Hypersonic weapons are missiles that can travel at speeds of Mach 5 or higher, which makes them particularly difficult to defend against, and all the world’s great military powers are racing to develop these new, deadly machines.
Capable of travelling at more than five to ten times faster than the speed of sound, in the range of 3,836 mph to 7,673 mph, hypersonic missiles are both an impressive technological innovation and a distressing danger.
The two kinds of hypersonic weapons currently in development are hypersonic cruise missiles (HCMs) and hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs). Either of these are capable of delivering nuclear, biological, chemical or similarly destructive payloads to designated targets with such precision that madmen someday imagine they can accomplish some barbaric advantage that makes risking total destruction seem worthwhile.
With the world’s largest militaries—including the US, Russia and China—all developing hypersonic weaponry, these new devices could completely overhaul airborne warfare as we know it but they will also abbreviate the reaction time available to decision makers already conditioned to shoot first, ask questions later.
All known conventional air and missile defenses are useless when it comes to resisting unstoppable hypersonic weapons. The difference between success and failure in the technological battlespace can only come down to recognizing that there is no advantage in building weapons that won’t just work, but shall instead render our planet incapable of sustaining life.
The next generation of deadly high speed killing machines has yet to be fully developed and deployed but Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) is already working on its ‘Glide Breaker’, touted as the hypersonic weapon killer. Of course, weapons of increasing complexity have expanded capabilities for catastrophic accidents.
The United States was the first country to manufacture nuclear weapons and is the only country to have used them in combat, with the separate bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.
In total, China is estimated to be in possession of 320 nuclear warheads as of 2020, with an unknown number of them active and ready to deploy.
In 2013, American Intelligence estimated the Chinese active ICBM arsenal to range between 50 and 75 land and sea-based missiles but more recent intelligence assessments in 2019 put China’s ICBM count at around 90 and growing rapidly.
From 1940 through 1996, the United States spent nearly $5.5 trillion on nuclear weapons and weapons-related programs, close to $10 trillion in today’s dollar if adjusted for inflation. America’s federal government produced more than 70,000 nuclear warheads since 1945, more than all other nuclear weapon states combined.
The Soviet Union or Russia has produced approximately 55,000 nuclear warheads since 1949, France built 1,110 warheads since 1960, the United Kingdom developed 835 warheads since 1952, China constructed about 600 warheads since 1964, and other nuclear powers all together have assembled fewer than 500 warheads since they developed the capability.
Nine countries possessed roughly 13,150 warheads as of mid-2021. Russia and the United States who each have around 4,000 warheads in their military stockpiles; no other nuclear-armed state sees a need for more than a few hundred nuclear weapons for national security.
The United States, France and Israel have relatively stable nuclear warhead inventories. China, India, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia and United Kingdom are all believed to be increasing their stockpiles.
Of the world’s 13,150 nuclear warheads, nearly 9,500 are in the military stockpiles for use by missiles, aircraft, ships and submarines. The remaining warheads have been retired but are still relatively intact and are awaiting dismantlement). Of the 9,500 warheads in the military stockpiles, some 3,650 are deployed with operational forces (on missiles or bomber bases).
Of those, approximately 2,000 US, Russian, British and French warheads are on high alert, ready for use on short notice but the time it would take to respond to an attack using hypersonic propulsion systems makes it extremely likely that those devices would be triggered, either on purpose or by accident.
Of course, hypersonic weapons are not the only emerging technology that could hasten the destruction of humanity, and among the others are artificial intelligence, lethal autonomous weapons, directed energy weapons, biotechnology, and quantum technology.
By offering the precision of near-zero-miss weapons, the speed of ballistic missiles, and the maneuverability of cruise missiles, hypersonic weapons are a disruptive technology capable of striking anywhere on the globe in less than an hour.
U.S. Navy Lieutenant Andrea Howard described circumstances that make these devices special: “While hypersonic weapons can carry conventional or nuclear warheads, they differ from existing technologies in three critical ways. First, because kinetic energy is a function of the square of velocity, a one-kilogram object delivered precisely and traveling multiples of the speed of sound can be more destructive than one kilogram of TNT. Second, the low-altitude path helps mask HCMs; when coupled with the curvature of the Earth, they are mostly invisible to early warning radars. And third, HGVs can maneuver during flight; in contrast with the predictable path of ballistic-missile descent, they are more difficult to intercept, if even detected. By offering the precision of near-zero-miss weapons, the speed of ballistic missiles, and the maneuverability of cruise missiles, hypersonic weapons are a disruptive technology capable of striking anywhere on the globe in less than an hour.”