While it’s temping to think of missiles as lightning-quick, in fact many cruise missiles travel at speeds not much greater than those of a commercial airliner. That’s made such weapons highly subject to defensive systems—especially when those missiles have been programmed to follow particular paths, such as highways, when seeking their targets. Some cruise missiles have even been taken down by anti-aircraft systems. More modern cruise missiles, in particular those from Russia, are faster, but most still fly at speeds similar to those obtained by fighter jets.
Ballistic missiles, particularly those whose flight paths loft them free of the atmosphere, can approach targets at tremendous speeds, reaching many, many times the speed of sound. Their long, high arcs still make them subject to possible interception—which is what the expensive and generally unsuccessful systems of the 1980s Strategic Defense Initiative were all about. However, tactical ballistic weapons, whose arcs are shorter but whose speeds are much slower, are much easier to intercept.
Destruction of an incoming cruise missile or ballistic missile is still far from certain, even with the most modern defensive systems. But defensive systems such as the Patriot, which intercepts an incoming missile or rocket using a guided missile traveling at up to 3,000 mph, have proven themselves in real-world battlefields. Over 8,000 Patriot systems are deployed around the world, and they continue to be upgraded to handle a wider range of targets. The latest version of the Patriot can take on drones, rockets, and tactical ballistic missiles like those that Iran fired into Iraq on Tuesday evening with some measure of success—though it doesn’t seem that the U.S. deployed such systems on Tuesday, possibly because advanced intelligence made it clear that the incoming missiles did not threaten critical targets. If so, then the fact that Iran’s weapons generated no casualties may tie directly to the fact that they were simply slow enough to get out of the way of.
Everything about that is going to change. Moving to an age of hypersonic missiles is almost like a switch from analog to binary warfare—an age in which launch and impact are impossibly close together. These are systems that negate defense, nullify the idea of shelters, and make Mutually Assured Destruction much more assured.
Vladimir Putin has been touting Russia’s development of hypersonic missiles for some time. Just two weeks ago, he announced the first deployment of a system known as the Avangard ”hypersonic glide” vehicle. Avangard launches like a sadly all-too-normal ballistic missile, but rather than coming down in an arc that would make the second half of the flight subject to interception, the new system includes a payload that can maneuver, retarget, and dodge, all while traveling at a staggering Mach 27—that is, over 20,000 mph. China is working on a similar vehicle. These are systems that can deliver megaton-class devices to target in seconds, with essentially no chance of interception by any system on the drawing board.
This is by no means the only class of hypersonics in the works. While Russia’s speediest cruise missile is capable of hitting Mach 4, a new class is under development. The U.S. may bring the Mach 6 High Speed Strike Weapon (HSSW) on line within the next year. In testing, Russia’s new Zircon class of missiles has already passed Mach 8. At that speed, had Iran launched a Zircon on Tuesday, it would have impacted Erdil military base less than two minutes after launch. And Russia is claiming the final product will be faster.
Other countries are looking at the development of hypersonics, but even those that may be a generation behind won’t be left out. Because Russia is promising to make the Zircon available for purchase for ranges up to 175 miles. Or one minute.
In the middle of a series of events that have revealed (again) just how much can go wrong in planning and executing a military operation, Trump also revealed that the United States is stepping up deployment of systems with which making a mistake is not an option. These are systems that aren’t just scary because Trump’s finger will be on the button. They’re scary because they require a response speed that ensures that no one’s finger will be there.
In 1983, a false alarm from the Soviet Union’s early-warning system indicated multiple incoming ballistic missiles from the United States. A single man made the judgment that the warning was a mistake and aborted a Soviet response. Hypersonics make it almost certain that human beings will be removed from the decision loop.
In a world where the United States had taken the lead on international arms agreements—such as negotiating the joint agreement on limiting nuclear development in Iran—America might be in a position to step in and help guide the world to an agreement on hypersonics. Might be able to champion an agreement that says weapons both impossible to defend against and too fast to offer time for proper evaluation are also too dangerous to exist. Instead, we live in the world where Trump walked away from the Iran agreement, walked away from the the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and has dismissed the idea of new strategic arms agreements.