Hypersonic missiles present new challenges in nuclear deterrence, weapons regulation

By Joe Noser

When President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, met last week in San Francisco, the two leaders had lots to discuss: restoration of military communications, fentanyl controls, and climate change, to name a few.[1]

One issue that likely will not be on the table, however, is coming to a mutual understanding about regulating both nations’ hypersonic weapons programs.

“Hypersonic” flight is not a novel concept. When Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to journey into outer space on April 12th, 1961, he did so in a spacecraft that reached hypersonic speeds[2], flying within the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds well above Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound).[3] But while “hypersonic” may not be new, advances in technology have made hypersonic weapons programs more viable, creating another emerging front in “near-peer” competition between the U.S. and China­. This front has substantial implications for nuclear deterrence as we know it.


What are hypersonic weapons

Hypersonic weapons have two primary delivery systems: hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) and hypersonic cruise missiles (HCMs).[4] An HCM works much in the same way a cruise missile works today–it flies in the lower atmosphere in a predictable flight path before reaching its target.[5] The difference lies in the speed with which it flies.[6] Both cruise missiles and HCMs are different from intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which fly out of the atmosphere and into space on a predictable flight path before heading back down to earth and reaching their targets.[7]

HGVs, on the other hand, produce substantially more challenges. Flying at hypersonic speeds, HGVs move in such a way that makes it possible for them to evade and conceal their targets from currently-operational missile defense systems until moments before impact.[8] Thus, potential targets have little time to prepare or respond to HGVs.[9]

Nuclear-armed HGVs could be substantially destabilizing to the delicate balance of nuclear doctrine, which is built on mutually assured destruction (MAD): the idea that a nuclear attack by one state on another nuclear-armed state would ensure both states’ annihilations if the defender has second-strike capabilities, therefore disincentivizing such an attack.[10] Because modern missile defense is situated toward defense against ICBMs, nuclear-armed HGVs could weaken or destroy a nation’s second-strike capability, which would deal a death blow to this delicate balance.[11]


The current state of play

China and Russia both have robust hypersonic missile systems that are potentially capable of delivering both conventional and non-conventional payloads.[12] In 2021, China tested a hypersonic missile and HGV that then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley described as “very close to a Sputnik moment” shortly afterward.[13] The test caught American officials by surprise, primarily because it showed China was far ahead of the U.S. in its hypersonic weapons development–its missiles were close to if not already operationalized, while U.S. missiles are not.[14] China’s test echoed in an era of increasingly-alarmed pronouncements about the dangers of the U.S. falling behind in the hypersonic race due to the Global War on Terror, which has dominated American defense expenditures in the 21st Century.[15] As a result, the Pentagon requested $4.7 billion for research in its FY2023 budget request to Congress, up from the $3.8 billion it requested in FY 2022.[16]


Regulatory schemes

There are currently no multilateral or bilateral treaties regarding the use of hypersonic weapons.[17] Additionally, the New START Treaty, the last of a dying breed of nuclear arms control treaties between Russia and the U.S., does not touch hypersonic weapons.[18]

Regulation via a new treaty may prove impossible in the near term. It’s no secret that relations between Washington and Moscow–or even Washington and Beijing, for that matter–are at lows not seen since the Cold War. And the U.S., Russia, and China have spent considerable resources on developing their hypersonic weapons programs, making abandonment of the weapons systems politically improbable for all three nations.



The U.S. is not required to possess every technology its adversaries’ field, especially those technologies that are unnecessarily costly and destabilizing. And in the case of hypersonic missiles, there are legitimate questions about whether their operational advantages of speed and maneuverability are offset by substantial deficits in range and the exorbitant cost of producing such weapons.[19]

The U.S. has expressed a commitment to a non-nuclear role for hypersonic missiles, although an inadvertent revelation from the Air Force in 2020 called the strength of this prohibition into question.[20] But the prohibition should remain: it advances the U.S.’s strategic interest in nuclear deterrence because it ensures the U.S. is doing its part in maintaining the doctrine of mutually assured destruction.

For now, a ban on these weapons is all but out of the question. But that doesn’t mean the U.S. cannot set the standard in the regulation of their uses.








[1] Andrew Ross Sorkin, Ravi Mattu, Bernhard Warner, Sarah Kessler and Michael J. de la Merced, What’s at Stake in the Biden-Xi Meeting, NY Times: DealBook (Nov. 13, 2023, 7:41 AM EST), https://www.nytimes.com/2023/11/13/business/dealbook/biden-xi-china-trade.html.

[2] See Jennifer Leman, 60 Years Ago, the First Human to Reach Space Also Set This Incredible Record, Popular Mechanics (Apr. 13, 2021, 9:56 AM EST), https://www.popularmechanics.com/space/rockets/a36095354/yuri-gagarin-first-human-to-reach-space-travel-hypersonic-speeds/.

[3]Hypersonic Weapons, Article36 (Feb. 2019), https://article36.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/hypersonic-weapons.pdf.

[4] Id. at 1.  

[5]Congressional Budget Off., U.S. Hypersonic Weapons and Alternatives (Jan. 2023),


[6] See id.

[7] See id.

[8] R. H. Speier, Hypersonic Missiles: A New Proliferation Challenge, The RAND Blog (March 29, 2018), https://www.rand.org/blog/2018/03/hypersonic-missiles-anew-proliferation-challenge.html.

[9] Id.

[10] Robert Jervis, Mutually Assured Destruction, 133 Foreign Policy 40, 41-42 (2002).

[11] See Hypersonic Weapons, Article36 at 3.

[12] Id. at 2.

[13] David Sanger and William Broad, China’s Weapon Tests Close to a ‘Sputnik Moment,’ U.S. General Says, N.Y. Times, Oct. 27, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/27/us/politics/china-hypersonic-missile.html.

[14] Id.

[15] See Sharon Weinberger, Hypersonic Missiles Are Game-Changers, and America Doesn’t Have Them, Wall St. J., Sept. 18, 2023, https://www.wsj.com/politics/national-security/hypersonic-missiles-america-military-behind-936a3128.

[16] Cong. Rsch. Off., Hypersonic Weapons: Background and Issues for Congress (2023), https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R45811/35.

[17] Ellen Ioanes, America’s Hypersonic Arms Race with China, Explained, Vox (Mar. 25, 2023), https://www.vox.com/world-politics/2023/3/25/23656256/americas-hypersonic-arms-race-china-russia-missiles

[18] Wall St. J. Ed. Bd., The End of Nuclear Arms Control, Wall St. J. (Feb. 2, 2023), https://www.wsj.com/articles/new-start-treaty-russia-u-s-arms-control-moscow-china-nuclear-weapons-congress-state-department-11675289372.

[19] See David Wright, Cameron L. Tracy, Hypersonic Weapons: Vulnerability to Missile Defenses and Comparison to MaRVs, 31 Science & Global Security 3 (2023), https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08929882.2023.2270292.

[20] Steve Trimble, USAF Errantly Reveals Research on ICBM-Range Hypersonic Glide Vehicle, Aviation Week (Aug. 18, 2020), https://aviationweek.com/defense-space/missile-defense-weapons/usaf-errantly-reveals-research-icbm-rangehypersonic-glide.