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Hypersonic weapons could tilt war in favor of Russia, China

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Hypersonic weapons could well transform the strategic balance. The United States’ adversaries recognize this fact — Russia and China have both tested hypersonics and appear to have prioritized integrating them into their combat forces. The U.S. must do the same — or accept a strategic balance in our adversaries’ favor.

The Washington news cycle typically overlooks subtle yet consequential policy choices. Biden’s FY2022 defense budget request of $715 billion constitutes a functional decrease from the previous budget — its $11 billion “increase” does not keep pace with inflation. Although the Obama administration’s most robust technologists, former Undersecretary of Defense Robert Work foremost among them, are not serving in this administration, their imprint is clear. Biden cut $8 billion of procurement, and in turn boosted broader research and development by $5.5 billion.

Thus, its envisioned military will rely upon a small number of high technology platforms, a sort of “third offset” redux. Given this context, even the Biden administration’s apparently small funding choices will have a significant impact upon future American force structure, capabilities, and strategy — hence the Biden administration’s increased funding for hypersonic development must be considered more specifically.

Trump’s FY2021 budget included $3.2 billion for hypersonics. Biden’s FY2022 request provides $3.8 billion, an 18 percent funding increase. Moreover, the administration resumed hypersonic testing after a brief pause before the U.S.-Russia summit in June. This past month, the Air Force successfully detonated the AGM-183a ARRW hypersonic missile’s warhead and conducted its second air-launched flight test of the weapon.

Hypersonic missiles travel far faster than today’s cruise missiles — around Mach 5, which is perhaps twice as fast as Russia’s Kalibr and some six times faster than the U.S. Tomahawk. This speed, plus their maneuverability, make them relatively invulnerable to today’s air defense systems.

A military that gains hypersonic missiles can strike with shorter warning times, hit targets without regard to air defenses, and coordinate strikes across much greater width and depth. 

Our adversaries understand the advantage hypersonic weapons will provide if fielded in sufficient numbers before a rival obtains the capability. China and Russia have distinctly aggressive intentions. Their objectives require dominating their neighbors and ensuring that the U.S. encounters significant obstacles in conducting a counterattack. By jeopardizing U.S. missile defenses, shortening warning times, and increasing the depth of exposed American and allied forces, China and Russia could tilt the strategic balance in their favor.

A hypersonic imbalance therefore invites attack by tempting an aggressor to use its advanced capabilities to penetrate missile defenses. As such, our adversaries have accelerated testing along with America. According to Israeli sensors, Russia may have tested a Kinzhal hypersonic missile in the Eastern Mediterranean in late June. Several weeks earlier, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency publicly confirmed that the Chinese DF-17, designed to carry the hypersonic glide vehicle DF-Z, is sufficiently developed to threaten U.S. carrier strike groups in the Indo-Pacific.

There is fear, however, that the general development of hypersonic weapons, deployed in balanced or imbalanced numbers, will cultivate “strategic instability” — that is, a military balance that trends towards aggression and conflict, rather than deterrence and defense.

Hypersonic deployment in large numbers, it is argued, will reinforce first-strike incentives. Both combatants will recognize that their missile defenses are ineffective. Thus, they will attempt to pre-empt each other, launching their hypersonic missiles at enemy capabilities virtually without warning. Moreover, the speed of hypersonic weapons encourages a “launch on warning” mentality. Because a defender lacks sufficient warning time to reposition or harden targets to limit damage, the temptation will exist to launch on warning of an attack, even if, given the vulnerability of modern combat systems to electronic and cyber compromise, a command system makes a severe targeting error.

This fear of strategic instability harkens back to Cold War nuclear arguments. Increasing armaments, it was theorized, would progressively intensify crises and make global thermonuclear war inevitable after a certain point.

Over time, this transformed into a conviction in nuclear stability. If both parties fielded sufficient offensive nuclear capabilities and were vulnerable to attack, then the logic of mutually assured destruction — essentially a transnational murder-suicide pact — would take hold, precluding crisis escalation into thermonuclear conflict. In turn, this faith in mutually assured destruction morphed into an antipathy against short-range nuclear weapons designed for use against military targets and, in the 1980s, a crusade against missile defense systems that would threaten the Soviet Union’s ability to make credible its side of the murder-suicide pact.

Distinguishing the arguments of academic and policy opponents of missile defenses from the logic behind the INF and ABM treaties is important. But the specific benefits of contingent policy choices cannot be confused for broader arguments supporting a comprehensive strategic perspective. The choice, in principle, to eschew certain weapons systems — or defense systems — was problematic throughout the Cold War.

Arguments against the development of hypersonic weapons have a similar tenor. Their opponents, who call for global regulation, arsenal mitigation, and ideally elimination, cite the concerns discussed above, and argue that hypersonics only will increase crisis instability. But any form of deterrence breaks down if one party functionally pledges to refrain from employing capabilities that increase its military effectiveness. Deterrence is founded upon warfighting capability — the ability to at minimum jeopardize an adversary’s combat objectives and at best deny them outright.

Hypersonics are a clear way to hold Chinese objectives at risk through counterstrikes against critical command nodes and military assets. China’s rulers understand that. The PLA has invested in missile defenses and hardening mechanisms in anticipation of a war against a more advanced adversary — in the 1980s the Soviet Union, from the 1990s the United States. Hypersonics would prove a useful counter to these defenses.

The Biden administration should be commended for increasing hypersonic funding, continuing testing, and engaging in a broad effort to modernize U.S. military capabilities for a confrontation with China. But its timetable remains too extended. Sino-American antagonism is not imaginary. The CCP is approaching the point at which it may choose force to achieve its international objectives, the “reunification” of Taiwan with the mainland foremost among them.

If the Biden administration is unwilling to fund a military capable of fighting close to China, it must prioritize capabilities, like hypersonics, that can be launched at a greater distance, and can do more damage to their selected targets. Thus, it must increase funding for hypersonic development and push the services to begin integrating hypersonics into their force structures. Technological modifications must be funded, for example, to place hypersonics on U.S. attack and guided-missile submarines. And the administration must compel the services to consider more thoroughly the consequences of hypersonic attacks and the need to “harden” American bases and naval groups, the most likely targets of Chinese or Russian hypersonic weapons.

Recently retired as commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Phil Davidson, warned the Senate Armed Services Committee in March that the U.S. is “accumulating risk that may embolden China to unilaterally change the status quo before our forces may be able to deliver an effective response.” A hypersonic arsenal capable of striking hardened targets within China and neutralizing the PLA’s carrier groups in the South and East China Seas offer the U.S. a powerful deterrent that would tilt the military balance back in America’s favor.

The Biden — or any U.S. — administration must be able to deter at all levels of war, and all levels of escalation. Hypersonics are only one, albeit critical, part of a broader American strategy.

Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington and director of Hudson’s Center for American Seapower. He served as a U.S. naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy.

Harry Halem, a research associate at Hudson and graduate student at the London School of Economics, contributed to this op-ed.

Tags China Defense budget hypersonic missiles hypersonic weapons Military doctrines Missiles Mutual assured destruction National security Russia United States national missile defense warfare

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