Hypersonic Weapons: The New Grand Equalizer for Deterrence?

13 janvier 2019

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In March 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that his nation had developed the first reliable hypersonic [i] missile, the Kinzhal or “dagger.”[1] Just a few months earlier, China successfully tested its DF-17 medium-range ballistic missile, which features a hypersonic glide vehicle.[2] According to the respective announcements, these platforms would be able to defeat all existing missile defense systems.US Undersecretary of Defense Michael Griffin reassured the public in July 2018 that the United States was ahead of its competitors in regard to hypersonic weapons platforms.[3]

Further development of hypersonic technology could have a deterrent effect and provide stability and strategic peace in international relations if certain crucial aspects are taken into account. 

Deterrence and Missile Defense

Missile defense systems are a key feature of nuclear states’ security environments. Programs such as the United States’ Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System have, however, cast doubt on functioning deterrence through mutually assured destruction. A state’s nuclear second-strike capability, which theoretically deters a first strike, is undermined by missile defense systems.[4,5] If an attacker can intercept the second strike, deterrence becomes ineffective.

The proliferation of missile defense systems increases the chance of preemptive measures by states that previously relied on deterrence. Although deployments of exo-atmospheric and high altitude systems may raise the stakes for deterrence in the short-term; they will make it more difficult for adversaries to conduct a second strike successfully in the long-term.[6,7]

Hypersonic Matters

Hypersonic weapons are a game-changer because they could allow both Russia and China to defeat US missile defense capabilities. Hypersonic cruise missiles or glide vehicles can fly at between 5 000 km/h and 25 000 km/h while being highly maneuverable. With a shallower trajectory than conventional ballistic missiles, they allow for a quick change of target and threaten a much broader area.[8] They also make a successful second strike more likely because of their ability to defeat missile defense systems. [5,9]

Fully operational, hypersonic cruise missile or glide vehicle capability would allow China to keep its “credible minimal deterrence doctrine“[ii] while securing second-strike capability against the United States in the coming decades.

Recent advancements in submarine detection capabilities, such as real-time oceanographic models based on big data, are also threatening contemporary deterrence concepts. Most states rely on submarines to maintain a functioning second-strike capability.[4] Once the locations of these submarines are known they can be easily targeted by a nuclear first strike. The critical retaliatory capability that underpins stability in international relations is then lost. If a first strike is detected early enough, however, hypersonic technology offers a near absolute guarantee for a successful retaliatory second strike. This can lead to increased stability in a multipolar world because the threat of a retaliatory nuclear attack keeps states from using nuclear weapons in the first place.

Making Deterrence Work

To ensure effective deterrence, governments must invest in research and development of effective detection systems. If reliable detection systems are not feasible in the short term, countries with hypersonic technology programs should come together to regulate the production and stockpiling of these systems.

In light of the recent withdrawal of the US from the bilateral Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, new regulation should be agreed on multilaterally to make it harder for bilateral disputes to trigger a full withdrawal. An ideal place for such negotiation would be the United Nations General Assembly’s First Committee, which deals with disarmament and international security. A possible deal to this end will also either see the reinstatement of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in a multilateral from or would have to include disarmament concessions by states with elaborate missile defense capabilities.

Ideally, a treaty that controls the development of hypersonic technologies should include states that do not have programs to date. A structure similar to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons’ (NPT), which prohibits states from developing a technology considered dangerous to world peace, would be ideal in this case. An organization with capabilities similar to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which keeps track of NPT compliance, should be created to monitor signatories’ compliance with the treaty. It might be tempting to add hypersonic technology to the NPT or its additional protocol, but this would require significant negotiations that could open the treaty to amendments that threaten its proper functioning. A hypersonic non-proliferation treaty needs to be independent of existing multilateral treaties.

If a treaty including nations without hypersonic technology programs fails, the spread of such technologies should still be monitored and slowed by groups such as the Missile Technology Control Regime, as their use in conventional warfare could undermine deterrence between non-nuclear states. This is due to their remarkable speed and the resulting requirement of fast response times that most of these states do not possess. Therefore, a non-nuclear weapon state that acquired the technology could be tempted to annihilate its opponent in an all-out first-strike rather than to simply deter him.

Together, these steps will ensure that the deterrence regime that underpins strategic stability between the major powers will stay intact or be improved by new technological challenges. Ensuring the effectiveness of deterrence should be in all significant players’ interest, which is why adequate regulation of hypersonic technology should be less controversial than other recently disputed multilateral arms control treaties.


[i]A weapon system that is able to accelerate to and sustain a gliding or cruising velocity of between 5000 km/h and 25000 km/h is considered to be hypersonic.

[ii]Credible minimal deterrence refers to the Chinese deployment of mobile missiles that will, at least in part, survive a first strike and thereby maximize the likelihood of a second-strike.


Picture: Kirt Edblom

1. Alec Luhn and Roland Oliphant, “Vladimir Putin Claims Russia Has Developed Nuclear Weapons ‘Invulnerable’ to Us Missile Defence,” The Telegraph, 2018, 16.03.2018,https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/03/01/vladimir-putin-promises-halve-russias-poverty-six-years/.

2. Ankit Panda, “Introducing the Df-17: China’s Newly Tested Ballistic Missile Armed with a Hypersonic Glide Vehicle,” The Diplomat, 2017, 17.03.2018, https://thediplomat.com/2017/12/introducing-the-df-17-chinas-newly-tested-ballistic-missile-armed-with-a-hypersonic-glide-vehicle/.

3. Aaron Mehta, “3 Thoughts on Hypersonic Weapons from the Pentagon’s Technology Chief,” Defense News, 2018, 16.03.2018, https://www.defensenews.com/air/2018/07/16/3-thoughts-on-hypersonic-weapons-from-the-pentagons-technology-chief/.

4. George N. Lewis and Theodore A. Postol. “A Flawed and Dangerous U.S. Missile Defense Plan.” Arms Control Association, 17.03.2018, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2010_05/Lewis-Postol.

5. Douglas Sagan Scott and Kenneth Neal Waltz, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewedwith New Sections on India and Pakistan, Terrorism, and Missile Defense,(New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2nd Edition, 2003).

6. Thomas C. Schelling,Arms and Influence,(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

7. Richard H. Speier, George Nacouzi, Carrie A. Lee, and Richard M. Moore, Hypersonic Missile Nonproliferation, (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, Research Reports, 2017).

8. Ian E. Rinehart, Steven A. Hildreth, and Susan V. Lawrence, “Ballistic Missile Defense in the Asia-Pacific Region: Cooperation and Opposition.” Congressional Research Service, 2013.

9. Bryan Clark, The Emerging Era in Undersea Warfare, (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2015).

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Laurin Hofmeister

Laurin is a graduate student of International Security, his studies at Sciences Po put an emphasis on Defense and Security Economics and East Asian Studies. His research interests include Quantitative Conflict Studies, International Political Economy and Northeast Asian Affairs. Furthermore, he holds an Academic Officer’s position at the Northeast Asia Initiative at Sciences Po.