On Thursday, October 21st, the United States conducted a series of tests related to its hypersonic weapons program. The U.S. Navy and Army tested components prototypes that will influence the development of new weapons, all three of which were deemed successful. However, some reports indicate that a test of the Pentagon’s hypersonic glide vehicles failed due to a booster rocket malfunction. These tests, a sign of a new arms race, come after successful Chinese and Russian tests of their hypersonic technology.
Hypersonic weapons testing has been underway throughout the world in recent months. Russia has claimed multiple successful tests, most recently of a submarine-launched hypersonic missile. China was also reported to have tested their hypersonic glide vehicle last week, although Beijing denied these claims. These continued tests have raised the hackles of American politicians. “Hypersonic weapons are strategic game-changers with the dangerous potential to fundamentally undermine strategic stability as we know it,” Senator Angus King of Maine said on Monday, adding that “the U.S. cannot lag in this development or allow for blind spots as we monitor the progress of our competitors.” When reporters on Wednesday asked President Biden whether he was concerned about Chinese hypersonic missiles, they received a simple answer: “Yes.”
In many ways, President Biden and other world leaders are right to fear hypersonic weapons. One of the major features of this new technology is its ability to bypass modern missile defence systems, obsoleting decades of development and upending military strategy. This is likely a major contributor to their continued development. Likewise, the doctrine of mutually-assured destruction (MAD) may also be influencing policymakers. MAD has always relied on all sides in a nuclear conflict possessing the ability to strike their opponents. If only one nation possessed hypersonic weapons, then MAD could be understood to no longer apply, making the use of said weapons feasible. A nation that possessed hypersonic nuclear weapons, with its missile defence system, would be the world’s dominant military power. From a geopolitical standpoint, then, participating in the new arms race is the sensible choice.
From a moral standpoint, however, it remains unconscionable to continue developing these weapons. The current arsenals of nuclear nations are enough to make our planet uninhabitable, even with modern defences – the pure quantity of weapons ensures this. Furthermore, the risk of ‘getting it wrong’ with nuclear weapons is so much greater. Throughout the Cold War, the world came close to nuclear destruction on too many occasions. In a world of hypersonic weapons, the risk of total nuclear annihilation can only be higher. Instead of focusing on arms development, these nations could put the funds towards globally-beneficial endeavours – climate change mitigation, famine relief, refugee assistance. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower put it best in 1953’s ‘Chance for Peace’ speech:
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children… This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
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