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Coming ready or not: Hypersonic weapons

By Andrew Davies

This report analyses the future impact that hypersonic weaponery will have on global affairs.

Hypersonic systems include anything that travels faster than Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound. We may be on the cusp of seeing hypersonic weapons proliferate around the world, with Russia, China and the US all in the process of developing and testing them. By 2030 they are likely to be in the inventory of all of the major powers. And Australia might well join them - we have some world class researchers and have been active in joint programs with the US for over 20 years. The government has added hypersonic weapons to its defence acquisition plan. It's a topic we should be interested in and better informed about.

It's always hard to predict exactly how much will change when a new technology enters the battlefield, but Australia is investing tens of billions of dollars in advanced sensors and combat systems to defend its surface vessels against subsonic and supersonic weapons. It's not clear that they will be effective enough against hypersonic weapons. On the plus side for our defence forces, hypersonic strike weapons with ranges of thousands of kilometres could return a strike capability to the ADF that has been missing since the F-111 was retired a decade ago.

There are some strategic stability issues to be wrestled with as well. The US is developing a 'prompt global strike' system that would allow it hit a target pretty much anywhere on Earth in 20 minutes. Russian and Chinese systems are being developed with a nuclear or conventional warhead capability. The combination of short warning times and nuclear warhead ambiguity is potentially highly destabilising.