Leveling: How a 5,000 km/h Speed Feels on Earthlings

X-51 hypersonic US weapon. artistic conception

Hypersonic missiles [weapons faster than the speed of sound]— specifically hypersonic glide vehicles and hypersonic cruise missiles — are a new class of threat because they are capable both of maneuvering and of flying faster than 5,000 kilometers per hour. These features enable such missiles to penetrate most missile defenses and to further compress the timelines for a response by a nation under attack.

Hypersonic missiles are being developed by the United States, Russia, and China. Their proliferation beyond these three could result in other powers setting their strategic forces on hair-trigger states of readiness. And such proliferation could enable other powers to more credibly threaten attacks on major powers.  The diffusion of hypersonic technology is under way in Europe, Japan, Australia, and India — with other nations beginning to explore such technology. Proliferation could cross multiple borders if hypersonic technology is offered on world markets.

There is probably less than a decade available to substantially hinder the potential proliferation of hypersonic missiles and associated technologies. To this end, the report recommends that (1) the United States, Russia, and China should agree not to export complete hypersonic missile systems or their major components and (2) the broader international community should establish controls on a wider range of hypersonic missile hardware and technology.rs.

 

The unavoidable requirement is for the United States, Russia, and China to agree on a nonproliferation policy. France could play a key role in bringing other governments into agreement on a broader control policy.

The technical and economic barriers to developing hypersonic technology are great enough to add to the effectiveness of a nonproliferation policy.

A two-tiered approach to containing the spread of hypersonic systems and components appears to be the most promising.

First, we recommend a policy of export denial for complete hypersonic delivery vehicles and enough major subsystems to effectively provide access to complete hypersonic missiles.

Second, given dual-use concerns, we also recommend a policy of case-by-case export reviews for scramjets and other hypersonic engines and components, fuels for hypersonic use, sensors, navigation, and communication items for hypersonic flight, hypersonic flight controls, design tools and modeling for such uses, and ground simulation and testing for hypersonic systems.

The necessary first step is for the United States, Russia, and China to agree not to export complete hypersonic missiles or their major subsystems.

Excerpts from Richard H. Speier et al., Hindering the Spread of a New Class of Weapons, Rand Corporation, Sept. 2017

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