Develop the good – ban the bad

Branka Marijan Conventional Weapons, Emerging Technologies, Featured

New hypersonic weapons systems are in the works and getting big money—it’s time to respond

On May 11 the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense, held its annual Demo Day at the Pentagon to showcase the latest developments in military technology.

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 37 Issue 2 Summer 2016 by Branka Marijan

Demo Day

More than 60 projects and concepts in such fields as cyber-technology, undersea weapons, and outer space were presented in various stages of development and readiness (Babb 2016). On display were both new projects and projects that had moved from early development to functional prototypes.

Some projects have clear civilian use. For example, Geckskin is a stiff fabric that adheres to surfaces and allows soldiers to climb buildings, much like geckos, while carrying heavy loads (Babb 2016). It’s easy to see how many of us could also use it to attach objects to different surfaces. The modular prosthetic limb, developed for wounded soldiers, has clear relevance for disabled civilians, providing “near natural control, very much like your own limb” (Szoldra 2016b). Remember: GPS and the Internet have roots in DARPA projects (Szoldra 2016b).

Other projects focused on new weapons systems that push the boundaries of contemporary warfare. One project in particular has raised international concern.

Hypersonic weapons

DARPA and the U.S. Air Force are funding the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept, which aims to produce a hypersonic missile that would travel at Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound) or faster (Szoldra 2016a).

The speed of these missiles would make surface-to-air missile protection systems useless (Szoldra 2016a). In other words, existing missile protection systems, such as early-warning radars and ballistic missile defence (BMD), would not react quickly enough. To be fair, the usefulness of BMD systems is already questionable as ballistic missiles can evade them—by using decoys, for example. However, hypersonic weapons would render them meaningless, causing greater tension among countries that take at least some reassurance from their BMD systems.

Attempts to create new hypersonic weapons systems are receiving big money (Bender 2014). DARPA has given millions of dollars to leading defence contractor Lockheed Martin. Raytheon has received $20-million from DARPA and is also investing millions of dollars of its own money (Tucker 2016).

A hypersonic weapons arms race appears to be developing among the few countries willing and able to fund them, including China, India, Russia, and the United States. While the United States leads the field, some analysts predict that both the United States and China will have operational prototypes by 2020, with Russia close behind (Szoldra 2016a).

What’s new?

According to James Acton, senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Hypersonic weapons are not that new. Ballistic missiles are hypersonic weapons” (Bender 2014). But the latest hypersonic weapons systems include “boost-glide weapons” (Bender 2014) that use rockets to launch into space. Once such a glider reentered the atmosphere, it would fly even more rapidly, initially with speeds from 10 to 20 times the speed of sound (Gubrud 2015). In the civilian sphere (where some of this technology is also on the drawing board), such a development means that a flight from New York to London could take 30 minutes (Bennett 2015). The United States and China have successfully tested boost-glide weapons, but both ran failed tests in 2014.

The other type of hypersonic weapon currently under research and development is the air-breathing missile or powered-flight cruise missile. The air-breathing missile, as its name implies, would use oxygen in its flight, instead of having its own oxidizer (Tucker 2016). The Pentagon sees the technology used to create the missile as a stepping stone to a “reusable hypersonic jet” (Tucker 2016).

A call for a test ban

So what is the basic problem with hypersonic weapons? The speed is certainly worrisome, because responses that could affect many lives will have to be made very quickly. However, according to Defense One editor Patrick Tucker (2016), the real worry is that a launch of hypersonic weapons would be seen as a “potential nuclear strike.”

While the Pentagon says that U.S. weapons will carry only conventional warheads, it’s not clear that the other nuclear nations buy this (Tucker 2016). Interestingly, the United States alleges that China would use nuclear warheads on their weapons (Gubrud 2015)! Some analysts warn of the risk of nuclear escalation (Farley 2014) and are calling for a moratorium on hypersonic testing and a test ban treaty (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 2015).

Tests already conducted show that these weapons are possible. To Mark Gubrud (2015), physicist and adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina, the unsuccessful tests also indicate that reliable hypersonic weapons are “impossible without testing.” A testing ban would certainly halt the race for these weapons.

Gubrud suggests that the road to an eventual ban could start with an informal agreement among countries currently pursuing this technology. He stresses that “the world has failed so far to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle, and new genies are now getting loose: space weapons, cyber warfare, drones, and autonomous weapons.”

Other experts are not convinced that a call for a testing ban would work. Rajaram Nagappa (2015), visiting professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore, notes that the decisions of powerful countries such as the United States, China, and Russia will be based on the success of their weapons programs. If these countries are able to develop these weapons, they will produce them.

Nagappa believes that other countries will then argue that a test ban discriminates against them.

As well, Nagappa wants to preserve civilian applications of this dual-use technology. Hypersonic technology could be used in civilian space development—for example, in space transportation systems. He wants to see confidence-building measures and assurances that the hypersonic weapons will not be outfitted with nuclear warheads.

Tong Zhao (2015), an associate in the Carnegie Endowment’s Nuclear Policy Program, points out that rising military tensions between Russia and NATO and between the United States and China make the likelihood of an agreement to ban testing of these weapons highly unlikely. But Zhao remains concerned that the development of hypersonic weapons will further erode relationships between China, Russia, and the United States: “Nations concerned about the survivability of their deterrents might build additional nuclear facilities deep underground—or begin to demonstrate less transparency about their nuclear policies.”

Develop the good, ban the bad

As with increasingly autonomous weapons systems, hypersonic weapons raise serious concerns about competition between the great military powers and power imbalances between have and have-not countries. At the same time, there is a strong desire to encourage the development of the positive features of these dual-use technologies.

Advances in technology are fast outpacing government regulation. This doesn’t mean that nothing can or should be done. United Nations mechanisms such as the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons should be exploited to their limits. Countries such as Canada can and should support greater regulation and control of arms races that could wreak havoc around the world. Indeed, ALL countries have a role and a stake in promoting stronger regulation.

Hypersonic weapons, which blur the line between conventional and nuclear warfare, are ridiculously dangerous. Mark Gubrud is right to suggest a test ban. Opposition from key states can be expected, but the rest of the international community needs to voice their concerns.

It is crucial to ban the testing of hypersonic weapons. But such a ban need not impede the development of the basic technology to improve the lives of ordinary people. Governments need to support and fund this type of technology.

A broader conversation about the militarization of technological advances is much needed, although it will not easily resolve all the dilemmas of dual-use technology. Governments, scientists, and civil society organizations have a role to play in shaping the dialogue and placing limits on military technology.

Governments and private capital should focus on funding civilian technology. After all, who would not appreciate a quick and affordable transatlantic flight on a supersonic jet or a faster commute in a supersonic train?


Babb, Carla. 2016. Sci-fi made real: Pentagon unveils stunning technology. Voice of America News, May 11.
Bender, Jeremy. 2014. The US and China are in a race to develop next-generation hypersonic missiles. Business Insider, September 3.
Bennett, Jay. 2015. Supersonic “Skreemr” jet could fly faster than Mach 10. Popular Mechanics, November 2.
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 2015. Test ban for hypersonic missiles? June.
Farley, Robert. 2014. A Mach 5 arms race? Welcome to Hypersonic Weapons 101. National Interest, December 31.
Gubrud, Mark. 2015. Just say no. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 24.
Nagappa, Rajaram. 2015. New technology, familiar risks. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 25.
Szoldra, Paul. 2016a. Hypersonic missiles traveling 5 times the speed of sound are fueling a new arms race. Business Insider, May 20.
—–. 2016b. These are the most exciting technologies the US military is building right now. Tech Insider, May 18.
Tucker, Patrick. 2016. The problem with the Pentagon’s hypersonic missile. DefenseOne, April 14.
Zhao, Tong. 2015. Banning hypersonics: Too much to hope for. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 26.

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