Last week, President TrumpDonald TrumpJudge rules Alaska governor unlawfully fired lawyer who criticized Trump Giuliani led fake electors plot: CNN Giuliani associate sentenced to a year in prison in campaign finance case MORE hyped the Pentagon’s new “super duper missile” in his comments to reporters following the unveiling of the U.S. Space Force flag at the White House. This prompted thousands to take to Twitter mocking the president’s vocabulary. Media outlets, meanwhile, turned to the Pentagon for comment on the missile, seeking clarification on the details of what sounded like a significant defense project in development. Between the Twitter jokes and the media’s fixation on missile development speculation and soundbites, the public narrative is missing the point: The super duper missile is a super duper necessity to deal with the super duper Russian threat in the Arctic.
Albert Einstein said that complex theories and mathematical expressions should be simply distilled such “that even a child could understand them.” Per Einstein, describing the complexities of a supposed hypersonic weapon system as a “super duper missile” is probably sufficient for most. The fact is, Trump doesn’t use big words to appeal to American elitists. Despite the pretentious heckling — from many who don’t know the first thing about hypersonic weapons — this is part of his appeal to millions of American voters. So while the media continue to seek clarity from the Pentagon on its hypersonic weapons development programs, and while Twitter jocks pursue the cleverest Wile E. Coyote comparisons, the reality is that Trump’s reference to assumed hypersonic weapons development is super duper important for a country in third place in the hypersonic weapons race.
But what are hypersonic weapons anyway?
To do as Einstein suggests and attempt to distill the complexities of hypersonic weapons to a child’s comprehension — excluding the part about how missiles destroy things — we generally might describe them as super fast rockets that can fly super far. In a slightly more technical description, hypersonic missiles present a dual threat, in that they combine the flightpath maneuverability of a guided cruise missile with the speed of a ballistic missile capable of suborbital (into outer space) trajectory. Hypersonic weapons are used in two ways: as a hypersonic cruise missile propelled by a hydrogen propulsion air-breathing engine, or as a hypersonic glide vehicle launched via a rocket before detaching to glide to its target.
Regardless of delivery method, hypersonic weapons can accelerate several times faster than the speed of sound. Hypersonic missiles can maneuver for thousands of miles in mere minutes, enabling them to defeat modern missile defense systems. Moreover, hypersonic missiles can be launched from land-based mobile rocket launchers or fighter aircraft, can carry conventional or nuclear warheads, and maintain precision strike accuracy of 10 to 20 meters (though Russia claims within one meter).
So why are hypersonics all the rage in the era of renewed great power competition with Russia and China? Put simply, because the United States cannot defend against them. Russia knows this U.S. vulnerability and continues to strengthen its military position by deploying hypersonic weapons in the Arctic, a northern avenue of approach to the U.S. homeland. In December 2019, Russia confirmed the deployment of the hypersonic Kinzhal (Russian for “dagger”) air-launched ballistic missile. The aptly-named Kinzhal can be launched from Russian fighter aircraft with a nuclear warhead traveling over 7,600 mph and strike targets 1,200 miles away with precision accuracy. Another recently deployed Russian hypersonic weapon, the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, reportedly travels 20 to 27 times the speed of sound, or 15,000 to 20,000 mph, and can strike targets up to 3,700 miles away. But Russia hardly needs this range to reach the U.S.
Russia has an air and naval base on Wrangel Island, about 300 miles from the Alaskan coastline on the western edge of the Chukchi Sea. However, such close proximity is almost irrelevant with maneuverable land- or air-launched hypersonic missiles capable of traversing the Arctic Ocean to strike their target with nuclear warheads from over 3,000 miles away in less than 10 minutes. At these standoff ranges, all of Alaska is within range of the Russian Avangard if it were to be launched from any of the dozens of Russian military bases north of the Arctic Circle. These are unstoppable missiles that both Russia and China possess while the U.S. has neither a close analog nor the technology to sufficiently defend against them.
According to U.S. Northern Command’s Gen. Terrance O’Shaughnessy, Russian hypersonic missiles can “strike Alaska with little indication or warning.” The North Warning System — a dated radar array used to track incoming missiles — is over 30 years old and incapable of effectively tracking and warning against modern hypersonic missiles. Gen. O’Shaughnessy put it more bluntly in his March testimony: “We cannot defend the nation against 21st century threats with 20th century technology.”
As the saying goes, the best offense is a good defense. The U.S. is pursuing answers to this tangible threat in the Arctic via its efforts to develop the Strategic Homeland Integrated Ecosystem Layered Defense (SHIELD), a system designed to detect and defeat threats to the United States. The problem is that as a fanciful-sounding good defense, SHIELD is a long way from operational reality. In the absence of a good defense against “advancing adversaries” in the Arctic, the United States needs a good offense.
The hypersonic weapons game calls for a tit-for-tat offensive approach, or the development of “super duper missiles” to match existing adversarial capabilities. Weapons parity — if you have one, I have one — continues to drive defense acquisition programs. In the longstanding era of conventional deterrence, parity evens the playing field. Though conventional deterrence is questionably relevant with modern nuclear weapons, given mutually assured destruction, it remains the guidepost of the National Defense Strategy.
So, for a U.S. intent on keeping up with Moscow in modern military muscle flexing, developing super duper missiles is indeed necessary to answer the threat posed by great power competitors. And maybe now, thanks to Trump’s comment, Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinUkrainian president praises Biden for reaffirming US support The pitfalls of Russia's plan to rewrite history in Ukraine Kazakhstan's crackdown is a frightening formula for authoritarians MORE and Moscow are super duper concerned about losing their competitive advantage in the hypersonic weapons game.
Ryan P. Burke, Ph.D., is an associate professor of military and strategic studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy, a nonresident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, and a veteran Marine Corps officer. The views expressed here are his and do not reflect the official position of the United States Air Force Academy or the Department of Defense.