Since the 2000s, the United States has been developing nuclear weapons as part of their Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS) program, though American hypersonic progress has accelerated in recent years. The quickened pace of research and development is directly related to similar initiatives overseas, primarily from Russia and China.
Somewhat counterintuitively, American hypersonic weapons and hypersonic weapon defenses will likely be more accurate than those fielded by Russia and China. This is because they are not designed for use with nuclear warheads. Consequently, the United States’ hypersonic and counter-hypersonic arsenal will be more technically challenging to build than that of the United States competitors.
Where We’re At
The United States has multiple hypersonic weapons programs currently in development, as per a recent congressional report. These are the U.S. Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS); the U.S. Army’s Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW); the U.S. Air Force’s AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) and Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile (HACM); and DARPA’s Tactical Boost Glide (TBG), Operational Fires (OpFires), and Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC).
Most of these American initiatives expect to reach operational deployment next year or in 2023. However, the U.S. Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike will reach operational deployment later, with Zumwalt-class destroyers in 2025 and on Virginia-class submarines by 2028.
Russia has researched hypersonic weapons for the past forty years; however, the development of its hypersonic weapons projects has picked up significantly following the United States’ withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001 under George W. Bush’s administration.
Russia has two hypersonic weapon projects in development, the 3M22 Tsirkon, and the Avangard. If reports hold, Russia has already fielded the Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missile. The three programs are capable of varying speeds—all hypersonic—and are expected to be fully operational by the early-mid 2020s.
One argument posits that China’s motivation for pursuing an effective hypersonic weapons capability is prompted by U.S. missile defense capabilities, which are regarded as very capable.
China has already extensively tested its DF-17, a medium-range ballistic missile that Beijing designed specifically to carry hypersonic glide vehicles. In addition, China’s DF-ZF, also specifically designed to carry hypersonic glide vehicles, has also been tested around ten times. Lastly, China’s Xing Kong-2, another hypersonic weapon, will likely be ready by mid-2020.
There is no doubt that the United States, China, and Russia have made the most progress in hypersonic weapons development, but they are not alone. Several other countries—including Germany, France, India, Japan, and Australia, to name a few—are also developing their own domestically-made hypersonic weapons technology. However, their programs are in much earlier stages than China, Russia, and the United States.
Still, other countries—South Korea, Israel, and Iran—have shown an interest in fielding a hypersonic weapons capability, though their progress in the field has been much more limited.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.