A New Arms Race – The Diplomat


The Biden administration is making a big push to fund hypersonic-related research in the 2022 budget. The administration asked $ 3.8 billion, nearly 20% more than the Trump administration’s $ 3.2 billion allocation for fiscal 2021. There is no guarantee that this will run smoothly in Congress, given that one of the two prototypes of hypersonic missiles had to be canceled last year after criticism from the House Supply Defense subcommittee. It is the latest indicator of a spiraling arms race in this new technology.

A recent report from the US Government Accountability Office on hypersonics Noted that there are “70 efforts to develop hypersonic weapons and related technologies estimated to cost nearly $ 15 billion between fiscal years 2015 and 2024”, most of which belong to the Department of Defense. In a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Mike White, who heads the hypersonic program in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, said opponents of the United States United have made this decision for the United States, pushing Washington to prioritize hypersonic systems. Earlier in June, Vice Admiral Jon Hill, director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), Told the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces that “U.S. aircraft carriers already face risks from hypersonic weapons that are now entering the inventory of U.S. adversaries and the Navy has developed early defenses against the threat ”. China and Russia have reportedly deployed early versions of their hypersonic weapons, putting American ships at risk.

In addition, the MDA has requested a budget of $ 8.9 billion in the 2022 budget, with the aim of developing capabilities such as “a next generation interceptor for missile defense of the territory, a hypersonic defense capability and essential space tracking to detect difficult threats”. As a defense against hypersonic threats, MDA is reportedly looking for a hypersonic and ballistic tracking space sensor (HBTSS). The agency applied for funding from $ 256 million for research, development, testing and evaluation of HBTSS.

China and Russia have been pursuing the development of hypersonic capabilities for a decade now. Alexander Fedorov, professor at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology complaints that an arms race is already underway in this area, but adds that Russia “has experience without a lot of money, China has money without a lot of experience, and the United States has both, although they relaunched their efforts later than Russia or China and are now playing catch up. “

China has already made significant progress in the field of hypersonics and is considered to be an equally important player. Similar to the rationale for Russia, China complaints that the logic behind its development of hypersonic missiles stems “from the fear that American hypersonic weapons could allow the United States to conduct a preemptive and decapitating strike on China’s nuclear arsenal and supporting infrastructure.” U.S. missile defense deployments could then limit China’s ability to carry out a retaliatory strike against the United States. ”

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Regardless of the veracity of this logic, China has made systematic progress in its pursuit of hypersonic. During the October 2019 military parade in Beijing, marking the 70th anniversary of its founding, China marched the DF-17 missile for the first time. With a range of 1,800 to 2,500 kilometers, the DF-17 is a medium-range missile system equipped with a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV).

The United States recognized the existence of the DF-17 prototype in 2014. In 2018, Mike Griffin, Under Secretary for Research and Engineering at the Department of Defense mentionned that China has carried out “20 times more tests of hypersonic weapons than the United States in the last decade”. China’s pursuit of the DF-17 and other hypersonic weapons is said to be undertaken to “counter the adversary’s missile defenses, as well as to develop a rapid, long-range, high-precision strike capability that” leaves the enemy little time to react. “The greater maneuverability of HGVs and their ability to fly at low altitudes make them difficult to follow and their flight path is unpredictable. These are attractive aspects of HGVs, which could also reduce efficiency ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems.

In early 2019, Chinese military officials declared that they are also developing “a DF-17 anti-ship variant”. Media reports in October 2020 mentionned that “the air-launched ballistic missile that China has reportedly developed appears to be a hypersonic warhead propelled by a conventional rocket.”

Meanwhile, Russia is also pursuing hypersonic weapons, and according to state think tank IMEMO, hypersonic weapons are “a priority for the Russian government. Speaking of the advantages of hypersonic weapons, Russian security analyst Dmitry Stefanovich said they offer “new combined capabilities for missile weapons: increased speed and maneuverability, and improved accuracy.” Although Russian research on hypersonic technology dates back to the 1980s, the program began to gain momentum after the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2001.

Last year, President Vladimir Putin identified this as one of the main reasons for the Russian development of hypersonics. He mentionned, “In developing their anti-ballistic missile system, the Americans wanted to upset … strategic stability and balance by believing that if they created an umbrella of missile defense, the other side would not be able to respond adequately. they were using nuclear weapons … However, after developing these [hypersonic] systems, including those that easily escape any anti-missile ballistic system, we maintain… strategic stability and strategic balance.

The Russian army currently has two hypersonic missiles: Avangard and Kinzhal. The Avangard is a nuclear capable missile that can fly at 20 times the speed of sound. The Kinzhal is also a nuclear-capable air ballistic missile first commissioned in December 2017, and according to reports As of January of this year, she is in preparation for deployment with the Northern Fleet. In October 2020, Russia successfully conducted test launch of the new Zircon hypersonic cruise missile test of the frigate Admiral Gorshkov in the White Sea.

The pursuit of these technologies by the United States, Russia and China will have cascading effects. Such developments are unlikely to end with all three. Other countries like India and Australia are also pursuing hypersonic technologies, alone or in partnership. A new arms race involving hypersonics is clearly already underway.


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