By: Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.
It seems that the Russians and Chinese have recently made quality breakthroughs in the missile industry, the hypersonic kind, in particular. Thus, making them own destructive capabilities, not only against US fleets and bases around the world, but also US soil. What makes Americans more anxious is the fact that, not until the mid-2020s, six years from now, do they expect to develop counter-hypersonic defense which can also hold China and Russia at risk in a corresponding manner,
Russian Qualitative Leap:
Lately, the Russians have developed the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, which is able to carry nuclear payloads and fly 27 times faster than the speed of sound (more than 9km/sec or 551km/min), making it impossible to intercept. The Avangard has a range of over 6 thousand km, constantly changing its course and altitude while it flies through the atmosphere, chaotically zigzagging on its path to its target, making it impossible to predict its location (As explained by the site of Globalsecurity.org, 26/12/2018). It is likely to be operational in 2020.
The Russians have also developed Tsirkon, a ship-launched hypersonic cruise missile capable of traveling at speeds of between Mach 6 and Mach 8 (Mach is the speed of sound), i.e., 122-163 km/min. It is reportedly capable of striking both ground and naval targets. Russia conducted its most recent successful test of Tsirkon in December 2018 and may become operational in 2022 or 2023. They have also developed the Kinzhal (“dagger”) missile, which was successfully test fired on July 2018—striking a target at a distance of approximately 1,930 kilometers (According to the report of the Congressional Research Service, 17/9/2019).
Chinese Missile Leap:
As for the Chinese, they have made a huge leap by developing the Dongfeng-41 (It means The Wind of the East), an intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) capable of carrying up to 10 nuclear warheads. The DF-41 can also carry decoys — devices designed to deceive interceptive missile defense systems into targeting them instead of real warheads. It can travel at 25 times the speed of sound (510 km/min), has a range of 12-15 thousand km, and can cross the Pacific Ocean (the distance between China and the US) and reach the US in 30 minutes. In addition, they developed the Dongfeng 17 missile, which flies at hypersonic speed (faster than five times the speed of sound) closer to the earth than the ballistic missile itself, cutting warning times and making it much harder to intercept. There is also the DF-26, a medium-range ballistic missile with an estimated range of 3,000 km to 4,000 km.
A Strategic Challenge:
These Russian and Chinese missiles constitute a strategic deterrent and they counterbalance, in one way or another, part of the US military superiority in other domains. Their most important aspect is that they make US bases, aircraft carriers and the US itself prone to devastation by conventional or nuclear strikes, without being able to deploy counter-hypersonic defense systems any time before five or six years. This means that bridging the military technological gap in the missile field, would make the US hesitant, recalculating its steps many times before deciding to proceed with what is detrimental to the strategic interests or the red lines of the Russians and the Chinese. Therefore, the world is once again moving towards a new multipolar order.
The US admits that these missiles, whose high velocity is five times the speed of sound or greater, operate almost entirely within the atmosphere, at elevations below which existing US early-warning sensors are optimized to monitor. They have a great capacity to maneuver so that their flight path and targets cannot be predicted, and only infrared sensors can detect them, but the current US overhead architecture isn’t designed to do that yet. Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (USD R&E) Michael Griffin, the Pentagon’s top technologist, admits that the US hypersonic missile industry is going to have to relearn how to effectively, efficiently and economically produce them. China has these weapons now by the thousands (Defense News, 7/8/2019). He added that the US won’t be deploying a “counter-hypersonic” defense anytime before the mid-2020s (Forbes, 30/7/2019).
Sam Roggeveen, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney said that “China is now, in some spheres of military technology, ahead of any Western nation.” What makes things more difficult for the US is that the Chinese and Russians (especially the Chinese) are capable of producing these weapons in large quantities, at lower costs and with very advanced technology. While the US needs—at least in the short term—longer time and double the cost to be equivalent to such a competition. In other words, the Chinese and the Russians have focused on making up the huge difference in military expenditures, by producing inexpensive qualitative weapons that abolish US superiority, and fill the gap between them. Perhaps this is what the retired Russian military expert Andrei Martianov, currently living in the US, has pointed out at. In his book, The (Real) Revolution in Military Affairs, Martianov criticizes US military methods that are costly and less effective in military production.
The US is Still in the Field:
Despite all what we have discussed, the US is not considered far from the hypersonic missile technology, they are in the “competitive market,” even if they do not show all their missile potential in this area. The fourth-generation nuclear DF-41 missile is basically at the same level as the seventh-generation nuclear missiles being developed by the U.S. and Russia. The US Air Force has developed the AGM-183A Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (AARW), which can reach the speed of Mach 20, and might be deployed by bombers such as B-2 and B-52. However, it won’t be a functional weapon system until the mid-2020s. There is also the X-51A Waverider, which can reach a top speed of Mach 5.1.
Therefore, despite the threat posed by Russian and Chinese missiles to US bases and territories, the Chinese and the Russians themselves are not immune to US hypersonic missiles, and they have no counter-hypersonic defense. Hence, defense wise, all are alike.
Second, the US is still superior in other military fields such as nuclear weapons, air force, nuclear submarines, and aircraft carriers. They have a broader base of allies through NATO and other friendly countries, and they have a wider global reach.
Third, the Americans are better than their competitors at investment, expenditure and engaging in arms races. This is especially the case when their military budget is more than $750 billion annually, while the Chinese budget is about $224 billion and the Russian is around $44 billion.
These are competitive advantages that US can focus on if threatened.
Perhaps the Chinese and Russian missiles are a real breakthrough, and a major challenge for the US. They impose new equations and calculations in the mid-future, and open the way for a multi-polar world. However, the missiles are not the only reason, there are also the US policies, especially those under Trump, which are characterized by haste, confusion and antagonism of others, in addition to harming the US internal structure and composition, and this all due to the administration’s right and populist tendencies.
Finally, our Arab and Muslim peoples must not rejoice so much when they read such news. Perhaps the decline of US hegemony and the termination of a unipolar system may weaken the US-Israeli influence in the region, however, it is important to note that major powers such as Russia, China and others are also seeking to ensure their interests in the first place. They are committed to us only if we are within their interests and priorities. What is more important is that our nation, its men, intellectuals and innovators focus on launching a genuine revival project, that would impose itself on other nations, rather than remain victims, spectators, consumers or followers.
This article was originally published in Arabic on “Arabi 21” on 27/10/2019.
Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, 1/11/2019