Authors: Irina Tsukerman, Mohamed Maher*
During President Sissi’s visit to the White House, some press reports talked about Egypt’s withdrawal from the planned Middle Eastern and North African defense alliance which became known as MESA, and in popular parlance, referred to as the “Arab NATO”. The idea of the alliance, initiated and backed by President Trump, is to create a structure that would bring together powers to oppose Iran’s regional meddling. According to sources cited by Reuters, some of the reasons for the withdrawal included uncertainty over President Trump’s political future, lack of formal structure for the alliance, and lack of traction by the other potential members.
Egypt has always been against the policy of alliances throughout its modern history, and therefore its refusal to participate in the Arab NATO or Mesa was expected.
Indeed, in 2018, when the discussions were held with lower level Saudi defense officials, many have expressed doubts about the success of MESA, at least in part due to the potential membership by the Anti-Terrorism Quartet’s regional rival Qatar, under the boycott by KSA, UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain since June 2017. The Saudis at the time and five others of the would be members of this defense initiative, despite differences on many other defense matters, all agreed that Iran is a major regional threat, and would be willing to work closely to coordinate with the White House . The alliance would be in essence a pact focused on countering the Islamic Republic’s influence.
Like NATO, such coordination would not necessarily be dependent on the administration in office; the Obama administration never completely denied that Iran-backed groups presented a threat. However, the lack of framework, mechanism for addressing internecine tensions and grievances, and the odd fellowship of the would-be members spelled doom for this idea. Similar efforts had failed in the past for the same reasons. Tensions between Doha and the ATQ were but one problem plaguing the tentative alliance. Under President Trump’s proposal, Morocco with its well equipped and well trained military would not be part of it, but Bashir’s Sudan would have been.
Now that Omar Bashir has fallen from power, Sudan’s future is unclear. It enjoys support from a number of state actors, and the symbolic Sudanese contingent remains in Yemen, but Sudan’s ability to commit to any long term plans is doubtful. Qatar, with its tiny military, does not add much on the defense side; moreover, it is closely aligned to Iran politically and economically. Aside from aggravating several of the potential MESA members with its funding of the Muslim Brotherhood, attacks through the state mouthpiece Al Jazeera, and close defense relations with Turkey, Qatar cannot be trusted at this point not to play for both sides, or to adhere to defense goals of the group. Following the imposition of the boycott on Doha by the ATQ, Qatar claimed that this boycott pushed it closer to Iran, despite evidence of growing relations prior to June 2017.
Why is Trump’s vision of MESA failing?
The White House devoted some diplomatic efforts to securing the lifting of the boycott, but Qatar refused to meet any of the demands put forth by the ATQ, including Egypt, and the prospects for the reunification of the Gulf seem bleak in the short term. Egypt, one of the major players in the region was one of the contingencies on which MESA depended. With Cairo out of the picture, the Trump administration will have to rethink its approach to regional security. Part of MESA’s purpose would be to create an independent regional force, to go along with the diminishing role of the United States.
Unfortunately, what that would entail was never clearly defined. For instance, the Arab Coalition fighting the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen receives intelligence and logistical support from the US, but the operations are not fully integrated. Morocco once comprised part of the forces in Yemen, but eventually withdrew following tension with Saudi Arabia. Sudan greatly diminished the number of its forces over time, while Egypt retained only a small number from the start. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates likewise had different priorities in Yemen, with KSA, which is regularly attacked by the Houthis, prioritizing the opposition to the Iran expansionism. UAE, by contrast, like Egypt was more concerned about the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. Overtime, the Coalition came to rely increasingly on assorted mercenaries to supplement diminishing forces.
And the presence of the pro-Iran Hezbollah, which trained, armed, and supplied Yemen – and which likewise threatened Morocco with the backing of the separatist Polisario group, was widely cited by the Saudi embassy in the U.S., but at no point was clearly addressed by the White House, nor was there ever a plan to address its presence. For the Arab NATO to have even a glimmer of hope, resolving these differences and assuring a greater level of coordination and mutual support between these members for Yemen, and greater level of US government buy in would be the first test. So far, however, too many forces appear to be pulling in different directions; the United States is more concerned about eliminating Al Qaeda and ISIS, and have expressed concerns about rumors of the Coalition members cutting deals with Al Qaeda. At the same time, the US has been unwilling to reassess the grounds for its presence and to commit to a greater level of support and involvement. From Egypt’s perspective, if the current on the ground realities cannot be handled even by the initiators of the MESA project, the prospects for future success appear to be rather bleak.
Executing the Mission without MESA – what is the path for the United States?
If Arab NATO is not to be in the form as envisioned by the White House, the US will be forced to develop stronger bilateral defense relationship with each of the key players, and figure out a different way of engaging the pivotal actors in countering Iran’s expansionism. If MESA is to be resurrected, its members need to be at least a somewhat cohesive force; so only the countries that are more or less on the same page and are not likely to attack each other should be considered for membership. Furthermore, any Arab NATO should model itself closely upon the real NATO, including creating a formal structure of alliances, finding a way of separating PR and trade grievances from defense commitments, receiving formal training from the US and other Western NATO members, and creating Centers of Excellence which capitalize on each members’ strengths and which would create interdependency and assuage regional rivalries. Furthermore, a certain level of fluidity in alliances makes sense in contemporary multipolar defense landscape. For some countries, addressing joint border issues makes sense, and a natural alliance will occur. Others will see Iran as the top priority, while still others may be more concerned about jihadist presence. Whatever the case may be, rigid structure of the original NATO which emerged out of the bipolar Cold War scenario, may no longer be applicable at all, much less towards MENA.
Does that mean that Egypt can never be relied upon to counter Iran’s rising hegemony? From all appearances, it seems that Egypt is content with maintaining a modest diplomatic relationship with the Islamic Republic. Part of the reason for its difference with the rest of the ATQ on this matter is the fact that Egypt currently prioritizes addressing the threats by Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood, while Tehran does not appear to present an immediate existential danger.
Understanding the Divide within the Anti-Terrorism Quartet
Additionally, Cairo’s priorities since Abdul Fattah al-Sisi took power have consistently centered around countering the danger of radical Islamism, both in Egypt and abroad. Cairo is likewise currently fighting a fierce regional battle with Turkey and Qatar, who support the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. Relative to these challenges, countering the Iranian threat is a lower priority for Egypt.
Thanks to MB financial backing, terrorist threats have spread throughout the regions; infiltration of ISIS member and other groups in Sinai keep Egypt occupied and require a great deal of financial expenditures and military focus. The situation in Libya until recently has likewise been a major military concern; Qatar’s interference in regional matters, such as backing Sudan over a dam-related dispute with Egypt were likewise more immediate items of interest from Cairo’s perspective. Although Iran had previously worked with the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood Morsi government on establishing stronger military and intelligence ties with Egypt, since President Sissi’s tenure began, Iran focused its energies elsewhere.
The Muslim Brotherhood, with support from Ankara and Doha, is seen as an existential threat; Iran is not.
IN that sense, the Gulf States and Egypt have differing priorities; combating Iran’s expansionism is one of the top priorities for KSA, UAE, and Bahrain, but it apparently is not so for Egypt.
Similarly, the Gulf States, despite significant differences with Erdogan’s Turkey, need Turkey’s involvement in Syria to oppose Assad and Iranian incursion, although they, too, distrust Erdogan’s geopolitical ambitions. Cairo, on the other hand, in part by growing closer to Russia, has made peace with Assad retaining power, and prefers Assad to the instability of jihadist groups at war, the expansion of Muslim Brotherhood, and the strengthening of Ankara.
Why Egypt Prioritizes Response to the Turkish Threat
Egypt’s and Turkey’s historical relationship is fraught with friction; some of the old tensions are now playing out with Ankara’s Islamist leadership in charge. Some old Ottoman street names, for instance, have fallen casualty of the more recent strife. Egypt was under Ottoman control from the 16th through the early 20th century. Although there are many historical, cultural, and religious ties, the countries have had periods of tensions, such as during the Nasserist period in the 1950s and 60s, when the Kemalist Turkey moved in a pro-Western direction. Erdogan’s support for Morsi created a long term problem for his relations with the Sissi government. In 2013, Egypt expelled the Turkish ambassador following a diplomatic crisis. Erdogan permanently banned the Egyptian ambassador from entering Turkey and declared him to be a persona non grata in response. The reason for this cold start to relations was Turkey’s involvement in the Arab Spring which brought Morsi to power in the first place, and later, its meddling in Syria.
Erdogan welcomed the heads of the Muslim Brotherhood, who fled Egypt and openly touted his ties with that organization. Increasing evidence of Erdogan’s trade ties with ISIS created a further obstacle to the relationship with Egypt, which suffers from ongoing terrorist attacks. President Sissi on the other hand, proposed, recognizing the Armenian genocide, a sore point for Turkey, particularly under Erdogan. In February 2019, the government implicitly recognized the genocide, further exacerbating the divide. Other members of the Egyptian government proposed granting asylum to Fethullah Gullen, Erdogan’s Islamist political rival, currently under protection in the United States.
Furthermore, Egypt has arrested a number of individuals in 2017; that group was accused of espionage in favor of Turkey, as well as money laundering, and assorted related crimes. The two countries have also been engaged in an ongoing media war. These exchanges reflected the geopolitical tensions. Egypt was irked by Turkey’s interest in projecting greater power into Africa, including its incursions into the Red Sea. Not the least of it was the general sense that Turkey seeks to be the new Sunni leader of the Muslim world, displacing the traditional role played by Egypt and Saudi Arabia in that regard. Its media coverage attacking the heads of state in these two countries reflected Erdogan’s populist move to rile up any pro-Muslim Brotherhood elements.
Turkey and Qatar’s growing presence in Africa threatens to reignite the pro-Muslim Brotherhood sympathies, which can spread like fire across borders of unstable neighboring countries, or exploit existing vulnerabilities even in more secure states. Both of these states have been generously funding humanitarian and ideological outreach efforts, which hit much closer to home than Iran. Egypt, then, finds itself having to focus on securing itself from these efforts – and leaving the less immediately urgent battles to its Gulf counterparts.
How Egypt is Getting the Best of Both Worlds
For Cairo, this arrangement seems to be the best of both worlds: while remaining a Gulf ally, Egypt is able to preserve an attitude towards Iran’s actions in the region that reflects some of Cairo and Tehran’s shared strategic interests. The two states have similar perspectives on major regional issues such as support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and the need to subject the Israeli nuclear program to international oversight.
The position of the two countries on the Syrian issue is notably aligned—even at the expense of Egypt’s Gulf allies. Cairo openly supports Assad, Tehran’s traditional ally. And against expectations, Egypt voted in the Security Council in favor of the Russian decision on Syria in October 2016—supported by Iran and opposed by Saudi Arabia—a decision that infuriated Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, Egypt has not been pushed towards a significantly more bellicose position by its Gulf allies and continues to limit itself to activities like its participation in the Warsaw Conference. Based on these and other indicators, it seems that Egypt and Iran have no intention of seriously clashing in the near future.
There are other reasons for Egypt’s position on this issue. First, there is the traditional isolationist argument present to some extent in any society, which calls for focusing Egypt’s foreign policy exclusively on matters of direct and immediate interest to Egypt’s national interests. While that argument is not prevalent, despite some presence among government officials, it does press the issue of priorities. Second, coordination of efforts thus far has been mostly lip service. There have been some isolated joint military exercises; Egyptian advisers to Saudi defense have played an influential role. Nevertheless, for theArab NATO to succeed and for Egypt to want to return to an active role in regional efforts, several things need to happen – and there are certainly opportunities for these issues to be addressed.
Recommendations for saving MESA and bringing Egypt back to the table
Goals and limitations of the alliance need to be clearly defined; responsibilities of each member need to be delineated; financial commitments must be clear, transparent, and have enforcement mechanisms for collection to avoid the pitfalls of the Western NATO discrepancies.
Most successful Iranian operations, including naval exercises, are geared towards asymmetrical warfare. While MESA member states are increasingly well equipped with modern weaponry, up until this point the training regimen was largely geared towards large scale traditional confrontations, which is no longer the present, much less the future of contemporary warfare. For that reason, all states which aspire to be a members should agree to restructure their forces in such a way that effective asymmetrical preparation became possible. This would give Egypt additional advantage in any future confrontation with jihadist groups or its priority adversarial forces. In other words, this would be a win-win situation, as all members would benefit in some way from such an arrangement.
While there needs to be a minimal agreed upon financial commitment among all members, building trust in any formalized alliance also requires balancing strengths and weaknesses, creating a way of compensating for any inherent vulnerabilities. That means that where some members are best position to contribute well trained and battle hardened forces, others may be better positioned to contribute financially while they commit to developing the level of preparation that would facilitate their participation in any potential confrontations, and still others might provide other essential types of expertise.
Because Iran is not a top priority for Egypt, it is important to underscore that Iran’s detrimental effect in the region is not constrained by military prowess and destruction alone. Cybesecurity, financial crimes, alliances with assorted organized crimes schemes, the advance of soft power, law fare and economic warfare, and lobbying and PR in the West are all part of Iran’s geopolitical strategy – and while Egypt may not suffer the effects of Iran’s combat plans directly or in the immediate foreseeable future, it is not immune from the other global activities by Iran and its proxies.
Finally, it is important to note that Turkey, Qatar, and Muslim Brotherhood and its backed organizations such as Hamas, are increasingly growing closer to Iran. Hamas is fully funded by Iran; Egypt’s diplomatic successes in dealing with Hamas recently are noteworthy; however, Iran’s determination to destabilize the region and to utilize Syria and regional battles to exact influence have continued unabated. For that reason, it is in Egypt’s best interests to separate its worst enemies from each other and from Iran. The issue, then, is how to address Egypt’s relationship with Assad and how to avoid exacerbating the differences with the Gulf States over Syria’s role. The answer to that is: carefully, and incrementally, by focusing on small issues, where, for instance, Egypt can exercise diplomatic influence over Russia and Assad to pressure Iran, whereas in exchange the Gulf States can worker closer with Egypt on securing its interests against incursion by Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The United States has limited options if it wants to exert the “maximum pressure” on the Islamic Republic. It can return to a more hawkish role in the Middle East, expand its presence in Syria and Iraq, figure out an effective and legal way of disrupting Hezbollah operations and IRGC financing and arming of the Houthis or else increasing its forces on the ground and incorporating Hezbollah into its counterrorism mission. It can also invest into soft power projects along with its Middle Eastern counterpart that could counter Iran’s ideological influence. It could even build additional bases, including in Saudi Arabia, in the future to deter attacks from Houthis or various jihadist groups. Alternatively, if the US seeks in the long term to minimize its presence in the region without sacrificing the region to Russia and Iran as now appears to be the course, it will need to do a lot more in the short term to ensure that the bloc of states the Trump administration is counting on to pick up the leadership role in countering Iran’s malign influence does not disperse to be co-opted, weakened, or countered by the adversary. It needs to invest time, effort, and human resources into creating a coherent mechanism for delivering a workable strategy towards a clearly defined objective – rolling back Iranian influence and bankrupting the regime to the point that it can no longer present a security threat to anyone in the region.
*Mohamed Maher is an Egyptian journalist and researcher based in the United States.
Military Modernization of ASEAN States: The New Agenda
The discourse about the international security and defense affairs have always been impregnated with the dynamics of security dilemma. Even today, when complex interdependence has connected states in multiple ways, the global politics still tends to favor Machiavellian norms. Therefore, it is forcefully propagated that the security of the state depends upon the strength of their armament. Apparently, it sounds perfectly reasonable, to have the recent generations of arms in abundant quantity to deter the ‘enemy. But what if a state has no enemy? Or at least does not have any immediate enemy in the general sense of the term. Should such a state focus its resources to build a mighty defense sector and take part in an arms race? The answer that might pop in our minds is No. Unfortunately, this is true in the case of South East Asian states. In the last few years, the ASEAN states’ military spending has nearly doubled. Most notably, Thailand and Indonesia’s military budget has been snowballing at the rate of 10% on a year by year basis. It is interesting to note that Vietnam arms import has spiked 700% over a decade, making it one of the top 10 purchaser of arms. Other ASEAN states have been increasingly importing fighter jets, frigates, helicopters, submarines and the like.
The emerging situation in the region could be analyzed from these three different perspectives. Firstly, South East Asian states have increased their military spending as a consequences of US withdrawal from the region and mounting concerns about China’s growing regional as well as global influence. As ASEAN states generally enjoy cordial relations among themselves and the spirit of regionalism is very much prevalent in both their bi and multi-lateral relations. Besides, these states have, by and large, remained peaceful in world affairs. Therefore, considering this first perspective has its own problems, it might be true to some extent, that the recent surge in spend spending is aimed at countering China, with which they share friendly ties, or filling some security void. Secondly, some experts argue that south East Asian states’ military spending is according to their GDP rate, and has remained stable over the period. Therefore, this ‘surge’ is normal. Lastly, according to some scholars, we need to look at what these states are actually buying to understand the whole situation. These scholars argue that, these states have been spending the money on ‘modernizing’ their armament that have, otherwise, been hardly functional for years. So, for this standpoint, this surge in military spending is nothing more than normal efforts to modernize state weaponry.
Nonetheless, this is where the actual problem lies. Why should states seek to modernize their weaponry when there is no such apparent reason and when this weaponry has been “barely functional for years”? Armaments, like other machineries, need constant maintenance, supervision and regulation. And all of this requires a lot of resources. Even if a state’s military spending is in accordance with its GDP, armament or its modernization, whether qualitatively or quantitatively, must not be ‘justified’. Since cold war, international politics has seen many disarmament efforts, be it conventions on chemical or biological weapons, denuclearization zones, Arms trade treaty or Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty. It is a high time that instead of making it customary to have some modern armament, states must come together to break this norm. Particularly, South East Asian states, that have no deeply embedded antagonism, neither within the region nor outside it, could have reversed the norm of owing “modern military weaponry”, that would most likely again remain ‘barely functional for years’ on end.
Moreover, as previously mentioned, what these states have been importing is telling. However, how this modernization in armament has been reoriented is equally important, as many of the regions military strategies are shifting their focus away from countering insurgency to external defense and conventional warfare. While domestic factors do play a key role here. For instance, Thailand doubled its military spending after the military coups of 2006 and 2014. And Myanmar has justified its arms buildup on the pretext of having to deal with various insurgent groups within the state. Though particularly in Myanmar’s case, instead of spending heavily on military and committing gross atrocities against its very own Rohingya community, it should have provided shelter to them.
Although various studies refute that there is any instrumental link between armament and warfare. But given that, when such efforts are aimed at strengthening capabilities for external warfare, it is likely that it might spike some mutual distrust at some point in the future. But it’s not simply the matter of the conflict that ‘might emerge’, the problem here is, an undaunted prevalence of spending on weapons at international level that has quietly legitimized, justified and warranted the buying and selling of lethal weapons. So much so that, such a state of affair is usually vindicated and rationalized into a ‘broader context’ of necessities of owning vast weaponry to secure stability. Sadly, such broader context is rarely ‘broad enough’ to include human rights and humanitarian perspectives in the contours of world politics.
The South East Asian States are engulfed in an unending arms race for their survival. To sum up, the discourse on international security and defense that focuses so much on arms buildup needs to be realigned with the new realities of the time. South East Asian states should come up as a norm changer by diverting their resources from extensive defense spending to the human resource development. Progress and development in economy, society, science and technology will pay off in much better ways than investment of precious resources in arms race.
Gambling with the Nuclear Button in South Asia
Over the last decade, India’s rapid expansion of its conventional and nuclear arms capabilities have presented a worrying dilemma with regard to the South Asian region’s security and stability. This holds especially true considering how its clear ambitions to translate its economic rise into a menacing projection of hard-power have remained on full display particularly under the BJP’s tenure. While many observers have come to regard these ambitions as the ruling party simply pandering to the populist vote, the steady consistency with which this policy has been carried throughout the last decade represents a dangerous mindset that appears to have become deeply engrained within India’s civil and military bureaucracy. This mindset and its obsession with external hard-power is further evident in the institutionalization of concepts such as Cold Start and Surgical Strikes both of which have been formalized as part of the Indian State’s official policy as well as its military doctrine.
For instance, both these concepts have been defined at length in the Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces that was released in April 2017 as well as the Indian Army’s Land Warfare Doctrine that was published the following year. As a clear signal of its regional ambitions, both these documents have also unmistakably identified Pakistan and China as India’s principle source of threats. In order to counter these threats these same documents advocate the development of military strategies aimed at pre-set and purportedly restrained instances of minimal force projection that allow India to remain well within the nuclear threshold. This threshold that currently pervades throughout India’s strategic rivalry with both Pakistan and China is arguably the key to maintaining the delicate strategic balance that currently pervades throughout the South Asian region. A region that otherwise comprises of a key locus for the world’s future economic growth and development.
However, the fact that India’s stated policy is to radically alter this strategic balance represents a dangerous mindset, that is based more on its own solitary potential for growth rather than that of the wider region. In what can be termed as nothing short of a myopic outlook to the entire region’s trajectory, India’s efforts at enhancing its force projection capabilities and tilting this delicate balance in its favor is replete with risks. Risks that are in turn deeply rooted in unqualified and broad-ranging premises that assume both Pakistan and China to remain as passive spectators to its aggressive military posturing.
Hence, by constantly aiming to raise the nuclear threshold, the above-mentioned concepts of cold start and surgical strikes are in essence aimed at downplaying the risks of a potential nuclear exchange in South Asia. From a purely rational perspective, this policy while appearing as nothing short of madness, openly flirts with the grave sanctity of the escalation ladder on which the region’s strategic planners and decision-makers rely on when calculating the possibility of a potential nuclear first-strike. As a Nuclear Weapons’ State (NWS) that shares disputed borders with two other Nuclear Weapons’ states, India’s dangerous posturing is thus heavily dependent on it being perceived as a responsible Nuclear power to both Pakistan and China. However, it is this perception of being a responsible NWS which India is actively working to negate as evident in its leaders’ jingoistic saber-rattling.
These include regular statements by Indian leaders in which by openly alluding to the death and annihilation of its strategic rivals, one can witness a certain normalization of nuclear brinkmanship which has become a modus operandi of sorts for Prime Minister Modi. Similar allusions to India possessing the ‘Mother of all Bombs’(in the form of perhaps thermo-nuclear weapons) also represents a kind of posturing that is aimed at upending the status-quo and provoking a response. These statements when coupled with the Indian military-bureaucracy’s clear allusions to reneging its No First Use policy, have further led to even greater ambiguity with regard to India’s strategic calculus. As a result, all these instances represent a dangerous precedent being set for what is considered as ‘acceptable risk’ by India’s strategic planners.
While such negative posturing has been successful in communicating India’s increased risk-appetite to its strategic rivals, what’s unclear is whether these risks are based on a credible deterrence capability or quite simply, the egoistic hubris of its elected leaders and bureaucratic machinery. In what can perhaps only be described as an infantile staring contest; in which one’s sole chance of survival from a nuclear holocaust is counting on the other party’s willingness to blink first, the Indian state’s projection of hard-power seems to be based on more of a wild gamble than the well-thought out contingencies of a major nuclear power.
Hence, with the Indian leadership’s official preference of a defence policy steeped in the risks of nuclear exchange, the merits of institutionalizing its approach to brinkmanship is something that appears downright non-sensical in this day age. Especially during a time where economic growth and human development remain as some of the region’s most pervasive challenges, India’s aggressive regional posturing hark back to the politics of a bygone era in times that otherwise require a visionary approach to fostering regional peace and stability.
The Global Hypersonic Race
Prominent Western politicians have launched a global discussion about the risks associated with Russia developing hypersonic weapons. Arms control experts are attempting to estimate the potential of these new weapons, but attempts at this stage are hindered by the absence of important technical data and the lack of specialized terminology in this field.
The discussion of the threats posed by hypersonic weapons was triggered by President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, who in his address to the Federal Assembly on March 1, 2018, described the impressive capabilities of Russia’s new Avangard and Kinzhal strategic missile systems as follows: “The glide vehicle strikes its target like a meteorite, like a fireball, with its surface temperature reaching between 1600 and 2000 degrees Celsius, while remaining completely controllable at the same time.”
Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs of Germany Heiko Maas attempted to take the lead in discussing the destabilizing new technology. In March 2019, he hastily organized the “2019. Capturing Technology. Rethinking Arms Control” international conference in Berlin. In his opening speech, Maas said: “Manoeuvrable missiles travelling at many times the speed of sound barely leave time for considered human responses. The fact that we are not just talking about science fiction here is demonstrated by Russia’s announcement that the first Avangard systems will be entering service this year. I would therefore also like to seize this conference as an opportunity to establish an international missiles dialogue that takes into account both the challenges posed by new technologies and the dangers of their proliferation. The experts gathered here today could form the backbone of this kind of global Missile Dialogue Initiative.”
However, the subsequent discussion at the conference demonstrated that many of the participants were unfamiliar with the topic of hypersonic weapons. Recognized experts on missile control proved unprepared to hold a substantive conversation about hypersonic technology. As a result, the dialogue was reduced to discussing the INF Treaty.
At the end of the conference, the ministers of foreign affairs of Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden signed a political declaration stressing the “need to build a shared understanding of how technologically enhanced military capabilities may change the character of warfare and how this will influence global security.”
In the United States, where hypersonic technology has already been developing at a rapid pace, including as part of the Prompt Global Strike programme, Putin’s announcement was used as a pretext for investing more in the Pentagon’s projects. “We have lost our technical advantage in hypersonics [but] we have not lost the hypersonics fight,” said Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Paul Selva. Meanwhile, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin, for his part, has identified hypersonics as his top priority and called for an industrial base to be established that could support the development and production of thousands of deterrence hypersonic vehicles.
Mike White, the Pentagon’s assistant director for hypersonics, announced that the department had a three-step plan for the development of hypersonic weapons that involves investing generously in offensive capabilities, then in defensive systems, and finally, at least ten years from now, in reusable airborne hypersonic vehicles. The Pentagon’s spending on hypersonic projects has increased from $201 million in 2018 to $278 million in 2019, and the overall cost of the program is estimated at $2 billion.
China has been no stranger to this “war of words,” with several fantastic reports emanating from the country about “successful tests of hypersonic flight vehicles,” the creation of a material capable of withstanding temperatures of up to 3000 degrees Celsius, and even the development of a universal engine that can accelerate a vehicle from zero to hypersonic flight. Japan has stated its intent to create a High-Speed Gliding Missile, an equivalent of Russia’s Avangard.
Minister of the Armed Forces of France Florence Parly has announced the country’s plans to use the ASN4G supersonic air-to-surface cruise missile as the baseline for the V-MaX supersonic glider that could travel at a speed of over 6000 km/h. The project is being led by ArianeGroup, a joint venture between Airbus and Safran, and the first test flight could take place in late 2021.
In the meantime, the global expert community has yet to come up with a clear scientific definition for the term “hypersonic vehicle.” Hypersonic flight is conventionally understood to mean atmospheric flight at speeds higher than Mach 5, that is, five times the speed of sound. The second important feature of a hypersonic aircraft is its ability to maneuver with the use of aerodynamic forces, rather than merely adjusting the target accuracy. This entails longer atmospheric flight times and greater susceptibility to the destructive factors associated with atmospheric flight.
At present, only a handful of countries are close to creating effective hypersonic weapons. Hypersonic weapons engineers are faced with some very unique technical challenges. To begin with, there is the problem of ensuring controlled and sustained flight in a rarefied atmosphere whose density varies with altitude. Among other things, this creates difficulties for propulsion systems that consume oxygen.
Also, the friction created by the hypersonic airflow around the vehicle’s surface generates a sheath of ionized plasma, with the nose fairing temperature reaching up to 3000 degrees Celsius. Even vehicles made of ultra-heat-resistant alloys or composites lose their shape and original aerodynamic characteristics due to the heating and ablation. For example, the U.S. Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird high-altitude supersonic reconnaissance aircraft would become 10cm longer in flight owing to thermal expansion, and fuel would seep from its seams on landing.
Controlling a hypersonic vehicle from launch to target impact is a separate problem, as the plasma sheath blocks radio signals. Solving this problem requires complex and expensive research. Even US engineers have not yet found a solution to this problem.
Another challenge is linked to the fact that the plasma sheath significantly complicates navigation, which for a strike vehicle must be autonomous, prompt and very accurate. Plasma makes electro-optical and radio-frequency homing impossible. Inertial navigation systems cannot provide the required accuracy at long distances. A solution to this problem has yet to be found.
The traditional types of aviation fuel (jet fuel and methane) are unsuitable at hypersonic speeds. A hypersonic vehicle needs a special kind of fuel. Also, a universal propulsion engine capable of accelerating a vehicle from zero to hypersonic speeds has not yet been created. At present, militaries have to make do with rocket boosters or supersonic aircraft to accelerate vehicles to speeds at which their supersonic combustion ramjet engines can be engaged.
When it comes to the flight mode, there are three different types of hypersonic vehicles. The first type is an unpowered glide vehicle, which rides a ballistic missile to an altitude of approximately 100km, separates, and performs a maneuverable flight in the upper atmospheric layer at speeds between Mach 8 and Mach 28. By skip-gliding along the atmosphere like a skipping stone along the water surface, such a vehicle can increase its flight range by several times. The second type is a scramjet-powered vehicle, which can only fly in the atmosphere because its engine needs oxygen. The third type is a quasi-ballistic or semi-ballistic missile that mainly follows a shallow ballistic trajectory but can also maneuver to evade enemy missile defenses. One example here is the Russian Iskander-M missile, which flies at hypersonic speeds of between 2100 and 2600 m/sec (Mach 6 to Mach 7) at an altitude of 50km.
Experts sometimes use the term “aeroballistic.” However, this definition is not applied to the speed of flight, but rather to the mode of travel: namely, it implies a combined mode of partially traveling along a ballistic trajectory and partially employing aerodynamic control surfaces and jet vanes for steering. An aeroballistic vehicle does not necessarily have to be hypersonic, as the term can also be applied to slower vehicles, although it is now widely used in the context of the hypersonic Kinzhal and Iskander-M missiles.
Hypersonic vehicles have one distinct feature which traditional exo-atmospheric ballistic missiles do not. While most ballistic missiles develop speeds of dozens of Machs (i.e., they also travel at hypersonic speeds), they are not described as hypersonic unless they or their warheads are capable of aerodynamic maneuvering in the atmosphere.
Some ballistic missile warheads are capable of terminal trajectory corrections. They are not classed as hypersonic vehicles, since the purpose of their maneuvering is not to increase the flight range or evade an anti-missile attack, but merely to reduce the circular error probable (CEP).
All hypersonic vehicles can be subdivided into five categories depending on their mission:
- Manned aircraft (the first and so far only example here is the U.S. North American X-15, which set the world airspeed record of Mach 6.72 in 1967)
- Unmanned vehicles (mainly experimental projects such as the Boeing X-43, which reached Mach 9.6 in 2004)
- Scramjet-powered hypersonic missiles (such as the Russian 3M22 Zircon)
- Hypersonic glide vehicles (the Russian Avangard or the U.S. Advanced Hypersonic Weapon)
- Air- or ground-launched spaceplanes (the Soviet Buran and U.S. Space Shuttle vehicles, which reach speeds of Mach 25 upon re-entry).
Military hypersonic vehicles fall into the following three categories:
1. Reconnaissance vehicles
At present, only one purely reconnaissance hypersonic vehicle is known to be under development: the Lockheed Martin SR-72, which can theoretically travel at speeds of up to 7400 km/h. This vehicle is expected to be better at monitoring mobile missile systems than reconnaissance satellites. It could also eventually be equipped to carry a charge for a pinpoint strike.
Another experimental orbital hypersonic vehicle is the Boeing X-37B. Although little is known about its intended mission, it could also serve as a reconnaissance platform.
2. Hypersonic kill vehicles
Scramjet-powered hypersonic cruise missiles that can be launched by an aircraft, a sea-surface ship or a submarine (the Russian 3M22 Zircon or the U.S. X-51A Waverider, which is currently under development) can be used to destroy enemy missile early warning systems, anti-aircraft and anti-missile defenses, airfields, hardened command posts and critical facilities.
Glide vehicles (the Russian Avangard; the U.S. Lockheed Martin Falcon, HIFiRE and HSSW/TBG [High-Speed Strike Weapon/Tactical Boost Glide]; and the Chinese WU-14/DF-ZF) are primarily intended as nuclear strike weapons.
Quasi-ballistic missiles (the Russian Kinzhal and Iskander-M; the Indian Shaurya tactical missile; and the Chinese DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile) are relatively difficult to detect by radar thanks to their shallow trajectory. Their warheads can change trajectory, so enemy missile defenses cannot calculate the exact target, and the warhead’s maneuverability considerably complicates interception.
3. Hypersonic interceptors
These are surface-to-air missiles designed to intercept ballistic missile warheads, normally in their terminal, atmospheric phase of trajectory. The most advanced interceptors can engage ballistic missiles at exo-atmospheric altitudes and even shoot down low-orbit satellites.
To stand a chance of intercepting a ballistic target, an interceptor must not only develop a high speed, but also launch promptly and maneuver actively. U.S. RIM-161 SM-3 Block IIA missiles of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System can travel at speeds of up to Mach 15.25; the Russian S-400 48N6DM missiles have a speed of Mach 7.5, and the future S500 77N6-N1 missiles will be able to reach speeds of up to Mach 21.
Advantages of Hypersonic Missiles
Hypersonic missiles have several obvious advantages over ballistic missiles. First, they follow significantly shallower trajectories, so ground-based radars detect them later into the flight. Second, thanks to their maneuvering, high speed and unpredictable trajectory, the enemy cannot be certain of the hypersonic vehicle’s target, whereas the trajectory of a ballistic missile is currently fairly easy to calculate. Third, ballistic missile interception experiments have been conducted since the 1960s, and there are plenty of reports on successful trial intercepts. However, intercepting a high-speed maneuvering atmospheric target is extremely difficult and is believed to be impossible at present. Also, the mass production of hypersonic vehicles is expected to be cheaper than that of ballistic missiles. Despite the challenges associated with developing scram engines, such jets have virtually no moving parts and their cross-sections represent special configuration tubing. According to analysts at the U.S. company Capital Alpha Partners, “If hypersonic weapons can be produced with unit costs of $2 million, or less, they will impact some of the outyear weapons plans. A weapon that travels at Mach 5, or faster, and that can maneuver will see strong U.S. demand in the later part of this decade.” Finally, the kinetic energy of a hypersonic missile is so high that its release will be enough to destroy certain types of targets even without using a charge. This gives experts reason to state that hypersonic missiles might become an alternative to nuclear weapons in certain situations.
Shortcomings of Hypersonic Missiles
As for the shortcomings of hypersonic missiles, experts point out that they cannot offer high target accuracy because it is almost impossible to fit such a missile with a homing head, and its high speed will result in an increase in targeting error. A hypersonic vehicle is believed to have a CER of between 30 and 50 meters. Furthermore, high-speed missiles will have a large infrared signature due to frictional skin heating, making them easily detectable by IR sensors. Designers will need to find a compromise between the high impact speed and the high probability of standoff detection. Also, a scramjet-powered missile must be initially accelerated to a speed of about Mach 3. This complicates the use of such weapons, which require a rocket booster or a high-speed air-launch platform. Experts believe that, due to a plethora of technological problems, hypersonic weapons currently have a relatively limited effective range (some 1000km for scramjet-powered missiles). However, the veil of secrecy surrounding this type of weaponry provokes rumors and excessive fears, and this destabilizing factor could prompt the enemy to resort to a pre-emptive strike.
Challenges for International Security and Stability
The U.S. expert community has carefully studied the potential of Russian hypersonic weapons in terms of how they could affect the balance of forces and concluded that, in general, they do not pose an existential threat to major nuclear powers. Thus, fitting Avangard missiles with glide vehicles will not increase the size of the Russian nuclear arsenal, nor will it extend the effective range of the missiles, their range of action or their strike speed. The United States and other nuclear powers will still be able to respond to a Russian nuclear attack.
U.S. experts admit that maneuvering hypersonic vehicles are almost impossible to intercept. However, given that the U.S. missile defense system has very limited intercept capabilities when it comes even to Russian ballistic missiles, the introduction of Avangard hypersonic missiles changes little in the nuclear war scenario. For the United States, this is more of a technological challenge, with which both the Pentagon and the White House are fairly unhappy. Dominance in military technology has remained a priority for the United States for decades, ever since the launch of the first Soviet satellite. Therefore, the news of Russia’s hypersonic achievements does not sit well with Washington. At the same time, it has provided the United States with an opportunity to study the possibility of extending missile defense to near space. Megawatt laser weapons are believed to be capable of destroying both ballistic and hypersonic missiles. The current level of U.S. technology already allows for equipping different types of ground transport with lasers generating in excess of 50kW of power, while sea-based lasers can generate over 150kW. Under the current trend, laser power increases tenfold every three years. In this sense, within five years, we can expect U.S. laser technology to reach a level that where the Pentagon may be confident in the possibility of building lasers that are capable of shooting down hypersonic devices. The next step will then be to deploy laser weapons in the Earth’s orbit.
In light of the above, the emergence of hypersonic weapons will introduce a number of destabilizing factors for international security. First, countries possessing such weapons will have an asymmetric advantage over other developing countries. Second, it will trigger the deployment of the space-based laser component of the missile defense system. Third, it will provoke a new global arms race, including with regard to laser weapons, hypersonic anti-missile systems, cyber-weapons, railguns and unmanned delivery platforms for strike weapons. Moreover, for non-nuclear powers, hypersonic missiles may become a serious instrument of deterrence or power projection. It should also be noted that hypersonic missiles could be used in a pre-emptive strike against an enemy whose main weapons are situated within their effective reach (at present, within a radius of up to 1000km). That is, the deployment of hypersonic weapons can be considered as a critical threat to the country’s immediate neighbors. Finally, there are global risks to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The secret hunt for missile components such as fuel, alloys, electronics and airframe blueprints has never stopped. In the new environment, even those countries that are signatories to the MTCR are interested in obtaining prompt global strike technologies.
The current leaders of hypersonic weapons research are, in addition to Russia, the United States and China.
Despite its ambitious statements, China has not yet rolled out a reliable prototype of a hypersonic vehicle. Chinese engineers have developed the YJ-12 supersonic anti-ship cruise missile, but the country’s military currently only has subsonic ground-based cruise missiles in service. It may be the case that Beijing hopes to leap from subsonic straight to hypersonic, skipping supersonics altogether.
China is believed to be working on at least two hypersonic programs. Since 2014, it has been testing the DF-ZF (dubbed Wu-14 in the United States) hypersonic glide vehicle complete with the DF-17 medium-range ballistic missile for the launch vehicle (eventually to be replaced by the DF-31 missile). The second project, the air-launched CH-AS-X-13 missile, is primarily intended against aircraft carriers. According to a representative of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Mechanics has created a turbine-based combined-cycle engine capable of accelerating a vehicle to Mach 6.
As part of the High Speed Strike Weapon (HSSW) program, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the United States Air Force are working on three hypersonic concepts. The Tactical Boost Glide (TBG) combat vehicle riding a solid-fuel rocket booster, under development by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, is planned as an equivalent to Russia’s Avangard. The Boeing Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) will have a combined-cycle engine (the turbine will accelerate the vehicle to Mach 2, after which the scramjet will further propel it to hypersonic speeds). According to some reports, the vehicle may be reusable. Northrop Grumman Corporation is working to design the combined-cycle Advanced Full Range Engine (AFRE) for HAWC under a contract with DARPA. Finally, the reusable unmanned craft under development as part of the HyRAX project and the XS-1 Experimental Spaceplane program will be used as an inexpensive launch vehicle to insert dual-use satellites into low-Earth orbits.
The HSSW program is aimed at designing and testing a hypersonic strike vehicle by 2020. The key specifications include speeds of Mach 6 to 10, an effective range of over 1000km, a CEP of under 5m and a variety of warhead types (penetrator, HE-fragmentation or cluster).
The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory is looking into the possibility of creating a combined-cycle propulsion system for reusable vehicles, including by way of integrating scramjets with reheated bypass turbojets.
In addition to DARPA, hypersonic weapons are being developed by the United States Army Space and Missile Defense Command in conjunction with the Sandia National Laboratory under the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon project, which calls for the creation of a hypersonic glide vehicle with a precision terminal guidance system.
Russia’s breakthrough in the hypersonic weapons race may have shaken the global balance of forces, but it has not reshaped it. The United States is not far behind Russia technologically, and may even be ahead in certain aspects of hypersonic weapons, including when it comes to making combined-cycle or hybrid propulsion systems for hypersonic vehicles that would allow a reusable reconnaissance/strike vehicle to be created. Nevertheless, the Russian achievements came as an unpleasant surprise for all the leading world powers.
The situation appears different for those nations that do not command massive nuclear arsenals. The Russian example opens a window of opportunities for them. Hypersonic weapons may appear to be an excellent solution for ensuring a decisive military advantage over a technically lacking adversary. Those countries lagging behind in the arms race may perceive hypersonic weapons as a critical and potentially disarming threat to an unfriendly neighbor.
In the art of war, uncertainty often drives progress. As the leading analytical centers are working to collect relevant information and understand the scale of possible threats, politicians and militaries are approving investment in new defense programs. A new item on defense budgets around the world has appeared.
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