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In recent years, there has been an increasing focus on hypersonic missiles. Notably, the US, China and Russia are all pursuing hypersonic missile technology that can evade enemy air defences and strike well-protected targets. At the same time, there are concerns about the effectiveness of such missiles after Ukraine said it had shot down a barrage of Russia’s Kinzhal missiles.
While the Russian description of the Kinzhal as a hypersonic missile has been criticised as misleading, Sino-US rivalry has brought such weapons into the spotlight. And the pursuit of hypersonic weaponry highlights an urgent need for a global non-proliferation framework.

It is worth noting that the term “hypersonic” is often used misleadingly to imply a more advanced level of technology than is actually present in a weapon. Hypersonic speed is defined as five times the speed of sound – Mach 5 – or faster. But this is an inadequate description of hypersonic missiles, as ballistic missiles can also achieve hypersonic speeds on re-entry but have a predictable flight path.

True hypersonic missiles, however, are weapons that can manoeuvre and maintain these incredible speeds.

Russia’s Kinzhal missiles do not fall into either category. While the missiles do reach speeds above Mach 5, they lack manoeuvrability. Experts have described the Kinzhal as a modified ballistic missile, and do not consider it a true hypersonic missile.

Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko shows a Kh-47 Kinzhal Russian missile warhead, shot down by Ukraine’s air defences, at the Scientific Research Institute in Kyiv, Ukraine, on May 12. Photo: Reuters

No anti-missile system can effectively intercept hypersonic missiles in their terminal phase, that is, when they are hurtling from the atmosphere towards their target, given their extreme manoeuvrability at hypersonic speed. It is this advantage which makes them attractive to countries like the United States, China and Russia.

For China, the primary focus has been on hypersonic glide vehicles with various ranges that provide global reach when mounted on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Interestingly, US defence officials have acknowledged China’s superiority in hypersonic missile weaponry.
China is thought to conduct missile tests on a routine basis. It has successfully tested the DF-27 hypersonic ballistic missile – an ICMB armed with a hypersonic glide vehicle. This can reach key US and allied territories. In July 2021, China also tested its DF-41 hypersonic ballistic missile, which has a range of 12,000-15,000km. It circled the world before hitting its target, a test that reportedly raised concerns among US officials.

In terms of operations, China’s DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle entered service in 2020 after multiple tests since 2014 and is considered the country’s most mature hypersonic missile. China has also operationalised its medium-range DF-17 ballistic missile, which the DF-ZF vehicle can be mounted on. The DF-17 is crucial in China’s strategy to counter perceived threats in the East and South China seas.

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Until recently, the US had been reluctant to invest in hypersonic weapons. But it has intensified its efforts to develop and acquire such missiles in response to the growing interest of Russia and China. To keep up, the Pentagon has allocated US$4.7 billion in its current budget to research and development of hypersonic weapons.
But the new funds will not alter the balance, given that the United States has joined the race late. The US has faced failures in testing, of which the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, or ARRW, was a notable example. Senior US officials and scholars acknowledge that Washington is behind in the hypersonic race. Former vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Hyten said: “My concern about the lack of progress on hypersonics is only increasing.”

The growing pursuit of hypersonic missiles presents a risk of escalation as a new arms race emerges. These missiles potentially alter the strategic balance. For instance, they require only a very short flight time to reach their target, which leaves little time for adversaries to decide how to respond, and this leads to an increased risk of miscalculation.

This technology is likely to mature in about a decade – which suggests there is not that much time to prevent the proliferation of hypersonic missiles. There is little doubt that the US, China and Russia will not give up development, especially after their massive investments.

But the proliferation of such weapons beyond these three nations will aggravate instabilities in volatile regions, including across South Asia. Countries such as IranIndia and North Korea already have an interest in hypersonic missiles.
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Thus, efforts towards hypersonic missile non-proliferation are essential. The weapons technology and knowledge may be restricted to specific states now but it will eventually become difficult to limit its diffusion. History shows that major powers tend to become concerned enough to begin curbing destructive military technologies only after their proliferation.

The leading countries in the emerging hypersonic missile race must learn from the past and agree to establish mechanisms to limit proliferation. They can begin by exercising unilateral restraint to prevent the spread of hypersonic missile technology. And, considering the pace at which governments typically operate, it would be prudent to kick-start discussions about a non-proliferation framework – before it’s too late.

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