The popular belief that possessing nuclear weapons would bring parity between rival nations and prevent arms races has long been debunked by global security environment since the Cold War. The age old cat and mouse game between offensive weapons and defensive technologies continues unabated, but for decades we had been in an equilibrium. Nations possessed weapon systems that varied in quality and quantity but no one nation had one such technology that broke the rules of this equilibrium – until now.
On Friday the Russian military said it had deployed the first combat ready “hypersonic” weapon. The so-called Avangard hypersonic missiles can carry nuclear warheads at speeds several times faster than the speed of sound while also being highly agile and maneuverable during its flight path. These basic characteristics make most US and NATO missile defense systems obsolete in an instant. Crucially both the US and China – the closest military contenders who had been researching the technology themselves – are years if not decades away from developing their own versions.
If the claims of the Russian military are true, the weapon has a potential of setting off another expensive arms race, not just in the three military superpowers but also in other nuclear nations. As Pakistan is well aware, nuclear warfare, or the preparation for it, is a question of matching warhead delivery mechanisms against mechanisms that can intercept those warheads. When Pakistan and India reached conventional missile parity India invested in nuclear submarines to upset the balance, Pakistan went the tactical battlefield warhead route.
Hypersonic missiles threaten to turn the equation on its head and makes decades of defensive technology obsolete – at this moment there is not counter to them, and the only way to achieve parity is to have hypersonic weapons of your own.
This new development can either spur a new arms race, or, hopefully, serve as the prompt for new arms treaties.