In June 2019 The Center for Public Integrity and The New York Times Magazine jointly published a stunning report called “Speed Kills: How hypersonic missiles—which travel at more than 15 times the speed of sound—are touching off a new global arms race that threatens to change the nature of warfare.” I waited over the summer to see if the subject would gain any traction in other media or within nuclear disarmament groups that I follow on social media. Unsurprisingly, this terrifying new development in the arms race provoked little concern among many groups and individuals who maintain a singular focus on the elimination of nuclear weapons.

The report described hypersonic weapons thus:

… a revolutionary new type of weapon, one that would have the unprecedented ability to maneuver and then to strike almost any target in the world within a matter of minutes. Capable of traveling at more than 15 times the speed of sound, hypersonic missiles arrive at their targets in a blinding, destructive flash, before any sonic booms or other meaningful warning. So far, there are no surefire defenses. Fast, effective, precise and unstoppable—these are rare but highly desired characteristics on the modern battlefield. And the missiles are being developed not only by the United States but also by China, Russia and other countries.[1]

One can easily see the temptation this could lead to next time the NATO alliance deems a humanitarian intervention is necessary in some region of the world. There could also be a temptation to dream big and carry out an intervention on a major power, not just a minor power like Serbia was in 1999. A sudden assault with 100 hypersonic missiles could decapitate leadership and totally destroy a nation’s defenses—all of them except their nuclear missiles which they might then use because standard nuclear doctrine states that they will be used to counter a threat to the continued existence of the state. However, because hypersonic weapons commit devastating destruction without nuclear warheads, there would be no inhibition about breaking a taboo that has held since 1945. Only fear of a nuclear retaliation would be a deterrent, but the aggressor would be imposing the morally repugnant decision of nuclear first use onto the victim forced to defend itself.

At present there are no international agreements regarding hypersonic missiles, and they have been deliberately kept out of international arms negotiations. These new missiles upset existing norms of deterrence because of their speed and ability to avoid detection and response, and they are capable of carrying either conventional or nuclear warheads. Every military facility is vulnerable, and aircraft carriers might become obsolete because of them. Hypersonic missiles enable a massive sudden blow to vital infrastructure. They compresses the time during which the nature of an attack can be understood by the victim. An attack with hypersonic missiles would create a “use it or lose it” pressure on stricken countries, so they might quickly use their nukes in response, and keep nukes on high alert more often. Missiles would arrive faster than a ballistic nuclear missile, flying at Mach 15 or Mach 20, or more than 11,400 miles per hour. No one in Hawaii would even have time to panic.

Hypersonic missiles are not an incremental increase in the threat level. They are highly disruptive. The US could be the first to use this power, but the technology could also be used by others to make US power redundant. This is sort of what happened in the recent (September 2019) Houthi drone attack on Saudi Arabian oil refineries, even though there was nothing hypersonic about it. New drone weapons evaded detection by the most advanced military hardware in the world (apparently) and left a superpower with no acceptable options for response. No one wants a world war in the Persian Gulf, so it is highly unlikely to happen. Saudi Arabia will have to take the hit or finally think about ways to negotiate a peace settlement with its enemies in Yemen.

Leaders and the general population are ignoring the risks of hypersonic technology, which is not what they did when the threats of chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missiles with multiple nuclear warheads appeared. These provoked public protest and led to treaties. However, back then there was also a delay in the time between the implementation of the weapons and understanding of their implications. There were 60,000 nuclear warheads in the world by the time the nuclear disarmament movement gained momentum and influenced political leaders. Presently there is only a competition to either gain parity or to exceed rivals and get the upper hand—in other words, a new arms race, clearly with dangers that the old one lacked, which is quite an accomplishment. And this is the problem. The public remains fixated on the notion that nuclear weapons are the ultimate threat, and the “generals” of the anti-nuclear movement may be committing that classic mistake known by military historians: fighting the present war with the mindset of the last war.

Hypersonic missiles are typically launched by a rocket and then released before they reach their apex. They are pulled by gravity or propelled by highly advanced engines. (Illustration by Mark Watkinson)

The theme discussed in Jeffrey Smith’s article was picked up a few months later by Russia Today in an interview with a Russian scholar, Sergey Karaganov, a researcher of international relations and a dean at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. The article consists of quotations and paraphrases of the interview which are excerpted below:

Limiting nuclear arsenals doesn’t make the world safer—not while the elites, who have never seen a big war, complacently believe they never will… many of those currently in power don’t take the threat of war with the gravity it deserves… The previous generations had a gut fear of war because their fathers or they themselves experienced World War II. But modern generations think of war very lightly…

Some powers believe they are entitled to live in peace and cannot imagine that a smaller conflict elsewhere may escalate into a nuclear Armageddon…

… old mechanisms meant to prevent such a disaster are rapidly deteriorating [and also] failing for purely technological reasons. In the 1970s there was a reasonably clear distinction between strategic [nuclear] weapons and everything else, so ensuring parity was relatively simple. Basically the US and the USSR settled on numbers of missiles, long-range bombers, submarines and warheads they were comfortable with and agreed on ways to verify that each party sticks to the limits… in the ‘70s and the ‘80s we were basing our analysis on the very, very strange presumption of what was called parity…

But the distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear, conventional and non-conventional is blurred today. How does one take into the equation, for example, a conventional precision missile that can be fired across the border and take out the other nation’s military headquarters. Or a satellite that can blind an ICBM early warning spacecraft? Or a hypersonic glider? Or a computer virus that can shut down the power grid?

… geopolitical rivalry was not an aberration of the ideologically-divided past but rather a natural order of things. Strong players have great appetites and will use any means to impose their will on weaker ones. Unfair, but such is life.

… [we need a] new multilateral deterrence arrangement that would include additional players, first and foremost China, and somehow incorporate non-nuclear things like cyber weapons into the calculation.

The aim of the strategic policy of all responsible nuclear powers should not be doing away or even reducing their nuclear weapons, but strengthening mutual deterrence, and that is a completely different philosophy…

[ditch] the old idea of nuclear stability—achieved through the reduction and capping of the two largest superpowers’ arsenals. Instead, any new treaties should focus on transparency—as well as developing protocols to wind down a nuclear conflict once it does start…

The result may be somewhat of a Mexican standoff, but the alternative is far more dangerous… An armed conflict involving nuclear-capable powers has the potential to spiral out of control, with sides trading increasingly serious blows and hoping the other one will chicken out… [we must consider] de-escalation as the paramount goal whenever a clash brews and treat any potential war between them as a doomsday in the making.[2]

It is notable that neither article reviewed here mentions the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) or their Treaty on the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons, despite their Nobel Peace Prize and the wide media coverage they have received. ICAN’s neglect and irrelevance is partially deserved because the campaign has generally had little to say about the inequality of power in international relations, new technologies, and new threats of war. In some ways, the discourse of nuclear disarmament is like the discourse of gun control. The guns themselves don’t kill people. Humans have the finger on the trigger, and since nuclear and hypersonic weapons are not going to disappear any time soon, the first proximate step should be to address the systemic dysfunction in international relations in order to reduce the chances of war starting or of wars escalating out of control. Nuclear disarmament is a worthy goal, but it may have to wait until the nuclear powers learn to co-exist and stop referring to each other as “adversaries.” (Putin, even though he is criticized at home for being soft, has always insisted on referring to his American counterparts as “partners,” regardless of how much they demonize him.)

The New World Order declared thirty years ago by an American president led to wars of humanitarian intervention that worsened tenfold the problems they were meant to resolve, when indeed the problems weren’t based on pretexts to begin with. It led to the costly war on terror. It produced economic inequality and used economic warfare to isolate disfavored nations. It antagonized China and Russia as the US pulled out of disarmament treaties and forced its declared “rival” and “adversarial” nations to compete in the new arms race. In order to avoid being sidelined as merely another part of the virtuous controlled opposition, or perhaps even becoming an unwitting enabler of American hegemony and conventional weapons supremacy, the nuclear disarmament campaign needs to become a broad anti-war and anti-imperialist movement.


[1]. R. Jeffrey Smith, “Speed Kills: How hypersonic missiles—which travel at more than 15 times the speed of sound—are touching off a new global arms race that threatens to change the nature of warfare,” The Center for Public Integrity, June 19, 2019.

[2].  “World Sleepwalking into Total Nuclear War as Callous Elites Fear No Bloodshed—Russian Scholar.” RT International. September 16, 2019.