In the new supersonic arms race, nuclear annihilation happens in mere seconds


Image Credit: The Wall Street Journal

  Not since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, those infamous 13 days in October when the entire world was on edge wondering whether or not nuclear war was inevitable, has the world faced such a serious nuclear threat. On May 27th, 2021, Reuters News service reported that President Biden has shifted funding from maintaining and upgrading conventional weapons to developing programs to modernize the U.S. arsenal. Most significant is the funding being put into countering the threats of Russia’s and China’s development of supersonic or hypersonic intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of delivering thermonuclear payloads onto U.S. soil.

   One condition of the supersonic nuclear missile in a nuclear war is not new for those present during the missile crisis in ’62 to fathom, only the distance has changed: the time lapse for ICBMs launched from inside the Russia, and not 90 miles off the coast of Florida in Soviet-friendly Cuba. Almost 60 years has passed since the Cuban missile crisis, when the former Soviet Union placed both its medium and intermediate-range missiles in Cuba, has the United States had to mentally adjust to a launch-impact warning of a minute and a half until potential nuclear destruction. According to scientists, these new supersonic missiles can travel at speeds of five times the speed of sound, reaching speeds of over 3,800 miles per hour. This means that a missile launched from Russia’s Krasnoyarsk ICBM base, could reach the United States in 95 seconds.

   In his July 2019 article “An ‘Arms Race In Speed’: Hypersonic Weapons and the Changing Calculus of Battle” published in the Arms Control Association newsletter, writer Michael T. Klare compares the supersonic missiles to the German Blitzkrieg (“lightning war” in German) and the U.S. shock and awe warfare used in the Gulf Wars. His most crucial points are the importance of speed in war, but also the need to allow time for decision-makers to verify the launch and to counter such launches of supersonic missiles. Time is no longer a factor in nuclear warfare – there just is not any to spare.

   Even if these supersonic missiles do not carry nuclear warheads, the speed at which they can destroy crucial targets in the U.S. such as air-defense bases, missile batteries, and command-control facilities, President Biden has no choice but to counter this development of and the addition of supersonic missiles to Russia’s and to China’s military arsenals. The U.S., however, has focused primarily on supersonic missiles that would carry conventional weapons, but Russia has focused on the technology of supersonic missiles that could carry either nuclear or conventional warheads.

   When President Barack Obama announced the “pivot in U.S. policy in the Pacific,” the U.S. military shifted focus to deterring China’s deployment of intermediate-range ballistic missiles, to protect U.S. “high-value” targets, such as warships and missile batteries near Taiwan or elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific theater. With China’s recent achievements in space, including its landing on Mars, President Biden’s military advisors have concluded that China’s focus has been on the development of both hypersonic glide vehicles and hypersonic cruise missiles for use in regional offensive military actions. Both of which pose a clear and present danger to the U.S. and its allies. Again, President Biden has no choice.

   In a collaborative New York Times Magazine article “Hypersonic Missiles Are Unstoppable and They’re Starting a New Global Arms Race,” Managing Editor for National Security at the Center For Public Integrity, T. Jeffrey Smith emphasizes that an unprecedented weapon has been unleashed that can strike any target anywhere in minutes, traveling more than fifteen times the speed of sound, long before the sonic boom or “other meaningful warning.” The warning comes not recently but from three years ago, and not concluded by Smith, but from Pentagon’s Under-Secretary, Michael D. Griffin, appointed by Secretary of Defense General James Mattis. According to Griffin and Mattis, “no surefire defenses” exist to the hypersonic missile – they are “effective, precise and unstoppable.”

   In his article, Smith offers little optimism. “Development…is moving so quickly…that it threatens to outpace any real discussion about the potential [dangers]…including…efforts to avoid accident conflict, especially during crises.” As flawed as the START treaty (Stretegic Arms Reduction Treaty) with Russia is, the agreement is set to expire this year. With its expiration, no other international nuclear weapons agreements are in place. The emphasis is on not only the speed of these new nuclear-delivery weapons, but also on how fast they can be developed. “The rush to possess weapons of incredible speed and maneuverability has pushed the United States into a new arms race with Russia and China,” Smith writes. Even if the START treaty was not to expire, it should be rewritten or even discarded and replaced with a treaty that addresses this new nuclear threat – the renewal of the Cold War.

   With the lack of deterrence, President Biden has no choice…for now. Senator Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), Co-chair of the Armed Services Committee and Senator Reed (D-Rhode Island) agree that the U.S. can “question or talk with Russia about the risks they [hypersonic weapons] create, but the priority in Washington right now is to get our versions built.” Once adversaries build such horrific weapons, the U.S. has no choice, except to match the development of such weapons, just as the Soviet Union did in developing its own atomic bomb.

   The U.S. and the Soviet Union narrowly escaped the Cuban Missile Crisis 59 years ago. With the advent of hypersonic glide and cruise missile vehicles, even building a bomb shelter offers no survival option. The questions emerging are fundamental: Will there be another Cuban Missile Crisis? And, will the world escape obliteration again? In Tom Clancy’s novel The Sum Of All Fears, the character Jack Ryan, an analyst for the CIA and future fictional U.S. President asks an even more fundamental question – “Why did we build these [nuclear] weapons in the first place?”