War is an incredibly complex thing. It’s so complex that, in the many years since we waged our battles with sharpened steel, many have lost sight of the simplicity of the fight itself. War is complicated because of the countless influences, internal variables within warring parties, and long-lasting ramifications of violence — but waging war itself is still a fairly simple enterprise: you destroy the enemy, their assets, and the infrastructure that supports them, and you keep at it until they give up, or there’s no one left to fight.
The United States, perhaps better than any other nation on earth, demonstrates the incredible value associated with finding varied methods to deliver this destruction. From rifles to airplanes, from submarines to satellites, everything about the American defensive infrastructure is designed to destroy the enemy before the enemy has a chance to destroy you (or, in point of fact, to deter them from trying at all). Technologies that one seemed so advanced they were relegated to science fiction are now common place on battlefields occupied by American troops, but ultimately, all of those tools are brought to bear in the very same way bronze age battle axes were: you destroy the enemy, their assets, and their infrastructure until the war is won. One could argue that some weapons are more humane, others too gruesome, but death remains the result regardless.
In the simplest terms, wars are won by the side that can levy the most destruction while absorbing the least in return. This mindset led to the advent of spears, bows and arrows, firearms, and nuclear missiles. Weapons are developed with this goal in mind, then defensive systems are established to counter those weapons. New weapons arise, and the process is repeated. This cycle has been ongoing for millennia, but throughout there have been certain technologies that have shifted the course of warfare doctrine so completely that the way wars were waged had to change: technologies like the use of iron, airplanes, or the atomic bomb.
Now, a new technology is in its infancy that promises to change the way wars are fought all over again, but of course, the violence remains the same. Hypersonic ballistic missiles, traveling at speeds that are too fast to intercept and arriving with enough destructive kinetic force to forgo explosive munitions altogether in some cases, could feasibly shift the entire approach developed nations take to warfare — and possible even render many of the tried and true platforms we’ve grown accustomed to seeing on the battlefield utterly obsolete.
Unlike traditional ballistic missiles, which travel at either sub-sonic or supersonic speeds, hypersonic missiles travel at consistent speeds in excess of Mach 5, covering incredible distances in the blink of an eye and delivering munitions in a fashion there is currently no reliable way to defend against. As these platforms continue to develop, the United States has already shifted toward a new approach to war as we know it: forgoing declarations and relying on punitive missile strikes twice in two years against Syria, and in small scale conflicts all over the world. These missile strikes allow for the U.S. to destroy enemy personnel, assets, and infrastructure without absorbing much risk, and as a result, new defenses are cropping up that aim to either engage launch platforms (like ships or aircraft) or intercept the missiles themselves before they can reach their targets.
America’s growing use of drones and ballistic missiles in the war fighting endeavor represents the beginning of a shift in battlefield strategy — away from massive invasion forces, and toward a more efficient destructive strategy. After all, why risk a thousand soldiers when a dozen missiles will do? This mindset allows for “punitive” action like the strikes we witnessed in Syria, whereas sending troops into Syria to accomplish the same goals would have come with far further reaching implications.
When you combine this new form of warfare with hypersonic technologies, you begin to skew toward a new global approach to war where missiles become the primary mode of destruction. A hypersonic missile with intercontinental reach wouldn’t need to rely on advanced aircraft to penetrate enemy defenses, and with an advanced enough targeting apparatus, large vessels would find no safe harbor anywhere in their opponent’s hemisphere. Traveling too fast to intercept, these missiles could mean the end of massive war fighting platforms like aircraft carriers. It could spell doom for forward operating bases, or military installations located near to enemy territory. In short, these missiles could force us to reevaluate the way we fight wars much like gunpowder or aviation once did.
In the sea, we may see a shift away from super carriers and powerful warships, and toward smaller, more maneuverable platforms. On land, missile defense technologies will see even more emphasis, as would underground facilities and finding ways to trick or hide from target acquisition sourced from drones, satellites, and human intelligence work. In a world with long range hypersonic missiles and no reliable defense against them, no target is safe if it can be acquired.
We’ve already seen the beginning of this shift, as the U.S. Navy scrambles to find ways to increase the fuel range of their carrier based aircraft in order to offset the capability gap presented by China’s hypersonic anti-ship missiles. Their most capable platform, the DF-21D, offers a range of just less than a thousand miles, and that has already created an uncomfortable future for America’s most capable form of force projection.
The United States estimates that their own programs are two years away from testing, and the arms race will unquestionable continue. Once hypersonic platforms are capable of covering thousands of miles, it will no longer be a question of extending carrier-based aircraft ranges, because missiles will have replaced them as the optimal method of ordnance delivery altogether in many combat environments (cost notwithstanding).
The future of warfare may look quite a bit different than the battlefields of today: with missiles doing most of the heavy lifting, and only a conventional form of mutually assured destruction staving off the hypersonic rain of destruction in developed nations. That is, of course, unless ballistic missile defense systems can achieve a level of capability that allows them to intercept these new platforms… but most (including America’s) maintain only moderate success rates against supersonic weapons.
The race is on: will we be a planet held hostage by missiles that travel faster than a speeding bullet, or will we find a way to build a faster (better, more capable) bullet to shoot them down?
Featured image: This Air Force illustration depicts the X-51A Waverider scramjet vehicle during hypersonic flight during its May 26, 2010 test. Powered by a Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne SJY61 scramjet engine, it is designed to ride on its own shockwave and accelerate to about Mach 6. | U.S. Air Force