Will America's New Hypersonic Weapon Cause a Global Arms Race?


On November 18, the Army ran a field test of a new hypersonic flight weapon, specifically testing for technologies that would boost the vehicle’s speed and help it glide smoother, as well as seeing how well it maneuvres and how precisely it could strike a target. 

This new weapon has implications for Pacific and global strategic balances. It can deliver a conventional strike anywhere in the world within an hour. If put fully into use, it puts America in an advantageous position relative to China and Russia, not only in the Pacific, but also globally, in respect to the capacity for global strike capability.

The purpose of Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW) program is to develop "a first-of-its-kind glide vehicle, designed to fly within the earth’s atmosphere at hypersonic speed and long range." It is also interesting to note that not only the Army is pursuing the development of such a vehicle. The Air Force and the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are undertaking similar research that would provide this branch of the military with a similar hypersonic flight weapon.

The collapse of the USSR left America without a comparable international rival, and while China’s spectacular growth may be a prelude to Beijing’s future predominance, as of today the Asian giant’s military is not considered a rival to American hard power capacities. In effect, AHW could give Washington a political and technological edge over potential rivals for some time.

Russia’s BULAVA project, a submarine-launched missile with multiple warheads that can be independently targeted, can be considered a competitor to Washington’s hypersonic project in terms of having global delivery capability with similar precision. However, with approximately half of the trials having been failures, it is probable that the technological maturation of the project may take longer than anticipated. Namely, because America seemingly has the capacity to run parallel research programs on the same project, it will likely achieve a quality final product sooner.

New weapons will raise the question of a global regulatory regime to prevent stockpiling or the establishment of Mutal Assured Destruction-like doctrines between the major powers. But there is no space for this kind of simplistic strategic thinking in a multi-polar world. In Asia, China finds itself in a much more intricate regional position than does America half a world away; this condition is enough to enforce a nuance to Chinese foreign policy that also must be applied by Beijing’s military policy planners in respect to developing new weapons. The nuance is necessary, because regional balances in East Asia are very interconnected in many overlapping respects. In turn, the co-dependence between America and China could be the impetus Washington needs to maintain similar sensitivities in its foreign policy and opt for a multilateral, rather than unilateral security architectures designs in the Pacific when it comes to hypersonic weapons.

New weapons will change the capabilities of the armed forces of the major states, and it is possible to say that more states will have global reach capability via hypersonic, or other yet to be developed weapons. A state’s strategic position is relatively enhanced, but at the expense of global vulnerability. It is precisely that mutual interdependence we need to keep when we talk about advanced weaponry because nobody has an interest in a hypersonic war.

Photo Credit: Elsie esq