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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 budget and has requested $3.8 billion in budget. This is almost 20% more than the Trump administration’s allocation of $3.2 billion for fiscal year 2021.
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, by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US.
Similarly, Russia is also developing hypersonic weapons technology and has recently tested a hypersonic cruise missile – Zircon.
Moreover, the US and UK announced recently that they will help Australia build a new fleet of nuclear submarines, as part of a trilateral alliance known as Aukus to counteract the influence of China.
All of these are indicators of a spiraling new arms race.
What are hypersonic weapons?
Hypersonic weapons travel faster than 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:
– Cruise missiles powered by engines
– Glide vehicles, are launched nearly into space before diving back down to their targets.
|Read more about Hypersonic missiles|
What are the causes behind this new arms race?
i). 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. The treaty, barred Washington and Moscow from deploying nationwide defenses against strategic ballistic missiles.
– 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,
ii). 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 could enable the United States to conduct a preemptive, decapitating strike on China’s nuclear arsenal and supporting infrastructure. U.S. missile defense deployments could then limit China’s ability to conduct a retaliatory strike against the United States.
iii). 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 hypersonics.
iv). China & Russia’s view of US BMD: A robust Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) compromises the second strike capability of the enemy by neutralising the surviving incoming missiles in case of a near-decapitating first strike. 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. These mostly include the hypersonic weapons systems, including Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGVs) that can escape the missile defence systems.
v). Anti-Satellite (ASAT) weapons: Russia recently conducted an 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.
|Must Read: Which countries have Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGV)?|
Why China’s testing of nuclear-capable hypersonics is being compared to the Sputnik moment?
The launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 was viewed as a symbol of American weakness and a sign of Soviet superiority in technology, both by the people and policymakers in the US. The shock was worsened by the suddenness of the event, with US intelligence agencies being taken by complete surprise.
China’s testing of its nuclear-capable hypersonic weapons system is likely to trigger events similar to those that the Sputnik launch set in motion.
The launch of Sputnik, triggered a ballistic missile race that saw Russia and the USA come close to a disastrous faceoff during the Cuban missile crisis.
The Chinese tests have the potential to set off a similar aggressive competition among the nuclear powers to modernise their nuclear arsenals and add new, potentially destabilising capabilities to their arsenal.
What are the implications?
– Action-reaction cycle: Experts consider the hypersonic weapons highly destabilising, due to their stealth and exceptional manoeuvrability. The US is already developing conventional long-range hypersonic missiles. With the Chinese test, the US may be forced to expand its hypersonic programme and further modernise its missile defence systems. This proliferates an action-reaction cycle wherein countries start building their weapon capabilities as a reaction to enemy state’s weapon development programme.
– Impact on India: India may also be forced to accelerate its hypersonic missiles programme and consider erecting an equally robust missile defence. India is reportedly developing a dual-capable hypersonic cruise missile and an anti-ship hypersonic missile. Chinese advancement in stealth technologies will push New Delhi to seek similar capabilities and development of effective countermeasures. This can then set off a regional arms race, a sign that is not particularly encouraging for regional peace.
– Drain of resources: Even as the pandemic devastated lives and economies around the world, spending on nuclear weapons by the world’s nine nuclear states witnessed an increase of $1.4bn from the previous year. This is a massive drain on public resources globally.
What is the way forward?
Author Nitin Pai (Livemint) suggests that ‘There is an urgent case for a strict international ASAT non-proliferation and test-ban treaty to prevent militarisation of space’
As per author Laura Grego (Financial Times) ‘The parties to the 1970 nuclear non-proliferation treaty, including the P5 nuclear weapon states, are obliged to pursue negotiations on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race. They will meet in January 2022 to take stock of their progress. Diplomacy, hence, is the only way forward.’
The enmity created by nations threatening each other with indiscriminate, weapons of mass destruction prevents development of global solidarity and trust we need to address challenges like the climate crisis and pandemics.