Written by Hannah Brandt, Deputy Editor

In the 1996 successful big picture movie Eraser, U.S. Marshal John “Eraser” Kruger, impersonated by Arnold Schwarzenegger, heroically stops a select cabal of shady white men to get rich through illegal weapons’ sales (Andress, 2016). In order to do so, Schwarzenegger employs a fictional weapon that can shoot bullets faster than the speed of light. Rail guns – a much larger variation of this weapon – may be found today aboard Navy ships. These guns shoot bullets at hypersonic speeds; however, the state of these technologies is still deplorable, given their high energy expenditure, short travel distance (80km) and their easily abatable character (Adams, 2003).

Modern interest in the broad term of hypersonic weaponry has shifted away from rail guns (or Schwarzenegger’s fictional individualist machinery) to rocketry. In fact, the “ongoing Western ‘hypersonic hype’” (Raitasalo, 2019) focuses on missiles that are “maneuverable [, that] travel at approximately 5,000 to 25,000 kilometers per hour[1] [… and that] fly at unusual altitudes – between a few tens of kilometers and 100 kilometers” (Speier & Moore, 2017). A distinction is to be made between two different kinds of hypersonic weapons. The first type is hypersonic cruise missiles that are powered by rockets or jets throughout their flight. These “are faster versions of existing cruise missiles, such as the [American] Tomahawk” (J., 2019). The second type is comprised of hypersonic boost-glide weapons that are launched into the upper atmosphere on top of ballistic missiles. They then release hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) which fly lower, faster and much more unpredictable than old-fashioned re-entry vehicles (J., 2019). These are “intended to carry nuclear warheads; others can use their high speed and accuracy to destroy targets with the kinetic energy of impact alone” (J., 2019).

The idea of creating missiles that would be able to hit ‘fleeting targets’ is not new. In fact, five years after the unsuccessful targeting of previously located Osama bin Laden in an Al–Qaeda camp in Afghanistan in 1998, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) requested funding for missiles that fused the qualities of speed and agility (Aylward, 2018). This was in response to a geopolitically, militarily and strategically socio-technical imaginary. The first successful test by the DOD of a hypersonic weapon occurred in 2011 (Aylward, 2018). However, this was and still remains to be in its beginning phase. In 2014, China conducted the first of at least half a dozen tests of hypersonic weapons (Aylward, 2018). In 2018, the Russian Federation joined the group of countries testing hypersonic weapons, and Vladimir Putin boasted about his country’s ‘invincible’ Mach 10 missile (Aylward, 2018).[2]

The emergence of hypersonic weapons must be seen in the wider context of technological development. In fact, the founder of the history of technology, Melvin Kranzberg, states in the second of his Kranzberg’s laws of technology that: “Invention is the mother of necessity” (1986). This turnaround implies that technology creates the need for something else that didn’t exist before, and thus requires improvement and innovation. The reactionary creation of hypersonic weapons is explained by the need to make ballistic weapons more maneuverable, and cruise missiles faster (J., 2019), and furthermore by the necessity to uphold the 20th Century’s international security strategy paradigm of deterrence.

In fact, hypersonic weapon systems sustain the double efficiency strategy that plays on a weapon’s deterrence and its creation-of-real-damage capabilities. This fact David Edgerton stresses when speaking about “power and effect: unused weapons and unusable weapons” (2013). However, with our 21st Century military realities, the future of effective deterrence through mutually assured destruction is incrementally at stake due to the advancement of missile defense systems (Sagan & Waltz, 2003). These undermine a state’s nuclear second-strike capability as: “If an attacker can intercept the second strike, deterrence becomes ineffective” (Hofmeister, 2019). In this way, hypersonic weapons that are able to bypass traditional missile defense systems can re-strengthen the principle of deterrence.

Furthermore, hypersonic weapons, through their precision on the one hand and their possibility of carrying nuclear warheads on the other, present an attempted articulation of a bridge between traditional warfare, marked by actions on the battlefield and military casualties, and modern warfare characterized as “total war” (Edgerton, 2013). Therefore, these weapons may be counted among those of the 20th and 21st Century that “revolutionized and further civilized the war” (Edgerton, 2013).

In theory, hypersonic weapons’ potential impact on whole societies is non-negligible. One could be led to believe that hypersonic weapons would be an issue finding larger traction amongst the general public. However, this is partly due to the weapons’ technical complexity and creating what Bruno Latour identifies as a technology’s ‘black box’, in which “paradoxically, the more science and technology succeed, the more opaque and obscure they become” (1999). Their projected use as tactical[3] and non-strategic weapons remains debated mostly within the field of experts.[4]  

Nonetheless, one could imagine the future interests of the general public to be about a realm of ethical and societal questions that are to be found mostly among this technology’s ‘hard impacts’ (Swierstra, 2015). This includes an environmental consideration: Given the current technological realities, higher speed intrinsically is linked with higher use of energy and increased production of CO2, as shown by the quantitative dichotomy between the Boeing and Concorde aircrafts’ fuel expenditure and CO2 production. This ultimately led to Concorde’s decay[5] (Drake & Purvis, 2001). Furthermore, given the futuristic case of belligerent deployment (and the defense capabilities), the debris of targeted hypersonic weapons will pose threats to our atmospheric environment and increase the potential danger of being hit by the decay stemming from a myriad of systems in orbit.

The current polarity between the general public’s felt apathy for hypersonic weapon’s questions and the scientific world’s interest for these novel weapons could be slightly lifted through the notion of techno-moral change. In fact, new and in this case, non-nuclear powers, including Japan, Australia, and France (Aylward, 2018), are working on this weaponry. Their inventions could slightly disrupt today’s leading powers’ geopolitics. This could change aspects of the hypersonic-weapon-detaining countries’ identities and morals; hence, giving rise to controversies about their ‘soft impacts’ (Swierstra, 2015). These controversies are sites where techno-moral learning can occur. The outcomes of these deliberations should inform decisions regarding technological design and/or the societal embedding of the new technology.

Annex

[1] This represents a speed of five to 20 times the speed of sound, where the scientific number of Mach is equal to the multiplier for the speed of sound. (J., 2019)

[2] However, the reliability of each country’s claims is unreliable.

[3] As explained by the U.S. Pentagon’s technology chief, Michael Griffin.

[4] Up until March 2019, I have been unable to find studies, articles or opinions, neither in English nor in Russian, of or about the general public’s position in regard to hypersonic weapons.

[5] However, talks and tests of hypersonic aircraft are regaining momentum.


Hannah is a German-American student in political science and law at Sciences Po Paris. She is passionate about the study and research of Eastern Europe, as well as of Human Rights, Democratic Transition and International Security. As a political activist and scholar, Hannah is an intern at the Hudson Center for Political-Military Analysis; an International Fellow at the Caucasus Research Resource Center – Armenia; and president of the Simulation of the European Parliament at Sciences Po Nancy.

References

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Andress, J. (2016). 20 years later, fans are still trying to recreate Schwarzenegger’s “eraser” railgun. Inverse. Retrieved from www.inverse.com/article/17298-20-years-later-fans-are-still-trying-to-recreate-schwarzenegger-s-eraser-railgun

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Edgerton, D. (2013). La guerre. In Quoi de neuf ? Du rôle des techniques dans l’histoire globale (pp. 189-213). Paris: Le Seuil.

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J., S. (2019, January 3). What are hypersonic weapons? The Economist. Retrieved from  www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2019/01/03/what-are-hypersonic-weapons

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Raitasalo, J. (2019, January 5). Hypersonic weapons are no game-changer. The National Interest. Retrieved from www.nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/hypersonic-weapons-are-no-game-changer-40632   

Sagan, S. & Waltz, K.N. (2003). The spread of nuclear weapons: A debate renewed, with new sections on India and Pakistan, terrorism, and missile defense. New York, NY: Norton & Co.

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Swierstra, T. (2015). Identifying the normative challenges posed by technology’s “soft” impacts. Etikk I Praksis – Nordic Journal of Applied Ethics, 9(1), 5-20. https://doi.org/10.5324/eip.v9i1.1838