a USMC Veteran myself, one with multiple tours overseas, I am greatly concerned about the direction that not only this country but others are taking right now. Now that I have a child, this concern has been raised 100 fold as I now understand that the foolish and immature behavior of grown adults across the globe threatens not only his future but other children (and our faithful companions) all over the world. War Horse is a great play if you ever get the chance to see it and when I walked out of that play several years ago, I realized not only our folly as humans but our immense self-centered thoughts when combined with our hubris make us the most dangerous element in the universe.

      It makes me think of the line in the Bhagavad Gita “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

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