Hypersonic Weapons as a Factor of Non-Nuclear Deterrence

PIR Center Internship Program graduate
September 10, 2020

Russian military doctrine, published in 2014, introduced the new notion of “system of non-nuclear deterrence”, which supposes political and military measures to prevent aggression against the Russian Federation from non-nuclear forces1. According to the document “Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence”, which was signed by the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin on June 2nd, 2020, high-precision non-nuclear and hypersonic weapons are among major military hazards2. Since the beginning of 2020, the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin stated more than once that Russian hypersonic weapons make missile defense systems useless3. Following those documents and interviews, hypersonic weapons are becoming exactly the major factor of non-nuclear deterrence, at least for Russia.

But, are hypersonic weapons capable of becoming the basis of non-nuclear deterrence? In the nearest past researchers have started to use the notion of “Hyperhype” (Гиперхайп. – in Russian), some of them even write about hypersonic deterrence. For the understanding of possibility to maintain non-nuclear hypersonic deterrence, it is crucial to mention what is the deterrence itself.  Aleksey Arbatov defines “deterrence” as “the prevention of any rival’s actions with the threat of use of nuclear weapons”4. The system of nuclear deterrence were the most efficient in the years of Cold War, especially after the Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Defense Systems has been signed, giving USA and Russia the opportunity to maintain the high level of mutual vulnerability to nuclear weapons and decrease the possibility of the first strike with nuclear weapons by either of the party. In some way, hypersonic weapons might create the same effect on the nuclear umbrella of the United States. But, at this time only Russia have deployed and maintains hypersonic weapon on test military overwatch; the United States and China despite their active developments in the sphere of hypersonic weapons are still in the catch-up position. Thus, effective hypersonic deterrence is impossible in its traditional understanding due to the absence of “equally powerful” rival, at least for now. The more critical factor for the non-nuclear deterrence is the absolute refusal from nuclear weapons, which seems to be the extremely utopic idea.

The notion of an “unacceptable damage” is often associated with the deterrence, but the understanding of the unacceptable damage is blurry and is mostly based on the states’ perception. During 1960s the U.S. Defense Minister Robert McNamara defined the unacceptable damage as damage, which inflicts destruction of 60-70% of state’s industrial sector and the elimination of 25-30% of state’s population5, but dealing that amount of damage doesn’t guarantee capitulation of the rival state. The unacceptable damage should be understood as the dealing the amount of damage to rival state’s commanding posts and military forces, industrial sector and economy, which will totally paralyze the enemy state and its forces and will make the enemy state to capitulate due to the inability to continue hostilities. Research papers represent, that hypersonic missiles obtain very high speed and huge amount of kinetic energy, that they are capable to deal significant damage even not carrying conventional or nuclear warheads6 7. But there is the question: Is that amount of energy enough to deal the expected amount of “unacceptable damage” to maintain the effective level of deterrence? Moreover, the development of hypersonic missiles costs huge amount of money, and there’s no assurances that states will be able to fund the production of enough hypersonic missiles to establish and maintain the credible level of non-nuclear deterrence. Quite oppositely, «Strategic non-nuclear weapons are expected to supplement nuclear deterrence establishing “strategic bloc” of local non-nuclear threats, capable to maintain the impossibility of shift from the level of “local wars and military conflicts” to the nuclear level”8.

One more factor not favoring non-nuclear hypersonic deterrence is the issue of arms control. Limited number of states possessing nuclear weapons and the other part of non-nuclear community, which have taken obligations under the NPT treaty, and the nuclear deterrence itself have been maintaining peace without major global conflicts for eight decades already. Mechanisms of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons help to maintain strategic stability and strategic equality. In 2019 according to the statement of Vladimir Putin, he offered to sell Russian hypersonic missiles to the United States to strengthen the “strategic equality”9. Now these kinds of weapons are in the active stage of development in the United States, Russia and China; also, there’s information, which reveals that India and Pakistan develop and test hypersonic weapons. Taking into account that at the present time global mechanisms of conventional arms control don’t exist, the further proliferation of hypersonic technologies will doom the concept of “hypersonic deterrence” to its existence.

Summarizing everything stated above, I don’t think, that hypersonic weapons can become something “new” for the concept of non-nuclear deterrence on the global level. It is more expected that use of hypersonic nuclear and non-nuclear missiles will become the strengthening factor for the contemporary system of strategic stability by opposing missile defense systems (at least in the nearest future, because Russia has already stated, that she will be ready to counter any hypersonic threat10). But on the regional level hypersonic weapons might become the excellent defensive and offensive weapon due to its invincibility to missile defense systems, and thus may become the factor of non-nuclear deterrence due to its high speed and a little time left for an enemy for decision-making and response. At the same time, these missile complexes might become a number one objective for enemy’s attack in order to even the odds during the hostilities.

1) Военная доктрина Российской Федерации (утв. указом Президента РФ 25.12.2014 № 815) // Администрация Президента России, официальный сайт. [Электронный ресурс] URL: http://kremlin.ru/acts/bank/30593 (дата обращения 03.09.2020).

2) Основы государственной политики Российской Федерации в области ядерного сдерживания (утв. Указом Президента РФ 02.06.2020 № 355) // Администрация Президента России, официальный сайт. [Электронный ресурс] URL: http://www.kremlin.ru/acts/bank/45562 (дата обращения 03.09.2020).

3) Андрей Аркадьев, Путин: гиперзвуковое оружие РФ сделало бессмысленными попытки сдерживания России // Форум Армия-2020. [Электронный ресурс] URL: https://tvzvezda.ru/news/forces/content/20202131645-SIjsu.html (дата обращения 03.09.2020).

4) Арбатов, А.Г., Ядерное сдерживание и нераспространение., Стенограмма лекции А.Г. Арбатова. // Центр по изучению проблем контроля над вооружениями, энергетики и экологии. [Электронный ресурс] URL: https://www.armscontrol.ru/course/lectures03b/aga030917.htm (дата обращения 03.09.2020).

5) Савельев, А.Н., Ядерное нераспространение: краткая энциклопедия. // ПИР-Центр. [Электронный ресурс] URL: https://pircenter.org/tutorials/8-nuclear-nonproliferation (дата обращения 08.09.2020).

6) Richard H. Speier, George Nacouzi, Carrie A. Lee, Richard M. Moore, Hypersonic Missile Nonproliferation: Hindering the Spread of a New Class of Weapons // RAND Corporation.

7) Kyle Yohoe, An Offensive Leap: An Analogy of Hypersonic Weapons to Early ICBMs // Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

8) Александр Ермаков, Дмитрий Стефанович, Возможно ли неядерное сдерживание? // РСМД., [Электронный ресурс] URL: https://russiancouncil.ru/analytics-and-comments/analytics/vozmozhno-li-neyadernoe-sderzhivanie/ (дата обращения 08.09.2020).

9) Александр Гольц, Зачем Путин предложил Трампу купить российские ракеты? // Открытые медиа., Электронный ресурс] URL: https://openmedia.io/news/zachem-putin-predlozhil-trampu-kupit-rossijskie-rakety/ (дата обращения 08.09.2020).

10) Виктория Полякова, Путин пообещал «приятно удивить» страны с гиперзвуковым оружием. // РБК. [Электронный ресурс] URL: https://www.rbc.ru/politics/14/06/2020/5ee5fb369a7947082b68272c (дата обращения 03.09.2020).