The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.

HYPErsonic Missiles: The Path of Temptation

  • Published
  • By Maj Jonathan P. Dial, LCDR Rebecca “Fraü” Nortz, Maj Brandon D. Jay, & Maj James B. Johnson

During the Cold War, the United States (US) engaged in a nuclear arms race with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) that led the world down a path toward global annihilation, but with relatively equal capabilities, fear of nuclear Armageddon created a tense homeostasis.1 However, the US’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which aspired to intercept incoming ballistic missiles, threatened to upset the global nuclear balance and incited a new phase of the arms race, leading in part to the USSR’s economic demise and eventual collapse.2 Today, China and the US are engaged in a similar struggle for parity. As advances in US missile defense systems threaten China’s retaliatory nuclear strike capability, China is cultivating hypersonic missile technology to counter US defenses. This innovative weapons technology, characterized primarily by high speeds and maneuverability, promises to imperil current US missile defense systems, weapons platforms, and geographic areas of US interest around the globe; all may soon be more vulnerable to Chinese missile strikes. This shifting landscape demands an assessment of how hypersonics might impact current US military deterrence.

Despite concerns over hypersonics, these innovative weapons do not necessitate alterations to US deterrence models. Hypersonics have no influence on America’s second-strike strategic nuclear deterrence posture; to the extent they affect conventional deterrence, the impact does not create a new hazard when compared to current non-hypersonic weapons systems. Although the US cannot afford to ignore hypersonics entirely, the best approach focuses on “integrated deterrence,” balancing all instruments of national power, rather than succumbing to the temptation of trying to match capability for capability with China.3 Such a holistic path will allow the US to leverage all its advantages, not just its military, to mitigate the risks hypersonics pose, avoid unnecessary resource expenditure, and work toward homeostasis with China.

China’s Motivations for Developing Hypersonic Missiles

Primarily, China is developing hypersonic missiles to preserve its second-strike nuclear capability. While the SDI failed to deliver on its promises to intercept incoming ballistic missiles, modern Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems have high success rates.4 Designed to intercept short-, medium-, and long-range ballistic missiles, THAAD systems struggled initially, but by 2019 successfully completed 16 consecutive intercept tests.5 With this improved capacity to thwart enemy ballistic missiles, the US created a dilemma for China when it deployed THAAD batteries in South Korea and Japan: China believed the US could launch a nuclear attack, then counter a Chinese retaliatory strike, undermining China’s second-strike nuclear capability as it struggles to field a robust nuclear triad.6 To restore that retaliatory strike capability, China is developing hypersonics to defeat US missile defenses.

Additionally, China is developing hypersonic weapons to limit America’s operational reach.7 American bases across the Pacific provide avenues for US power projection into Asia. Perhaps more importantly, the US’s eleven aircraft carriers provide a second, mobile means to deliver airpower in-theater.8 If hypersonics can disable airfields at US bases in the Pacific, operate as “carrier killers,” or destroy other critical points of the US war machine, China can severely limit the US’s ability to exert influence in Asia.

Hypersonic Missile Characteristics and Threats

To qualify as “hypersonic,” missiles must achieve Mach 5 or faster during some phase of their flight, speeds of which ballistic missiles have long been capable; even World War II German V-2 rockets nearly accomplished this feat.9 The rising concern and increased interest in “hypersonics,” however, is focused on the technological breakthroughs with hypersonic cruise missiles (HCMs) and hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs), not on ballistic missiles, though they provide important context for assessing hypersonic capabilities.              

Whereas ballistic missiles spend relatively little time in the atmosphere (just their initial boost and terminal phases), HCMs and HGVs achieve similar speeds while remaining within the stratosphere.10 These high speeds, coupled with flatter trajectories, decrease flight times and increase maneuverability.11 Furthermore, ballistic missiles’ highly parabolic flight paths make them relatively predictable; once a ballistic missile enters its terminal phase, its ability to maneuver is minimal and its target is obvious12 This, coupled with an easily detectable rocket launch, allows for both attack warning and attack assessment as defense systems track them from launch to impact. Ballistic missiles are a concern, therefore, but a largely predictable one.

The novel characteristics of hypersonics render them much more dynamic. Some hypersonics rely on rocket launches, which allow for attack warning, but not all. Both HCMs and HGVs, due to the lower altitudes at which they fly, are a challenge for ground-based radars to detect, which decreases reaction time. Complicating the picture even further, hypersonics can carry conventional or nuclear payloads. Coupled with reduced reaction times, this warhead ambiguity can heighten tensions and increase the potential for miscalculation. Finally, hypersonics are much more maneuverable than ballistic missiles, able to maneuver hundreds of miles cross-range during their glide phase of flight.13 Consequently, their intended target is almost impossible to determine until the final seconds of flight.

However, these characteristics only matter if hypersonics perform as advertised. As of 2022, several operational challenges have proven to be severe limitations on the feasibility of actually fielding hypersonic weapons.14 An HGV reentering the atmosphere at Mach 20 is subject to violent vibrations, high pressures, and temperatures around 4,000°F.15 Ballistic missiles must endure these conditions for a few seconds in their terminal phase of flight; hypersonics must withstand them for their entire flight time. The materials required are highly technical and very expensive, rendering engineering costly, complicated, and time-consuming. As for control, hypersonic flight requires the tracking and modeling of so many variables that accurately predicting and controlling flight paths, especially when factoring in maneuvers, requires intensive engineering and programming.16 Regardless, for the sake of argument, this article will discuss perfectly engineered and exceptionally reliable hypersonics and their impact on deterrence.

Implications for Strategic Deterrence

In its simplest form, deterrence is using a credible threat to prevent an action.17 With the advent of nuclear weapons, humans finally had “enough military power to eliminate [their] species from the earth” and deterrence calculus became much more complicated.18 Within that complex landscape, US strategic deterrence settled into its current second-strike posture, promising retribution in kind if an adversary strikes first.19 Due to the nuclear triad, US retribution is guaranteed. This “general” approach is ongoing and persists outside of crisis situations, and utilizes punishment as its enforcement mechanism because it threatens severe penalties for hostile actions.

Accordingly, the features that distinguish hypersonics from current capabilities, including warhead ambiguity, diminished reaction time, and target ambiguity, do not affect this deterrence posture. A second-strike capability presupposes a nuclear strike has occurred, so there is no concern for warhead ambiguity. Moreover, a second-strike capability means the US can endure a barrage of nuclear weapons and still retaliate, rendering reaction time irrelevant. Finally, the US would respond regardless of the nuclear attack’s intended target, making target ambiguity a non-issue. Thus, hypersonic weapons do not alter the strategic nuclear deterrence calculus for the US.

Implications for Conventional Deterrence

American conventional deterrence encompasses some of the same features as its strategic model but has the capacity to be more immediate – even preemptive – and flexible. Conventional deterrence is better equipped to respond to short-term, urgent crises, and in addition to a punishment enforcement mechanism also uses denial to make actions infeasible or unlikely to succeed.20 Consequently, since time is a very relevant factor for conventional deterrence, hypersonic missiles could create challenges for US strategists by changing the calculus about what assets or locations are now vulnerable.

Working as designed, HCMs or HGVs could defeat missile defense systems. Currently, the US Army operates seven THAAD batteries in the Indo-Pacific, each typically containing six launchers with eight interceptors per launcher.21 With so few operational THAADs spread over the entire theater, a handful of well-placed hypersonics could destroy all seven batteries. With a diminished ability to intercept missiles, China could hold US aircraft carriers, airfields, or other vital military assets at risk.

These problems are significant, but not unprecedented since current capabilities pose the same problems for conventional deterrence. Given China’s ongoing investment in Anti-Access/Area Denial weapon systems, US assets are already operating under the threat of a conventional Chinese strike anywhere within the second island chain.22 Current ballistic missiles can also carry conventional or nuclear payloads, so warhead ambiguity is already accounted for in US deterrence strategy. Further, US THAAD batteries can only intercept so many missiles.23 China could utilize an over-saturation approach to defeat these defenses with non-hypersonic missiles. In fact, the only distinct change that hypersonics bring is decreased reaction time, though it is still only a matter of degree. The increased speeds of hypersonics potentially only reduce reaction time by a few minutes or less, which hardly requires changes to America’s conventional deterrence model.

Thus, hypersonics present an evolution rather than a revolution of warfare. While they do decrease decision-making time and challenge the capacities of current missile defense systems, all changes are matters of degree, not kind – they are only incremental improvements over current technology. However, as hypersonic missile technology is only in its relative infancy, the situation could change substantially and rapidly. The US cannot afford to ignore hypersonic missile developments entirely and must predict how best to handle their potential threat.

The Way Forward

The US’s “unipolar” moment is over, but the idea that the US must meet or surpass every new advancement to preserve its global dominance lingers. This creates a situation where the US develops technology first and articulates the strategy for how to utilize that technology later when it should be the reverse.24 Since the US cannot ignore the threat that hypersonics pose, American leaders must begin by appropriately weighing the costs, benefits, and risks of its actions to fully comprehend Chinese and American interests to ensure the US is pursuing the correct path.

At present, the US is attempting to neutralize the threat Chinese hypersonics pose by developing countermeasures. First, with at least eight development programs for hypersonic weapons spread throughout the Department of Defense, the US intends to achieve hypersonic parity with China akin to its Cold War arms race with the USSR. Second, the US is also exploring possibilities for upgraded missile defenses, including new intercept systems, supporting technologies, and new sensors.25 A revamped missile defense system would nullify the advantages of hypersonics and allow for higher chances of intercept success.26

Unfortunately, in an effort to preserve US conventional military dominance, such a path ignores China’s motivations. China, believing that US missile defense systems pose an existential threat by negating China’s second-strike nuclear capability, wants to restore the security balance. If the US is able to counter China’s rebalancing, China will only have three options: significantly increase its stockpile of nuclear weapons, leading to a dangerous nuclear arms race; develop a new method for preserving its second-strike capability, forcing the US to match or surpass the new technology; or if unable to accomplish either of these satisfactorily, conduct a preventative strike in the face of an unmanageable threat. In sum, continual US efforts to keep China under its thumb may force the latter to become more aggressive, not less. Combined, these factors create prohibitive risks for the US.

As an additional problem, dedication to hypersonic weapons development and other countermeasures imposes substantial costs on the US. Hypersonics are not cheap, and the US already spends billions of dollars on research and development, with more expenditures on the horizon.27 Due to a strong economy, the US is not likely to make the same mistake that the USSR made during the SDI era, but the money, time, and effort, which could go towards countering more immediate or serious threats, may still end up wasted.

Another potential option for the US, and one that proved successful during the Cold War, would be arms control measures that could include confidence-building measures, bans, and/or limitations.28 If hypersonics do have the ability to create a security dilemma between the US and China, arms control measures could prove effective for curbing an arms race. However, this option, regardless of the form it would take, has little chance of success. Most crucially for any reciprocal arms control measures, China would have to agree. However, since China views the US missile defense system in Asia as posing an existential threat, the benefits would have to be extremely high to overcome such a vital national interest, and China has little incentive to agree to any such measures. Unlike when the US and USSR had relative nuclear parity, arms control measures that create hypersonics parity keep China at a disadvantage.29 Consequently, this option offers little to no benefit to China, making it untenable.

Thus, the best path for the US, which takes better account of American and Chinese interests, is to focus on integrated deterrence. By broadening its view beyond the myopic military lens, the US will be able to use and balance every instrument of national power to curb malign behavior. With the world’s most robust network of alliances, global reliance on the US dollar, a vibrant technology sector, and the world’s strongest conventional and nuclear military, the US has a litany of options available to deter China. Importantly, preventing aggressive behavior relies both on making threats and offering assurances, each designed to alter the target’s perceptions about the costs and benefits of a particular action.30 Whereas military deterrence can really only raise costs for an aggressor, diplomatic, economic, and informational deterrence can increase costs and benefits.

Additionally, this approach has the effect of decreasing risk for China, the US, and the rest of the world. While China’s hypersonic missile advances tempt the US into creating offsets at a comparable pace to preserve US military dominance, that tack fuels a security dilemma. Focusing instead on integrated deterrence, the US can attempt to quell tensions, and less discord between the world’s greatest powers, especially considering how globalized the world has become, is better for everyone.

Alas, this path is not without its problems. China’s growing economy and global influence, when coupled with a technologically superior weapon, would limit America’s ability to assert its interests in areas of common concern with China. Although the US currently has many advantages across the integrated deterrence spectrum, some of those advantages are dwindling. Regardless, if the US focuses too heavily on gains in one arena, it may suffer losses in others, and strategists need to consider the interconnectedness of the instruments of national power more thoroughly to work toward homeostatsis with China.


America’s “unipolar moment” as the global hegemon following the fall of the USSR tempts US strategists into trying to counter or surpass every new global threat, including hypersonic missiles. But in doing so, the US is attempting to develop technology first and figure out the strategy later without accurately assessing the costs, benefits, and risks. In reality, hypersonics present an evolution over current weapons systems, not a revolutionary new capability, and should not affect US deterrence models. Rather than creating a security dilemma by trying to match capability for capability with China, the US should focus on an integrated deterrence strategy. Ultimately, regardless of any similarities to the Cold War nuclear arms race, if the US wants to achieve homeostasis with China, it must chart a different path.


Major Johnathan P. Dial
Maj. Dial is a Judge Advocate and current student at Air Command and Staff College (ACSC), Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. After graduation, he will become the Deputy Staff Judge Advocate at Aviano Air Base, Italy. Prior to ACSC, Maj Dial served as the Chief of Military Justice for the 502d Air Base Wing, Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, deployed to Special Operations Command Africa, Kelley Barracks, Germany, and represented victims of sexual assault as a Special Victims’ Counsel. Maj Dial received a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Vanderbilt University and a Juris Doctor from Vanderbilt University Law School before commissioning into the Air Force through Officer Training School in 2014.

Lieutenant Commander Rebecca “Fraü” Nortz
LCDR Nortz is an Electronic Warfare Officer from the Navy’s EA-18G Growler community and current student of Air Command and Staff College (ACSC), Maxwell AFB. Before arriving at ACSC, she served as the Strike Operations Officer and Growler Representative for Carrier Air Wing Seventeen (CVW-17) aboard the USS Nimitz (CVN 68). Previous commands include VAQ-141 in Atsugi, Japan and an instructor tour at VAQ-129, NAS Whidbey Island. After graduation, she will join VAQ-138 at NAS Whidbey Island. LCDR Nortz received her BA from Whitman College before receiving her commission through Officer Candidate School in 2011.

Major Brandon D. Jay
MAJ Jay is an active-duty Army Signal Officer currently assigned as a student at Air Command and Staff College (ACSC) at Maxwell AFB, AL. Prior to ACSC, he served as the Commander of Headquarters and Headquarters Company of 311th Signal Command (Theater), Fort Shafter, HI and most recently as the Commander for the 112th Signal Battalion (Special Operations) (Airborne) Special Operations Command – Central Signal Detachment, Macdill AFB, FL. He is a native of Dallastown, PA and received his commission upon his graduation from The Citadel in 2010.

Major James B. Johnson
Maj Johnson is a C-17A Globemaster III evaluator and Senior Pilot with over 3,000 flying hours and two combat deployments. Prior to his tenure at Air Command and Staff College (ACSC), Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, he served as the Director of Operations for the 3d Airlift Squadron, Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. Following ACSC, he will serve as a political-military affairs strategist for Africa at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Major Johnson earned his commission from the United States Air Force Academy in 2009 majoring in Systems Engineering Management and holds a Masters of Business Administration.

This article was written as part of an ACSC class group project.


1. Edward Kaplan, To Kill Nations (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015), 179.

2. Lecturer, "Presidents Reagan and Bush and the Last Years of the Cold War" (lecture, Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell Air Force Base, AL, 10 January 2022). “Strategic Defense Initiative,” Atomic Heritage Foundation, 18 July 2018,

3. C. Todd Lopez, “Defense Secretary Says 'Integrated Deterrence' Is Cornerstone of U.S. Defense,” U.S. Department of Defense, 30 April  2021,

4. Missile Defense Project, "Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)," Missile Threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 30 June 2021,

5. Jen Judson and Joe Gould, “THAAD, in first operational use, destroys midrange ballistic missile in Houthi attack,” Defense News, accessed 27 February 2022,

6. Shannon Bugos and Kingston Reif, Understanding Hypersonic Weapons: Managing the Allure and the Risks, An Arms Control Association Report (Washington, DC: Arms Control Association, 2021), 13; Mike Yeo and Robert Burns, “Pentagon warns of China’s progress toward nuclear triad,” Military Times, 4 November 2021,

7. Bugos, Understanding Hypersonic Weapons, 13.

8. “Aircraft Carriers by Country 2022,” World Population Review, accessed 1 April 2022,

9. Dean Wilkening, “Hypersonic Weapons and Strategic Stability,” Survival 61, no. 5 (October-November 2019), 129.

10. Wilkening, “Hypersonic Weapons and Strategic Stability,” 130.

11. Ibid., 131.

12. Lt Col Nathan B. Terry and Paige Price Cone, “Hypersonic Technology: An Evolution in Nuclear Weapons?” Strategic Studies Quarterly 14, no. 2 (Summer 2020), 80.

13. Wilkening, “Hypersonic Weapons and Strategic Stability,” 131.

14. Tom Karako and Masao Dahlgren, Complex Air Defense: Countering the Hypersonic Missile Threat, Report (Center for Strategic and International Studies), 11.

15. Ibid., 11.

16. Ivan Oelrich, “Cool Your Jets: Some Perspective on the Hyping of Hypersonic Weapons,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists 76, no. 1 (January 2020), 43.

17. Michael J. Mazarr, “Understanding Deterrence,” Perspectives, accessed 26 January 2022,, 2.

18. Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 18.

19. Thérèse Delpech, Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century: Lessons from the Cold War for a New Era of Strategic Piracy (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2012), 35-6, 39; Bernard Brodie, Strategy in the Missile Age, Project RAND Report R-335 (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 15 January 1959), 176.

20. Mazarr, “Understanding Deterrence,” 2-4.

21. Missile Defense Project, “Terminal High Altitude Area Defense.”

22. Missile Defense Project, “DF-21 (CSS-5),” Missile Threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 31 July 2021,

23. Kolja Brockmann and Dr. Markus Schiller, “A matter of speed? Understanding hypersonic missile systems,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 4 February 2022,

24. Bugos, Understanding Hypersonic Weapons, 10.

25. Ibid., 2, 6, 11.

26. Ibid., 10.

27. Ibid., 9.

28. Ibid., 20-22.

29. Ibid., 13.

30. Mazarr, “Understanding Deterrence,” 11.







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