Hypersonic Hype

Foreign Policy magazine has weighed in on the hype about hypersonic missiles. It falls somewhere between my view that hypersonic missile developments are important, and Fareed Zakaria’s view that they are not.

What’s with all the hypersonic hype? “Ballistic missiles already fly at hypersonic speeds, so what makes these weapons so special?” a knowledgeable and nerdy SitRep reader might ask. The key difference is that ballistic missiles follow a nice, easy-to-track trajectory to their target.

But, missile defense systems be warned, hypersonic missiles can change trajectory and maneuver en route to their final targets, making them significantly more difficult to track. Hypersonic missiles are nothing new, but the pace at which both Moscow and Beijing are investing in these programs definitely is. Hypersonic missiles can also travel at five times the speed of sound. 

Two other big issues. Keep in mind: First, both Russia and China reportedly have designs to put nuclear warheads on their hypersonic missiles, unlike the United States. Second, there is currently no international agreement or treaty dedicated to limiting or monitoring hypersonic missiles, meaning absent a new campaign of international arms control diplomacy, we have the perfect recipe for a new three-way arms race.

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