The West is testing hypersonic weapons – this should worry the world

A new and much scarier arms race with China and Russia may have already begun

The US launches a hypersonic glide body, or warhead, from the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii, in 2020. AP
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The announcement that the UK will join the US and Australia in developing hypersonic missiles could herald the start of an arms race that might prove to be infinitely more dangerous than the Cold War rivalry between the world's major powers to develop nuclear weapons.

Hypersonic missiles, which can travel more than five times the speed of sound, are a relatively new weapon that have caused consternation in global security circles, given their ability to deliver nuclear warheads between continents in a matter of minutes.

Concerns about the threat these missiles could pose to global security have increased since Washington confirmed last year that China tested a hypersonic weapon. Russia's claim that it fired its Kinzhal hypersonic weapon in Ukraine a fortnight ago has only added to fears about the impact such weaponry could have on modern warfare.

It is precisely these concerns that have prompted the UK to join hands with the US and Australia, who are already partnered in an initiative called the Southern Cross Integrated Flight Research Experiment – or "SCIFiRE".

On its own, the US is in the process of developing hypersonic missiles that can strike targets at a range of about 2,775 kilometres, and will reportedly be capable of travelling up to eight times the speed of sound. By contrast, the UK and Australia are in the early stages of developing the technology.

Following last year's signing of the landmark "Aukus" security pact between the US, UK and Australia, the three countries have now agreed to expand the scope of their co-operation to include developing their own high-speed weapons such as hypersonics and counter-hypersonics, as well as building electronic warfare capabilities.

We have to make sure that we are right at the top of our game
Barnaby Joyce, Australian Deputy Prime Minister

After talks this week between their respective leaders, the trio agreed to further broaden the terms of Aukus, which was originally aimed at developing a new generation of nuclear submarines for Australia designed to counter what they view to be China's growing threat to security in the Asia-Pacific region. The pact also includes working together on AI and quantum technologies and protecting vital undersea cables.

The trio have reiterated their "unwavering commitment" to an international system that also "respects human rights". In a joint statement, they said: "We reaffirmed our commitment to Aukus and to a free and open Indo-Pacific." Announcing the weapons development plan, UK National Security Adviser Stephen Lovegrove said that, following the Ukraine conflict, it is "more important now than ever" that allies work together to defend democracy and freedom around the globe.

Because the development of hypersonic weapons in the West is still at a nascent stage, one of the more immediate challenges is to figure out how to prevent missiles launched by adversaries from hitting their targets. These sophisticated weapons have the ability to use the air in flight so that they cannot be intercepted by any of the missile defence capabilities currently available in the West.

Australia is particularly concerned about the threat such weapons could pose to its national security. As Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce explained this week, a hypersonic missile fitted with a nuclear warhead would potentially be able to strike his country within minutes of being launched from China, thereby giving Canberra precious little time to react.

With hypersonic weapons creating, as Mr Joyce put it, an "existential threat" to Australia, he warned that it is vital for his country to build up its defences as quickly as possible. "They can change path, which makes them very hard to detect and even harder to hit," he told Sky News. "This gives an existential threat to Australia. [In] probably about 14 minutes after they [are] launched, they would be able to reach here ... so we have to make sure that we are right at the top of our game."

Mr Joyce said Australia needs to be part of the US's hypersonic missile development programme, which also seeks to develop new technologies capable of intercepting the weapons. "This shows the strength of Aukus and also gives big clear flashing lights that we have to become as strong as possible, as quickly as possible," he said.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has already tasked the Pentagon with the challenge of expediting hypersonic weapons systems, as America races to keep up with China and Russia.

This week's announcement has attracted criticism from Beijing, which warned that the move could provoke a new arms race. When asked about the deal, China's UN ambassador Zhang Jun said: "Anyone who does not want to see the Ukrainian crisis should refrain from doing things which may lead the other parts of the world into a crisis like this. As one Chinese saying goes, 'if you do not like it, do not impose it against the others'."

Nevertheless, with the likes of China and Russia already advanced in their efforts to develop sophisticated hypersonic missile technology, it is only a matter of time before the West has the ability to deploy similar capabilities – a development that will only serve to make the world an even more dangerous place.

Published: April 07, 2022, 2:00 PM