Hypersonic, the weapons of the future

The three big military powers of the world today (USA, China and Russia) have spent the last few years researching a new type of weapon that is supposed to change the way they approach conflicts, in the future. Hypersonic weapons are the dangerous new toy that these militaries want to get their hands on and fast. These ultra-fast and long range weapons, which are still being researched, are meant to strike any target, anywhere in the planet, in less than one hour. All with an accuracy of ten meters or better.

The United States have been researching a way to do it and the resulting technology has been named “boost-glide”. These weapons are designed to be launched by large rockets, such as the ones with which the US and Russia threatened each other during the Cold War. However, instead of arcing above the planet, like conventional ballistic missiles, boost-glide weapons re-enter the atmosphere and then glide at high speeds, towards their intended target. They can supposedly reach up to 20,000 km/h, a speed at which they cannot be intercepted by traditional missile defence systems.

Logically, as soon as the US managed to conduct some successful experiments (the last one occurred in May, 2013), China and Russia wanted to get in on the action. The first one to produce good results was China which managed to successfully test a missile of its own this past January. The hypersonic glide vehicle was detected flying over the country at a speed above Mach 10 – or 12,359 km/h. Russia is farther behind but has promised to step up its research if the US continues to develop precision-guided weapons systems with global range.

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These new military developments bring with them the threat of a new global conflict, especially because boost-glide weapons are able to carry both conventional and nuclear weapons. For that reason, some analysts have raised concerns about the possibility that one of these countries might misinterpret the launch of a missile with conventional warheads and conclude that it carries nuclear weapons. Even if they are not being targeted, the high velocity at which these weapons travel demand an immediate response, one that might not allow for an accurate assessment of the situation and that can lead to a nuclear response.

Although these weapons are still being researched, they are already impacting the policies of the countries pursuing them. Fear of the United States’ boost-glide capabilities is making China reconsider its policy of not using nuclear weapons as a first measure. The same goes for Russia that, seems unwilling to reduce its nuclear stockpile in the face of such developments by the American military. News of a successful test by the Chinese military also raised concerns among the US Congress that the country might be falling behind. Some immediately railed against defence spending cuts and argued for the renovation of the armed forces’ equipment.

As there is no dialogue between theses countries concerning boost-glide weapons, the impact on policies might increase over the next few years. If these projects continue, the impact might come sooner than later, as the US expects to deploy boost-glide weapons in 2025.

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