Without arms control, hypersonic weapons will magnify already growing nuclear dangers

In 2018 the U.S. Congress enacted a law requiring the USA to develop an American “hypersonic weapon” to be operational by 2022 and the Trump administration budgeted accordingly. The United States, Russia and China are all engaged in the development of these terrifying new missiles, with some reports alleging that Russia and China currently have a head start.

David Lague, in a 26 April Reuters report, describes the weapon’s key features:

The combination of speed, maneuverability and altitude of these missiles makes them difficult to track and intercept. They travel at speeds of more than five times the speed of sound or about 6,200 kilometers (3,853 miles) per hour. Some will travel as fast as 25,000 kilometers per hour, according to U.S. and other Western weapons researchers. That’s about 25 times as fast as modern passenger jets.

In a feature article in the New York Times magazine, R. Jeffrey Smith examines the incredibly destabilizing implications of hypersonic weapons, including:

  • the sheer speed of their development threatens to outpace meaningful discussion about potential perils, including lack of time to avoid accidental conflict, especially in crises;
  • there are currently no international agreements or even talks on how or when hypersonic missiles can be used; and
  • the rush to possess such weapons has pushed the U.S. into a new arms race with Russia and China with the potential to “upend” existing norms of nuclear deterrence.

He explains:

The arrival of such fast weaponry will dangerously compress the time during which military officials and their political leaders — in any country — can figure out the nature of an attack and make reasoned decisions about the wisdom and scope of defensive steps or retaliation. And the threat that hypersonics pose to retaliatory weapons creates what scholars call “use it or lose it” pressures on countries to strike first during a crisis.

Most worrying of all is the fear that hypersonic missiles could:

upend the grim psychology of Mutual Assured Destruction, the bedrock military doctrine of the nuclear age that argued globe-altering wars would be deterred if the potential combatants always felt certain of their opponents’ devastating response.

It need not have come to this. R. Jeffrey Smith recalls that three years ago a New York-based non-governmental organization, the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy (LNCP), called on President Obama to head off a “hypersonic competition” and its anticipated drain on future federal budgets by exploring a joint moratorium with China and Russia on testing. Tragically, the proposals were never pursued by the administration.

In the view of two Canadian disarmament titans, Doug Roche and Ernie Regehr, immediate steps are now necessary:

  • keep nuclear warheads off hypersonics;
  • remove all nuclear systems from high-alert status to prevent false alarms from triggering nuclear catastrophe;
  • commence negotiations to control hypersonic weapons before the emerging hypersonic arms race widens even further.

Beyond control of these specific weapons systems, there is an urgent need to begin to “reconstruct a reliable nuclear arms control regime” to finally give effect to the legal obligation enshrined in the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty to pursue and complete comprehensive negotiations for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Their full commentary entitled How to build an architecture of peace, when destruction can rain down in mere minutes, which originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on 7 July, can also be accessed in pdf format here.

Whither Canada

At the third preparatory meeting for the 2020 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) in New York in early May, Canada’s representative evoked stirring words from the 1955 Russell-Einstein Manifesto, oft-quoted in the darkest days of the Cold War:

We have to learn to think in a new way. We have to learn to ask ourselves, not what steps can be taken to give military victory to whatever group we prefer, for there no longer are such steps; the question we have to ask ourselves is: what steps can be taken to prevent a military contest of which the issue must be disastrous to all parties?

Alas, in an all-too-familiar pattern for the Justin Trudeau government, this soaring rhetoric was not followed by any discernible new thinking on Canada’s part. Instead, our diplomatic representative parroted tired NATO rhetoric blaming Russia for the arms control impasse when it is clear there is more than enough blame on all sides.

We call on Canada to urgently champion multilateral discussions on how to control hypersonic weapons while there is still time to do so.

Photo credit: Ghazwan Butrous

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