The national security media sphere is just as prone to buzz words as any other realm of journalism, and one that has popped up with increasing frequency in the past few years is “hypersonic.” The term usually precedes a noun like “missile” or “drone” and evokes an almost childish sense of speed — hearkening back to our playground days when prefixes like “super,” “ultra,” and “hyper” all denoted a significant increase in power or badass-ery.
And it turns out, that seemingly silly inference is just about dead on accurate. Hypersonic platforms are so fast that this one new bit of technology has already completely shifted America’s military posture in the Pacific, alongside forcing military forces around the globe to reassess long-standing strategies, and promising to make Chinese, Russian, and American nuclear missiles impossible to defend against. Not bad for such a silly sounding word.
In order to qualify as hypersonic, a platform must be able to sustain speeds in excess of Mach 5, or 3,836 miles per hour. To provide you a frame of reference regarding just how fast that is, America’s workhorse Tomahawk cruise missiles that we so regularly rely on for “missile diplomacy” in troubled nations like Syria fly at only around 550 miles per hour. Even the AIM-120 AMRAAM advanced medium range air-to-air missile used to close with and destroy supersonic fighter jets tops out at around 3,045 miles per hour or Mach 4.
The sheer speed of a missile traveling in excess of Mach 5 means two fundamental new problems for missile defense. The first is that the transfer of kinetic energy when struck by any object moving at hypersonic speed is so great, these platforms have the potential to be massively destructive even without explosive warheads. The second is that these platforms are moving so fast that no existing missile defense technology can spot, track, and intercept them. In other words, once a hypersonic missile is launched (and assuming its targeting apparatus functions properly) there’s nothing you can do to stop it from reaching its target. In our current technological sphere, hypersonic missiles are downright impossible to defend against.
This poses an obvious problem in the realm of nuclear weapons, where America has three overlapping missile defense systems placed throughout the world with the singular goal of stopping an inbound nuclear strike from making landfall in the United States, but where we’ve seen this technology most directly manifest change in America’s defensive posture is in the Pacific, where China’s hypersonic anti-ship missiles have created an area-denial bubble around the nation stretching nearly a thousand miles out to sea.
America relies on its fleet of Nimitz and Ford class aircraft carriers as its most potent form of force projection the globe over, but the aircraft employed by America’s carriers only boast a striking distance of 500 miles or so before they need to turn back to refuel. That means that America’s aircraft carriers would have to cruise well into range of China’s impossible-to-stop hypersonic anti-ship missiles before it could hope to launch any kind of strike against Chinese assets. Of course, this assumes China has a robust and reliable targeting apparatus that can reach that far (and they’ve recently unveiled a new supersonic drone to aid in that effort).
I’ve written a number of articles in the past discussing the various ways the U.S. Navy is trying to counter this serious problem, ranging from carrier-based refueling drones to hot-loading F-35s on austere landing strips inside China’s area-denial bubble. To put a fine point on it, the U.S. Navy is trying to find any combination of ideas it can to stretch the range of its carrier-based fighters to find a way to make these massive ships viable in a fight against China again.
In places like Europe, where Russian land and aircraft based hypersonic missiles could not be stopped, a bevy of launches against NATO assets in Poland and Lithuania would allow the Russian military to easily capture the Suwalki Gap, effectively severing the Balkans from the remainder of the alliance and establishing new supply lines to Kaliningrad. Army officials in Europe have already discussed concerns that Russia could potentially capture this narrow region without the aid of hypersonic missiles, making their addition to the equation an even more troubling possibility.
America, who once led the world in hypersonic technologies, let these programs stagnate years ago as the nation’s focus shifted toward counter-terror operations against technologically inferior opponents. Now, the U.S. is literally dumping billions of dollars into hypersonic technologies in hopes of closing the capability gap presented by Chinese and Russian platforms rushing toward operational service. Currently, the only means of defense against hypersonic missiles is the promise of hypersonic retribution, so until a way to stop these high-speed weapons can be devised, the world will have to settle for China, Russia, and the United States holding hypersonic guns to one another’s heads.
The Cold War brought with it looming fears that our Soviet competitors might overtake us in terms of military capability, but in modern warfare, neither Russia nor China need to be able to match the U.S.’s military might to wreak havoc on our way of life — they need only to find a weakness in our armor and exploit it… and for now, there’s a glaring hypersonic weakness.