Foreign Affairs

Hypersonics: The Most Important Issue in US-Russia Relations

Advances in hypersonic technologies have revolutionized conventional warfare. Flying at 20 times the speed of sound, hypersonic missiles can evade radar detection, thereby keeping their targets a secret until minutes before impact. The missles’ combination of speed and maneuverability sets them apart from current ballistic and cruise missile technology, a common focus of arms control treaties. In an era of great power and regional rivalries, such qualities also make their proliferation a grave threat to international security and strategic stability. Russia and China have already developed hypersonic missiles (although experts dispute whether they are operational), and the Pentagon, not to be outdone, has requested $3.2 billion for hypersonic-related research. It is therefore of immediate importance that all three great powers collaborate to establish rules limiting their proliferation.

By striking with little to no warning, hypersonic missiles rob target countries of valuable time to make an informed decision about how to respond. They also increase fears of a “splendid” first strike, an attack designed to eliminate the target country’s second-strike capabilities. To preserve their second-strike capabilities, target countries could adopt a policy of “launch on-warning”. However, this increases the risk of an accidental war, especially among regional rivals. Other options, such as the dispersal of second-strike capabilities, increase the risk of capture by subnational groups such as terrorists, particularly in failed or fragile states.

Because hypersonic weapons are potentially destabilizing, their proliferation presents a serious threat to global security. Currently, only China, the United States, and Russia possess hypersonic capabilities. Therefore, a well-enforced export control regime among the world’s great powers should suffice to prevent the spread of hypersonic technologies. All three countries have an interest in managing regional rivalries and denying terrorists access to destructive weapons, so a trilateral agreement controlling the export of sensitive hypersonic technologies is in each party’s best interests. 

The United States and Russia already have a long history of cooperating on nonproliferation. For example, both countries are members of the MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime), the existing multilateral framework for limiting the proliferation of missiles and missile technology. Although the MTCR does not address hypersonic missiles and their underlying technologies, it provides the framework for a multilateral export control regime to sharply limit their spread. By working with China to deny exports of complete missile delivery systems and to identify hypersonic technologies with dual-use concerns, Russia and the U.S. can leverage an existing agreement to address a new threat.

However, a multilateral export control regime would require the participation of all three great powers in order to be effective. Russia and the United States, who both have decades of experience leading nonproliferation efforts, disproportionately bear the burden of proposing a system of controls. Given the grave risk to international security that hypersonic proliferation entails and the expertise that both countries possess, developing an export control system for hypersonic weapons and their underlying technologies is one of the most important issues in U.S.-Russia bilateral relations.

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