If one is to believe the countless recent articles about hypersonic weapons, then Russia and China have invented a revolutionary weapon fundamentally challenging U.S. missile defense and the security of the American people. Fittingly, one particular op-ed in the New York Times is actually titled “Hypersonic Missiles are a Game Changer” . The New York Times op-ed, like so many others, reminds us that “no existing defenses can stop such weapons” and that hypersonic velocity is “something no missile can currently achieve, aside from an ICBM during re-entry” . According to another article, America’s missile defense needs to “be like Sparta” because we “are staring at a critical gap in our nation’s missile defense” . Both articles, representative of many others, claim that U.S. missile defense “effectively provided protection from intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) through the most sophisticated multilayered ballistic missile defense capabilities known to man. Now, next-generation foreign threats are creating near term vulnerability, the gap if you will, that challenges our defensive capabilities” .
But are these alarming messages actually true? The short answer is no. Contrary to the notion promulgated in the articles, there is currently no multilayered ballistic missile defense against ICBMs. There are no layers of different systems to engage an incoming ICBM. There is only one limited system: Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD). GMD has currently 44 interceptors available in Fort Greely, Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California to engage incoming ICBMs. The task of the GMD system is only to defend against a limited ICBM threat that could emerge from North Korea and potentially from Iran in the future. GMD was never intended to be used against the vast ICBM arsenals of Russia or China with hundreds of ICBMs and thousands of nuclear warheads. Defending against a massive ICBM attack from either of these countries has always been impossible. Therefore, hypersonic weapons are not a new threat that suddenly give Russia or China the capability to attack North America with nuclear warheads. This capability has existed since the development of ICBMs. Russia and China possess the capacity to attack the United States with ICBMs just as the United States has the ability to attack those countries. However, it is worth noting that neither Russia nor China possess any defense against ICBMs that is comparable to the U.S. GMD system.
It is worrying that the aforementioned op-eds were written by experienced individuals who should know of their inaccuracies. The authors include a former member of the National Security Council and a former Member of Congress who served on the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
On the other side of the discussion, several articles completely contradict the notion of an emerging threat and downplay the dangers and capabilities of the new hypersonic weapons. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), indicative of the broader critical opinion, paint the mainstream view about hypersonic weapons as a “fantastical depiction” . This depiction, according to the UCS, is aimed to support an arms race among the major military powers to develop these weapons and “is part of a long pattern of media hype” . Further, the critics also correctly address that “current U.S. defenses are not designed to defend against Russia and China, the nations currently deploying hypersonic weapons. The United States will therefore remain vulnerable to missile attack regardless of whether or not hypersonic weapons are deployed” .
The UCS (and other like-minded critics) have valid points against much of the sensational and often fundamentally wrong reporting on hypersonic weapons in the media. However, these critics often base their arguments’ assumptions on theory and lack important operational considerations that should be part of the discussion.
The speed of hypersonic weapons is typically the key focus in most discussions of them as a dangerous new weapon system. This is understandable, as their speed is certainly significant and poses a strong technical challenge in designing a system to counter their employment. However, it must be understood that speed is only one consideration for successful intercept. The ability for hypersonic missiles, or glide vehicles, to significantly maneuver and avoid a predictable trajectory is the critical feature that will be the biggest challenge to overcome. Existing air and missile defenses are designed against ballistic missiles, which travel along a predictable trajectory with very limited ability to maneuver. Hypersonic weapons will negate current defense capabilities due to their greater speed and maneuverability relative to ICBMs.
To qualify as a hypersonic weapon, the weapon must be able to travel at least five times the speed of sound. The Russian Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, the first operational hypersonic weapon, has the ability to achieve speeds between 20 to 27 times the speed of sound, according to the Russian government. In comparison, a traditional ICBM changes speeds throughout its parabolic flight (between boost, exo-atmospheric midcourse, and terminal phases) and achieves speeds averaging 20 times the speed of sound during re-entry into the atmosphere. By this definition, current ICBMs would also technically be hypersonic missiles. Therefore, according to the critics of the hypersonic weapons hype, the speed and flight time of hypersonics, even if they were faster than ballistic missiles, is immaterial. However, that argument is incorrect. Missile flight time makes a significant difference because it directly influences decision space, the time that human operators have to react to an incoming threat, and potential engagement windows, the time defense systems need to successfully counteract a missile threat.
A threat missile may undergo a 15-20-minute flight time until target impact, during which defenders have an approximately five-minute engagement window in which to react. This window varies depending on where the threat originates relative to the interceptor location; therefore, one or two minutes within this cycle is a significant amount of time, representing twenty to forty percent of the total engagement window. If one was only focusing on theoretical concerns, one or two minutes may seem inconsequential. However, from the perspective of military operations, it may be critical. Precise flight timing impacts equipment and software requirements, defense crew processes, and other operational considerations with significant impact on achieving success. The UCS, in their criticism, appear to ignore established missile defense tactics. Air and missile defenders generally attempt multiple shots against an incoming threat to increase the probability of successful intercept. Under such scenarios, every minute counts in order to have as many shot opportunities as possible. This is particularly important when dealing with nuclear warheads with unimaginable consequences if not intercepted.
Critics also tend to address the low flying flight path of hypersonic glide vehicles. In their eyes, taking advantage of the curvature of the earth to fly beneath missile defense radars is overstated. But here too, there is a more than what meets the eye. The UCS state that total reliance on ground-based radar for early warning of missile attacks is a relic of the past for technologically-advanced nations like the United States or Russia . According to them, both nations have operated early warning satellites since the 1970s. It is true that space-based infrared sensors would detect a hypersonic missile launch just as easily as an attack with traditional ballistic missiles due to the infrared emissions. However, what is missing in this assessment is the fact that detection alone will not help in the actual intercept of the threat. Detection alone would only give the opportunity to warn people of incoming strategic missiles that will impact in approximately 20 minutes, which is hardly any time to prepare a metropolitan area for an impact. In order to engage an incoming missile, radars are required, which are more precise than the data obtained from infrared satellites. These satellites do not produce an exact real-time accurate picture. Even if they did, discrimination of the warhead from space would be nearly impossible. Discrimination, the ability for a radar to discern which object is the lethal warhead and needs to be intercepted, is critical for a successful engagement. When an ICBM is launched, a so-called ‘missile event’ could produce a flying cloud or cluster of several hundreds of parts and debris, with one of them being the actual warhead. In addition, there are decoys that are made to look like the lethal warhead to confuse defense systems. Hypersonic weapons could, just like ballistic missiles, be equipped with such decoys. Therefore, ground-based radars are essential for effective missile defense to discriminate and destroy the warhead.
Despite the flaws in their theoretical approach, critics are correct in stating that hypersonic weapons are being inaccurately presented as new and insurmountable urgent threats. Hypersonic glide vehicles, although new, are not strategic game changers that pose a new threat by enabling Russia and China to attack the United States with nuclear warheads. Hypersonic weapons are not a new advantage for China, Russia, or for the United States. The United States does not need hypersonic weapons to attack Russia, China, or any other nation to overwhelm any sort of missile defense system. Contrary to the United States, no other country has even a limited capability to engage ICBMs.
However, to claim that hypersonic weapons are simply ‘hype’ to justify increased military spending, is only telling half the story. Hypersonic weapons do represent a basic capability that is revolutionary in the field of missile defense. Missile defense is currently grounded in math to calculate and predict, based upon a missile’s trajectory, where an incoming missile will be at a certain time in order to engage and destroy that it. With the development of new hypersonic weapons that have the ability to maneuver and therefore don’t follow a predictable trajectory, the very basis of missile defense is called into question. Therefore, it is necessary to research methods and technology to counter this threat because it could potentially make traditional missile defense as we currently know it obsolete.
The question of why the United States appears to lag behind Russia and China regarding hypersonic weapon systems as well as why defense against such systems was not part of earlier U.S. military planning must be addressed as part of the hypersonic discussion.
Russia’s announcement of its first operational hypersonic weapon seems to have been a ‘Sputnik moment’ for the U.S. military. By 1957, the Soviet Union “had acquired the world’s first ICBM, which also placed the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in space. For the United States, this presented a substantial threat and challenge, amplifying fears about American weakness against a Soviet ICBM attack. This shaped the political support for the creation of an American anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system” . Similar to what we are seeing now with hypersonic weapons, the first American ICBM was declared operational two years after the Soviet Union already had ICBMs. The reason for the American delay during the Cold War was due to a different strategic focus and military leadership that was not adaptive in its approach. With overwhelming air superiority and capable intercontinental bombers, the U.S. Air Force did not take the development of ICBM technology seriously in the 1950s. Within the Air Force, many fighter and bomber pilots, the elite of the hierarchy in the Air Force and the main pool from which decision makers came, were opposed to the notion of American ICBMs, since they saw their traditional roles in danger and could not conceptualize a new form of warfare.
Today’s U.S. military lags behind Russian and Chinese developments in the field of hypersonic weapons and is pressed to find a quick solution for the defense against such weapons because of similar reasons. Completely focused on nearly two decades of counter insurgency warfare, the U.S. military neglected strategic planning, air and missile defense, and the military and technological modernization of Russia and the emergence of China. The U.S. Army, responsible for land-based air and missile defense marginalized its Air Defense Artillery formations. Similar to the Air Force’s pilots, the Army’s top decision-makers tend to come from the infantry or maneuver forces. The notion that the United States would always maintain air superiority because insurgents do not have air forces became ingrained in these decision-makers’ minds. Under this pretext, short-range air defense (SHORAD) was practically abandoned and anti-drone warfare not developed. Now, the U.S. Army is playing catch-up in these very disciplines. While the United States was consumed with fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia and China developed their anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities and hypersonic weapons programs.
However, it is also important to understand that the current hypersonic weapons of U.S. adversaries cannot deliver what their operators want the public to believe. A warhead of a traditional ballistic missile only spends a relatively short time exposed to air resistance when it re-enters the atmosphere at high speed in its terminal flight. Hypersonic weapons on the other hand, traveling at hypersonic speed within the atmosphere, experience air friction throughout their entire flight and thus experience much higher levels of heat buildup. This could have dire consequences for the performance of those weapons. It is currently unknown what the effect of this amount of heat will be on hypersonic warheads and if their accuracy is compromised.
An examination of hypersonic weapons must be factual and not driven by political goals or emotion. Obviously, there is hardly any operational knowledge when it comes to this new type of weapon. However, the discourse on missile defense cannot be held solely based on theoretical knowledge and unrealistic assumptions when there are decades of operational knowledge regarding missile defense and its tactics and true capabilities. Are hypersonics a game changer when it comes to the security and defense of the American people from a nuclear attack? Definitely not. The American people have lived in the crosshairs of hundreds of ICBMs equipped with nuclear warheads for decades. The 44 Ground-based interceptors of the GMD system do not stand a chance against the hundreds of ICBMs that Russia and China have, not to mention that these ICBMs are equipped with multiple warheads.
In the future, hypersonic weapons may be a game changer in the field of weapons technology since they require a completely new approach for defense. Of course, research is needed to develop ways to defend against these hypersonic weapons as soon as possible. Despite this, one must remember that current hypersonic weapon capabilities are by far nowhere close to giving their operators a clear military advantage.
 S. Simon, “Hypersonic Missiles Are a Game Changer”, New York Times, Jan. 2, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/02/opinion/hypersonic-missiles.html
 T. Tiahrt, “How to Improve America’s Missile Defense, Be Like Sparta, The National Interest, March 2, 2020. https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/how-improve-americas-missile-defense-be-sparta-128467
 C. Tracy, “Setting the Record Straight on Hypersonic Weapons”, Union of Concerned Scientists, February 03, 2020. https://allthingsnuclear.org/ctracy/setting-the-record-straight-on-hypersonic-weapons
 M. Unbehauen, G. Sloan, A. Squatrito,”The U.S. Missile Defense Shield and Global Security Destabilization: An Inconclusive Link”, International Journal of Business, Human and Social Sciences, Zenodo, May 1, 2019. https://zenodo.org/record/3299365#.Xm6JNI7Yqzz