OPINION

The hype over hypersonics

On December 27, 2019, Russia announced that its new hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), Avangard, launched atop an intercontinental ballistic missile, had been made operational. Russia claims that this nuclear-armed HGV can fly at over 20 times the speed of sound and is capable of such manoeuvring as to be “invulnerable to interception by any existing and prospective missile defence means of the potential adversary”. With this induction, it appears that Russia has beaten the U.S. and China in deploying the HGV. But China and the U.S. are also close on the heels: the U.S. has moved from the research to the development stage, and China demonstrated the DF-17, a medium-range missile with the HGV, at the military parade in October 2019. The induction of such capability is inevitable in the next few years. But is it going to be a game changer?

A hypersonic delivery system is essentially a ballistic or cruise missile that can fly for long distances and at speeds higher than 5 Mach at lower altitudes. This allows it to evade interception from current Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD). It can also execute a high degree of manoeuvres.

Fearful that U.S. BMD that can intercept ballistic missiles would erode their nuclear deterrence, Russia and China had been in search of such a capability ever since the U.S. walked out of the anti-ballistic missile treaty in 2002. Believing that hypersonic HGVs and hypersonic cruise missiles will re-establish lost strategic stability, Russia has declared such missiles as nuclear capable, while China has declared them dual-use capable. On the other hand, the U.S. explains this capability mainly for attacking time-sensitive targets as part of its prompt global strike strategy and hence has designated them a conventional role.

Risks of misperception

How would the induction of hypersonics complicate security concerns? First, we must realise that these missiles are being added to the military capabilities of countries that possess nuclear weapons. For these nations, the concern is always an attack on nuclear assets to degrade retaliation. Another layer of complication is added by the fact that these missiles bring in warhead and destination ambiguities. In both cases, when an adversary’s early warning detects such missiles headed in its direction, but cannot be sure whether they are conventional or nuclear-armed, nor ascertain the target they are headed towards, the tendency would be to assume the worst. For an adversary that faces a country with a BMD but itself has a small nuclear arsenal, it would fear that even conventionally armed hypersonic missiles could destroy a portion of its nuclear assets. The tendency could then be to shift to more trigger-ready postures such as launch on warning or launch under attack to ostensibly enhance deterrence. But such shifts would also bring risks of misperception and miscalculation in moments of crisis.

Offence-defence spiral

Second, the induction of hypersonics would lead to an offence-defence spiral. According to reports, the U.S. has begun finding ways of either strengthening its BMD or looking for countermeasures to defeat hypersonics, besides having an arsenal of its own of the same kind. The stage appears set for an arms race instability given that the three major players in this game have the financial wherewithal and technological capability to play along. This looks particularly imminent in the absence of any strategic dialogue or arms control.

A third implication would be to take offence-defence developments into outer space. Counter-measures to hypersonics have been envisaged through placement of sensors and interceptors in outer space. While none of this is going to be easy or quick, weaponisation of outer space would, neverthless, be a distinct possibility once hypersonic inductions become the norm.

Thus induction of this technology would likely prove to be a transitory advantage eventually leading nations into a strategic trap. India needs to make a cool-headed assessment of its own deterrence requirements and choose its pathways wisely.

Manpreet Sethi is Distinguished Fellow at Centre for Air Power Studies, Delhi