A new class of high-tech weapons is under development among the world's major powers, and some observers worry the exact qualities that make them desirable could make wars more likely—particularly nuclear wars. The rapid development of so-called hypersonic weapons give decision makers little time to analyze an incoming attack, possibly making accidental warfare more likely.
A new by the Rand Corp warns that hypersonic missiles, under development by the United States, Russia, and China and designed to circumvent existing ballistic missile and air defense systems through their unique flight profile, could prompt governments worldwide to set their strategic (read: nuclear) forces on a "hair-trigger state of readiness."
Hypersonic weapons are typically missile-like weapons carried by a high altitude-capable aircraft and released or boosted by a ballistic missile to high altitude. Once released, hypersonics use or other exotic propulsion systems to attain speeds of Mach 5 or faster. Hypersonic weapons travel below the engagement envelope of most ballistic missile defense systems but fly too fast for traditional air defense systems to intercept.
The extremely high speeds hypersonic weapons travel at reduce an adversary's ability to react to them. Suppose two nuclear-armed countries—let's call them India and Pakistan—have hypersonic weapons and nuclear weapons. Both weapons are located in each country's capital. A hypersonic missile launched from Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, will reach the Indian capital of New Delhi in just over six minutes.
Under this scenario, India has just six minutes to decide whether the attack is real, what to do about it, and to do something before the missiles hit. That's virtually no time at all. India might well choose to launch its own weapons as soon as it detects an incoming attack to prevent them from being destroyed on the ground. But what if the attack is the result of an early warning system malfunction, or was launched by accident? By the time India figures that out, the retaliatory strike —and perhaps a nuke—is already underway. The United States, China, and Russia could all have similar problems with one another.
The Rand Corp notes that although the hypersonic genie is already out of the bottle, it's not too late for three main powers involved in hypersonic research to agree on nonproliferation rules to prevent the spread of these weapons to smaller states. The United States, China, and Russia could all agree on controls to combat the spread of hypersonic weapons and technology.
Read the Rand report .