The decline in the global nuclear warhead inventory has been a tremendous effort. At the peak of the Cold War in 1986, there were roughly 70,300 nuclear weapons worldwide. But now, in 2021, that number is down to 13,100. The world has miraculously stepped down from nuclear proliferation.
However, there still stands the threat of new global nuclear rearmament, especially with the rise of new nuclear powers, including Pakistan, China, North Korea, and more. Furthermore, new developments in nuclear technology are likely to encourage more spending and stockpiling. One of those developments is the Hypersonic Nuclear Missile, an emerging technology that can disrupt the frail balance of mutual nuclear disarmament.
Image Credit: Forest Katsch
What are Hypersonic Missiles?
Hypersonic Missiles are missiles that travel Mach 5, which is 5x the speed of sound, or 15,000 mph. In comparison, long-range ballistic missiles travel at 2,000 mph upon atmospheric reentry. This speed makes them tremendously tougher to take down with traditional missile defenses.
Yet even more dangerous is their unorthodox trajectory. Traditional ballistic missiles follow the flight pattern of a rainbow. They are boosted above the atmosphere, reorient, and fall down. Hypersonic missiles function more like hypersonic gliders. They are initially boosted to the atmosphere, but then reenter the atmosphere at a sharp angle. The missile uses its unique structure to horizontally approach its target, giving it a straighter flight path. Imagine throwing a paper airplane up and watching it glide down.
This difference in flight path makes the hypersonic missile more unpredictable. Ballistic missiles are capable of switching targets, but only once they reach the atmosphere. An effective computerized defense system can measure its trajectory and intercept it with a missile. A hypersonic missile maintains its path in the atmosphere for the majority of its flight, enabling it to maneuver unconventionally beyond what computers can predict. Couple this with a 15,000 mph speed, and you have a missile that can hit its target in a few minutes, whose landing is almost impossible to predict, and is too quick for conventional defenses.
Despite how revolutionary this sounds, hypersonic technology has been around since the 1930s, when German engineers were developing long-range missiles. They later scrapped the idea in favor of ballistic missiles. The US government later built off the findings throughout the 1960s. Development was shortly dropped before being revived today with new nuclear modernization programs. Russia and China are developing their own hypersonic arms, and it's possible that this new, unassailable weapon can usher in a present-day nuclear Cold War. Luckily, however, hypersonic weapons are not as unstoppable as we are led to believe.
The Nuclear Paper Tiger
A recent computational model from the Union of Concerned Scientists reveals that hypersonic missiles are too good to be true on paper, and fall immensely short in reality. This is thanks to the atmosphere.
Their model suggests that hypersonic weapons can take longer to reach targets than ballistic ones due to the atmospheric drag on a weapon traveling through the atmosphere. A vehicle even gliding at 8x the speed of sound would slow to below hypersonic after 500km. This means that a hypersonic weapon possesses less range than a ballistic missile and can take longer to reach targets.
This drag also means that hypersonic weapons are limited in maneuverability. They can maneuver mid-flight, but this change in direction causes severe losses to speed and range, making it even slower and more susceptible to nuclear defenses.
In addition, the atmosphere tends to heat and degrade hypersonic weapons. A 15,000 mph missile constantly runs the risk of burning up before even hitting its target. Even if the bulk of the missile survives, the damage to its parts can make it inaccurate and ineffective. Lastly, data suggests that current nuclear sensors (satellite, ground-based, and infrared) can detect the launch and travel of a hypersonic missile. A missile burning up in the atmosphere at Mach 5 is not an inconspicuous target.
What hypothetically is an inexorable and unstoppable weapon of mass destruction is in reality an underdeveloped prototype about as effective or less than a traditional ballistic missile. A Mach 5 missile is unstoppable, but a real hypersonic missile would likely be subsonic by the time it reaches its target. The technology is far behind, so we shouldn’t be too worried about seeing an effective hypersonic nuke anytime soon. Even so, there are many concerns for the future.
Nuclear Proliferation and Modernization
The development of hypersonic weapons is a symptom of a larger problem that afflicts the world. Despite the decrease in the nuclear inventory, the dismantling is slowing down and nuclear spending has been rising. The numbers may suggest a decline in nuclear warheads, but in reality, governments are dismantling obsolete warheads while funding more research.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the US will spend 456 billion on nuclear development between 2021 and 2030, 105 billion more than the approximated budget between 2019 and 2028. In addition, global spending has increased from 71.2 billion in 2019 to 72.6 in 2020. At the forefront of this spending is the US, who has spent 37.4 billion dollars- three times more than the 2nd highest spender on nuclear weapons, China.
This spending is expected to rise, and hypersonic weapons may be a central reason. It was the US’s venture into hypersonic nukes that spawned Chinese and Russian hypersonic development. While the technology now is ineffective, there is no telling whether it may be 20 or 50 years from now. It's likely that these governments recognize this, and rather than lag behind, they ramp up spending.
Exclusively Assured Destruction
This trend in nuclear modernization is a dangerous one. Could we eventually reach a point where we could strike a country in time to avoid retaliation? Could this mean that the first person to strike can win a nuclear war?
The reason why the Cold War never went hot was because there was no winner. The first country to strike will never be quick enough to destroy enough of the opposer to avoid retaliation. The opposer will still annihilate the other, and both will be destroyed in what is called Mutually Assured Destruction. The dominant strategy was to wait it out and match the opposing country’s nuclear technology and arsenal, fight for piecemeal advantages, and wait for the other country to collapse. The best strategy was not to go to war.
An effective hypersonic missile arsenal between two countries changes things. The first to strike wins; there’s a definite winner and loser. The desirable strategy can be to start the war rather than to stall it. But it doesn’t have to be hypersonic technology. A new unforeseeable technology can change the dynamic. And if efforts aren’t made to decelerate the modern arms race, things may turn for the worse.
Preventing Nuclear Development
There are still measures the global community can take to prevent a new arms race. One of the most influential treaties made in the Cold War was the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which was signed by 110 countries, including the US, USSR, and the UK. This treaty forbids countries from deploying nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction into space. It's the reason why there are no known satellites today that can deploy nuclear weapons.
What could’ve been a dangerous contest between the US and USSR to militarize space was prevented with concern, tact, negotiation, and compromise. There is no reason why the international community can’t come together to work out a new treaty banning hypersonic nuclear weapons or future WMDs. The US, the leading spender, should take steps to lower its budget and work with the UN on lowering global spending. The US was among the first to start hypersonic development, so it should be the first to stop it.
On an individual level, we should pay close attention to the nuclear budget. The Biden administration is still continuing the former Trump administration’s nuclear funding, against the sentiments of voters. We must hold our representatives accountable. In addition, staying informed on nuclear issues and raising awareness is important. There are many organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, Arms Control Association, and the International Campaign To Abolish Nuclear Weapons. We’ve come a long way since the Cold War, but the nuclear chapter of mankind’s history is not finished yet. We must come together to end the story before we start one where we are annihilated.
Union of Concerned Scientists: Slowing the Hypersonic Arms Race: A Rational Approach to an Emerging Missile Technology
Federation of American Scientists: Status of World Nuclear Forces
International Campaign To Abolish Nuclear Weapons: 2021 Global Nuclear Spending Report
Congressional Budget Office: Projected Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2021 to 2030