- Define hypersonic missiles.
- Explain the causes.
A new global arms race is brewing up as US, China and Russia are all pursuing hypersonic weapons technologies. The US administration is making a big push for hypersonic-related research funding in the fiscal year 2022, and has pledged $3.8 billion in budget. China, apart from enhancing its military capabilities, has also been pursuing the development of hypersonic capabilities for a decade now. Its recent testing of nuclear-capable hypersonic weapons system was compared to the Sputnik moment.
What are hypersonic missiles ? :
Hypersonic weapons travel faster – five times the speed of sound. At hypersonic speeds, the air molecules around the flight vehicle start to change, breaking apart or gaining a charge in a process called ionization. This subjects the hypersonic vehicle to “tremendous” stresses as it pushes through the atmosphere.
There are generally two categories of hypersonic weapons: (a) Cruise missiles powered by engines, and (b) Glide vehicles are launched nearly into space before diving back down to their targets.
- US withdrawal from treaties :
- INF Treaty: The United States withdrew from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in 2019. This treaty had been in place since the Cold War. It banned both the Soviet Union (Russia) and the US from developing and deploying land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km. However, treaty did not apply to air-or sea-launched missiles. Russia also suspended its participation in the treaty.
- ABM Treaty: Since the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty in 2002, both Russia and China have been wary of Washington’s Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) programme.
- JCPOA: Since the US’ withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), tensions between the US and Iran are at an all-time high. Iran has breached the agreement terms multiple times since then, and announced that it would no longer be bound by any operational limitations of the JCPOA.
- US-China conflict: US-China conflict has escalated over the years. One of its facet was the recent trade war between the two economies. The race for global supremacy and mutual distrust often permeates into military domain, leading to the development of weapon systems. China is concerned that U.S. hypersonic weapons would enable the United States to conduct a pre-emptive strike on China’s nuclear arsenal and supporting infrastructure.
- Russia – US conflict: Though Russian research on hypersonic technology dates back to the 1980s, the program began to pick up momentum after the U.S. withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002. President Vladimir Putin has identified this as a key reason for Russian development of hypersonic.
- Both Russia and China thus view the US BMD as undermining their deterrence and have sought ways to restore their retaliatory strike capability by investing in new technologies.
- Russia recently conducted an (Anti-Satellite) ASAT test. India had conducted similar ASAT test under Mission Shakti in 2019. There are approximately two dozen countries that possess ballistic missiles or satellite launch capability that can jeopardize human access to space. An indiscriminate development of ASAT systems can be a precursor to a new age space arms race.
- Indicative of an emerging Chinese and Russian dominance in space, the USA established a space force in 2019.
The enmity created by nations threatening each other with indiscriminate, weapons of mass destruction prevents development of global solidarity and trust that are needed to address the emerging challenges.