Hypersonic Weapons and Strategic Stability

Hypersonic Weapons and Strategic Stability
AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Hypersonic weapons, which combine the speed of the fastest ballistic missiles with the manoeuvrability of cruise missiles, will enter the arsenals of China, Russia and the U.S. over the next five years. Whether their arrival starts an action–reaction cycle in military spending or further weakens crisis stability may depend on whether the countries building these weapons can agree on ways to control their proliferation.

On 27 December 2019, Russia's defence ministry announced that its Yasnensky Missile Division, based in the Orenburg region bordering Kazakhstan, had deployed a missile regiment armed for the first time with a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV). Many additional countries – including Australia, China, France, Germany, India and the United States – are also developing hypersonic weapons for their potential to penetrate advanced missile-defence systems and threaten mobile missile launchers.

Russia and the US have the oldest research programmes focused on hypersonic technology, dating to the 1980s. Currently, China appears to have the largest and best funded research programme, with the most aerospace graduates produced by its universities, scientific publications on hypersonics, operational ground-test facilities, hypersonic tests performed and systems in prototype development. The amount China spends each year on research and development has not been publicly disclosed, but statements by US Department of Defense officials suggest that China is spending more per year than Russia, and also more than the US, which spends US$1–2 billion annually. China's first HGV, the DF-17, is expected to become operational some time in 2020 and has the potential to function as a highly effective anti-access/area-denial weapon in the Western Pacific.

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