The US is working on the development of hypersonic missiles. These missiles could be launched by 2020.
Officials have said that weapons that fly at five times the speed of sound, or 3,500mph, will only carry conventional missiles.
But that hasn’t stopped a number of experts voicing concerns that other nations will use the technology to launch a nuclear strike.
Traditional ballistic missiles already travel at hypersonic speeds.
Built to carry nuclear and conventional warheads, these weapons are capable of reaching outer space in the course of their flights, but they can’t maneuver.
The latest class of hypersonic missiles would be smaller, guided and designed to carry conventional explosives for time-sensitive, rapid response in theater operations.
Launched from the ground, aircraft, surface ships or submarines, hypersonic missiles would allow warfighters to strike time-critical targets at long range much faster.
There are two kinds of approaches to solving the hypersonic challenge: ‘scramjet’ and ‘boost glide.’ The air-breathing scramjet relies on high speed for its power.
As it accelerates, more air and fuel is pushed into the engine, allowing it to accelerate even more – to hypersonic speeds.
The boost glide model rides a reentry vehicle to extremely high altitudes, where it skips across the Earth’s upper atmosphere.
‘Hypersonic weapons can be more survivable because of the extreme speed and high altitude. They would be hard to stop,’ said J.R. Smith, director of Raytheon’s Advanced Land Warfare Systems.
‘Washington had always intended for the new ‘hypersonic boost-glide’ weapons to remain purely conventional,’ wrote Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist and visiting research fellow at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy in the Huffington Post.
But Russia and China seem to be pursuing nuclear variants.
‘If the hypersonic arms race heads in a nuclear direction, Washington may be pressured to follow.
According to an in-depth report by DefenseOne, the US is currently funding three major hypersonic missile projects.
These include the Lockheed Martin Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 program, the Raytheon Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC), and the Raytheon/Lockheed Tactical Boost Glide.
Darpa has awarded Raytheon $20 million to develop the technology and Lockheed $24 million, and the plan is to test a hypersonic missile by 2020.
Mark Gubrud is a physicist and adjunct professor in the Peace, War, and Defense curriculum at the University of North Carolina, believes hypersonic missiles should be banned.
‘Hypersonic flight may sound like screaming good fun—but it’s not meant for you,’ he wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
‘It’s meant for weapons that would probably be used only in the opening salvos of a nuclear war.
They could also carry nuclear warheads, and could fly in under the radars that watch for ballistic missiles.
‘US strategists propose that hypersonic weapons could be used for ‘conventional prompt global strike’ without the risk of being mistaken for a nuclear attack.
‘Yet Washington alleges that China intends its hypersonics for nuclear delivery.’
‘At this point, our hypersonics program is really a technology development program, purely focused on conventional’ payloads, said Stephen Welby, assistant defense secretary for research and engineering.
‘There’s nothing in the budget’ related to modelling, researching, or exploring nuclear-armed hypersonics.
Speaking on Wednesday at a National Defense Industrial Association, Welby said the ‘two things are uncoupled’,
‘We see this as being a long-range program,’ David Walker, the U.S. Air Force deputy assistant secretary for science, technology and engineering said at the NDIA event.
‘It’s 2020 for the missile, 2030 … until you get into something that’s refurbishable’ and probably 2040 until you get into something that’s a totally reusable type of capability.’
But despite these assurances Gubrud told DefenseOne that hypersonic missiles will take us ‘closer to war’.
The publication points out that an enemy would have no way to knowing whether or not such a missile was carrying a conventional or nuclear warhead – and as such, and attack could become more likely.