With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and growing tensions between the US and China, the world’s two superpowers, it is clear we are in the midst of one of the most seismic geopolitical crises of our time. Recent events have seen global peace deteriorate for the 11th time in the last 14 years and on top of that, the world faces other challenges such as the climate crisis and a potential global financial crisis. One area that captures this geopolitical tension is the increased proliferation of hypersonic missile systems.
What are hypersonic missiles?
Hypersonic missiles are generally categorised as missiles that travel at least fives times faster than the speed of sound. While research into the development of these weapons began as early as the 1930s, there has been a considerable acceleration in the technological advancement of these weapons over the last 20 years. The speed of these missiles and their ability to travel along a complex trajectory means they are extremely difficult to intercept, and this is what makes them so dangerous.
Recent defence spending patterns appear to show that a new arms race is developing over this technology. The testing of a hypersonic missile by China last year set off alarm bells in Washington. Fears were exacerbated in recent weeks when China unveiled an air-launched hypersonic missile systems, having previously only had the capability to launch these weapons from its warships.
Meanwhile, a Russian MiG-31 aircraft armed with a hypersonic missile was recently spotted carrying out training exercises in Belarus, and there is mounting evidence that these weapons have already been used in Ukraine.
This has led to an acceleration in the development of these weapons by a number of the world’s major powers, who have shown a strong desire to add them to their arsenal. At present China’s hypersonic capability outmatches that of the US and its allies. The AUKUS partners – Australia, the US and the UK have responded by arranging to develop advanced hypersonic and counter-hypersonic weapons, and they have invited partners such as Japan to do the same.
The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs notes the challenges that the development of these weapons pose to international peace and security. Deteriorations in relations, as well as increases to strategic and military competition, have seen the world’s major powers pull out of a number of arms control treaties; while those that remain in place have thus far failed to prevent this build-up. New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), one of the last remaining arms control treaties between the US and Russia, was suspended in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. New START is set to expire in 2026, while significant arms control deals between China and the US are almost non-existent.
This lack of checks and balances has exacerbated the current arms race, and led to a security dilemma that has seen traditionally peaceful countries dragged into the dispute. In international relations theory, the security dilemma is the idea that as states develop technology and weapons to boost their own security, rival states perceive this as a threat and are likely to respond by building up their own security capabilities. Due to their ability to hit targets with such speed and so little warning, hypersonic missiles are generally considered to be first strike weapons, and thus are particularly likely to trigger a security dilemma. This appears to have motivated the rapid development of these technologies by a number of states.
The potential involvement of Japan could be considered particularly worrisome, with Japan having a long history as a pivotal actor in promoting peace in the contested Asia-Pacific region. Japan ranked 10th on the Global Peace Index (GPI) in 2022, and has consistently ranked among the most peaceful countries in the world since the founding of the GPI. Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, created after the devastation of the Second World War, prevented the country from building up an aggressive military. However, in response to perceived threats from China’s rise and an unstable North Korea, Japan appears to be shifting away from its anti-militaristic sentiment and developing considerable first strike capabilities.
According to IEP’s 2022 Global Peace Index (GPI) report, the economic impact of violence in 2021 was $16.5 trillion, nearly 11% of global GDP. This represented an increase of $1.8 trillion from the previous year, and was the second year running that this figure has risen. This trend appears likely to continue due to tensions surrounding Taiwan, security concerns arising as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific region among the myriad of issues that have triggered a significant military build-up from the world’s most powerful nations.
As is often the case with any arms race, the pursuit of weapon superiority requires a large amount of military spending. The Pentagon’s 2023 budget for hypersonic research is $4.7 billion, an increase of $900 million from the previous year. This capital could play a vital role in addressing some of the critical issues facing the world, however with tensions rising, it is likely that this spending will only increase.
It is clear that multilateral and bilateral arrangements have thus far failed to limit the threat that hypersonic missiles pose. Perhaps most worryingly is the narrative around the potential role these weapons could play if a crisis were to break out in the Taiwan Strait.
Hypersonic missiles are not the cause of rising geopolitical tensions, however they are a symptom. While there are significant challenges posed by these weapons, they also present a unique opportunity. As with any new weapons technology, there are prospects for new regulatory treaties and multilateral engagements. The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs suggests that these agreements could promote restrictions on development and deployment. Furthermore, new avenues for dialogue could boost engagement and reduce strategic tensions.
President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden’s recent meeting in Indonesia marked their first face-to-face meeting, and lowering tensions between their countries was high on the agenda. The Pandora’s Box of hypersonic missiles cannot be closed, but the international community can use their development as an opportunity to work together and build a framework that promotes dialogue and supports peace.