Hypersonic Weapons: the Future of Warfare?

While Russia and the USA are currently discussing the extension of a New START agreement in Austria, China continues to build its military weaponry of the future, including one that is already in Russian possession. Unlike the Kremlin, however, hypersonic weapons could soon become a geopolitical game-changer for Beijing.

In December 2019, Russia was the world’s first country to launch hypersonic missiles. Back then, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu referred to these weapons as a “milestone” for Russia and the Russian military. President Vladimir Putin spoke of an “ultimate weapon” that could break through any missile defense system and was virtually “invincible”. Russia’s Avangard missiles, as the fully operational weapons are called, are said to possess intercontinental range and can fly at 20 times the speed of sound.

What Makes Hypersonic Weapons Systems Unique?

Systems that reach more than five times the speed of sound, i.e. cover more than 6,000 kilometres per hour, are referred to as hypersonic weapons. The uniqueness is based on the speed that makes the missiles more difficult to be intercepted. Conventional missiles follow a fixed ballistic trajectory and can thus be shot down once defence systems have calculated their trajectory and their point of impact. With hypersonic missiles, however, targets and trajectory can be changed during flight.

Putin’s statements thus raised significant concerns in other governments. After all, Russia appears currently to be the only nation that possesses fully functional hypersonic weapons with intercontinental range.

Nevertheless, the Russians’ advantage should soon be matched if not exceeded, with France, the United States and China are already working on their own systems. Open is the question of how severe geopolitical implications will be.

China’s Quest for Regional Hegemony

However, Russia, despite its current pioneer status, is unlikely to utilize the latter to shift global power structures. Instead, China appears to be the most logical beneficiary. Beijing has the resources and the military to use hypersonic weapons effectively – particularly with regard to East Asia and China’s hegemonic claims in the region.

Hypersonic weapons will not reshape the balances of power on a global level. Nuclear parity and an always omnipresent MAD Doctrine remain supreme. Russia’s new weapons cannot reverse course into a bipolar world and help to once again project power across the globe. What hypersonic weapons do offer, however, is an advantage for regional claims to power.

The latter is precisely what China has been seeking, and Washington has been alarmed for some time. To the extent that the Pentagon considers its bases and ships in East Asia threatened by future Chinese hypersonic armament. The US is now faced with the decision of whether to find a military technology answer or to retreat from this region.

The South China Sea has been a center of military and political conflict for years. China claims areas in violation of international law and is prepared to defend these by force if necessary. Furthermore, while American technology currently offers an effective shield against Chinese ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, hypersonic technology will make these protection systems obsolete. In view of this, China’s investments are strategically more relevant than the Kremlin’s.

The EU Has Taken Notice

The European Union is also increasingly cognizant of the issues the new technology can cause – particularly in the wrong hands. Germany, for example, plans to use its EU Council Presidency as a stage to initiate a global dialogue on missile technology in general, but also in particular on hypersonic weapons and how a new arms race can be prevented.

However, the effectiveness of this agenda must be questioned. Preventive arms control of hypersonic weapons could make the world safer, but only if all actors are inclined to implement effective monitoring. With Beijing being one of these actors, however, the latter appears inconceivable. Beijing has shown it does not like to play by international rules, and even the EU’s best efforts are unlikely to change this fact.