The United States of America has successfully tested two hypersonic missiles developed by Lockheed Martin. The Air-Launched Rapid Response (ALRR) weapon underwent a booster test which successfully attained a speaker greater than Mach 5.0, the threshold for a weapon to be categorized as ‘hypersonic’. A spokesperson of the project in a statement said that in the next stage, “all-out” tests will be conducted, referring to the warhead. The development comes a month after of similar unsuccessful attempt. Apart from Lockheed Martin, other weapon system manufacturers like Northrop Grumman and Raytheon also claim to have built hypersonic delivery systems.
In recent decades, China, Russia, and the United States are in a race to build better and faster hypersonic missiles. Althoughsballistic missiles, especially Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles or ICBMs, do attain hypersonic speed during their flight course, their predictable flight path makes them vulnerable to interception. Hypersonic Cruise Missiles (HCM) on the other hand could fly very fast and very low, to avoid detection from enemy radar. They also have the ability to maneuver during the flight which them almost impossible to take down hence making them even more lethal.
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Understanding the matter better
A highly significant development in this regard came last year when China tested its Hypersonic Glide Vehicle in tandem with the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System, designed to send objects into low Earth orbit. Both these technologies are not new per se, but their combination is something that makes the development unique in certain ways. The test caught the world’s attention, especially in the Northern hemisphere. Since then, the policymakers in Washington have made it one of their top priority to bridge the gap in the hypersonic arsenal with China and Russia.
It is pertinent to ask what makes this kind of weapon so unique that every country which has real or perceived threats outside its borders is rushing to build an inventory of its own. The answer however is fairly simple these missiles increase the likelihood of hitting the target more often than other types of missiles which could rather easily be intercepted.
But the same advantage, in reality, increases the risk of a nuclear standoff multiple folds. Hypersonic missiles are capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear warheads and since they can beat, dodge or outrun the interceptor missiles, countries in possession might be tempted to use them for counterforce targeting and hitting the missile silos of the enemy. It puts the country on the receiving end of a use-it-or-lose-it dilemma.
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These weapons put the survivability of the nuclear arsenal at risk
There just wouldn’t be enough time to wait and confirm if the missile is carrying a conventional or nuclear warhead. A second strike could be launched within minutes and it could turn into Armageddon in no time. Conflict in Ukraine has made the discussion of a nuclear standoff even more frequent since the end of the cold war. And the hypersonic missile tests are not helping the cause at all.
This is precisely the reason why Pakistan insisted on the international community to take a harder stance when a supersonic, ‘rouge’ Brahmos missile crashed into Pakistan. Ideally, such proliferation needs to stop which hampers the already fragile crisis management regimes and protocol in South Asia. As per a congressional report, India is among the few countries that are actively involved in the development of hypersonic missiles.
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With a history of continuous anti-Pakistan rhetoric from its policymakers and, as evident from the Brahmos incident, an incapable or incompetent one may argue, force structure, India in possession of hypersonic missiles is only going to challenge the notion the deterrence stability in South Asia. However, like countless other things, the looming threat to international peace once again originates and expands from the global north. And for the threat to be effectively countered, the efforts would have to start from the same region.
The writer works as a Research Officer at Strategic Vision Institute, Islamabad. His work focuses on ‘Developments and Militarization in Outer Space’. The views expressed by the writers do not necessarily represent Global Village Space’s editorial policy.