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The Coming Nuclear Menace: Hypersonic Missiles

Photograph Source: David James Paquin (attributed) – Public Domain

The United States is seeking to acquire “volumes of hundreds or even thousands” of nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles that are “stealthy” and can fly undetected at 3,600 miles per hour, five times faster than the speed of sound.

Why so many? A Pentagon official is quoted in the current issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology as saying “we have to be careful we’re not building boutique weapons. If we build boutique weapons, we won’t—we’ll be very reluctant to—use them.”

The article in the aerospace industry trade journal is headlined: “Hypersonic Mass Production.” A subhead reads: “Pentagon Forms Hypersonic Industry ‘War Room.’”

On March 19, 2020, the U.S. conducted its first hypersonic missile test from its Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii.

Fast and Furiously Accurate” is the title of an article about hypersonic missiles written by a U.S. Navy officer which appeared last year on a U.S. Naval Institute website.

The piece declares that by “specifically integrating hypersonic weapons with U.S. Navy submarines, the United States may gain an edge in developing the fastest, most precise weapons the world has ever seen.”

“Hypersonic weapons,” explains the article by U.S. Navy Lieutenant Andrea Howard, “travel faster than Mach 5—at least five times the speed of sound, around 3,600 mph, or one mile per second….They are similar to but faster than existing missiles, such as the subsonic U.S. Tomahawk missile, which maxes out around 550 mph.”

“While hypersonic weapons can carry conventional or nuclear warheads, they differ from existing technologies in three critical ways,” writes Howard. “First…a one-kilogram object delivered precisely and traveling multiples of the speed of sound can be more destructive than one kilogram of TNT. Second, the low-altitude path helps mask HCMs [Hypersonic Cruise Missiles] when coupled with the curvature of the Earth” and so “they are mostly invisible to early warning radars. And third…they can maneuver during flight; in contrast with the predictable ballistic-missile descend, they are more difficult to intercept, if even detected.”

“By offering the precision of near-zero-miss weapons, the speed of ballistic missiles, and the maneuverability of cruise missiles, hypersonic weapons are a disruptive technology capable of striking anywhere on the globe in less than an hour,” declares the Navy officer.

The article also notes that Russian “President Vladimir Putin unveiled six new” what he called “invincible” hypersonic missiles as part of a March 2018 “state of the nation” speech. “Russia has successfully tested the air-to-ground hypersonic missile” named Kinzhal for dagger, “multiple times using the MIG-31 fighter.” It’s “mounting the Kinzhal on its Tu-22M3 strategic bomber.” The article also says “China, too, is working on hypersonic technologies.”

The piece concludes: “As the tradition of arms control weakens with the breakdown of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement, it would be naïve to anticipate anything other than full-fledged weapon development by Russia and China in the coming decades….The bottom line is that hypersonic weapons will determine who precisely is ‘prompt’ enough in 21st century conflict.”

The U.S. under President Trump withdrew last year from the INF treaty, a landmark agreement which had banned all land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of from 310 to 3,420 miles. It had been signed in 1987 by President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. The treaty “marked the first time the superpowers had agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals, eliminate an entire category of nuclear weapons, and employ extensive on-site inspections for verification,” notes the Arms Control Association.

Hypersonic missiles may be unstoppable. Is society ready?” was the headline of an article in March in The Christian Science Monitor. This piece notes: “Hypersonic missiles are not just very fast, they are maneuverable and stealthy. This combination of speed and furtiveness means they can surprise an adversary in ways that conventional missiles cannot, while also evading radar detection. And they have injected an additional level of risk and ambiguity into what was already an accelerating arms race between nuclear-armed rivals.”

The article raises the issue of the speed of hypersonic missiles miring military decisions. “For an incoming conventional missile, military commanders may have 30 minutes to detect and respond; a hypersonic missile could arrive at that same destination in 10 minutes.” Thus “artificial intelligence” or “AI” would be utilized.

The Christian Science Monitor article quotes Patrick Lin, a professor of philosophy at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, as noting: “Technology will always fail. That is the nature of technology.” And, says the article: “Dr. Lin argues that the benefits of hypersonic weapons compared to the risk they create are ‘widely unclear,’ as well as the benefits of the AI systems that inform them.”

It quotes Dr. Lin as saying, wisely: “I think it’s important to remember that diplomacy works and policy solutions work…I think another tool in our toolbox isn’t just to invest in more weapons, but it’s also to invest in diplomacy to develop community.”

The Aviation Week & Space Technology article begins: “As the U.S. hypersonic weapons strategy tilts toward valuing a quantity approach, the new focus for top defense planners—even as a four-year battery of flight testing begins—is to create an industrial base that can produce missiles affordably enough that the high-speed weapons can be purchased in volumes of hundreds or even thousands.”

It continues: “To pave the way for an affordable production strategy, the Pentagon’s Research and Engineering division has teamed up with the Acquisition and Sustainment branch to create a ‘war room’ for the hypersonic industrial base, says Mark Lewis, director of research and engineering the modernization.”

The piece then quotes Lewis as saying: “At the end of the day, we have to be careful we’re not building boutique weapons. If we build boutique weapons, we won’t—we’ll be very reluctant to—use them. And that again factors into our plans for delivering hypersonics at scale.”

The article says that “Air Force and defense officials have been promoting concepts for operating air-launched hypersonic missiles in swarm attacks. The B-1B [bomber], for example, will be modified to carry” six hypersonic missiles.

“I think it’s a poorly posed question to ask about affordability per unit,” the piece quoted Lewis as saying. “We have to think of it in terms of the affordability of the capability that we’re providing. By that I mean: If I’ve got a hypersonic system that costs twice as much as its subsonic counterpart but is five times more effective, well, clearly, that’s an advantageous cost scenario.”

The hypersonic missiles will indeed likely be “invincible.” And they would be at the ready because of the withdrawal by the Trump administration of the INF treaty and other international arms control agreements, one after another.

With the vast numbers of hypersonic nuclear-capable missiles being sought, the world will have fully returned to the madness in the depths the Cold War—as presented in the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Apocalypse will be highly likely. Artificial intelligence is not going to save us. These weapons need to be outlawed, not produced and purchased en masse. And we must, indeed, “invest in diplomacy to develop community”—a global community at peace, not a world of horrific and unstoppable war.

More articles by:

Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, and is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet, and the Beyond Nuclear handbook, The U.S. Space Force and the dangers of nuclear power and nuclear war in space. Grossman is an associate of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.

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