A botched missile launch in Alaska is the latest flare-up in a budding arms race where the US, China, and Russia are vying to perfect super-fast weapons that can strike halfway round the world in less than an hour.
On Monday, a missile carrying the Pentagon's Advanced Hypersonic Weapon exploded four seconds after it took off from the Kodiak Launch Complex. Ground controllers blew it up remotely. Much of the launch pad and nearby facilities were damaged.
"Due to an anomaly, the test was terminated near the launch pad shortly after lift-off to ensure public safety," said a Defense Department statement that didn't identify the anomaly. "There were no injuries to any personnel."
What's an Advanced Hypersonic Weapon? It's a quick, smart, flying bomb.
The weapon is a warhead with wings that sits atop a ballistic missile. The missile flies into the upper reaches of the atmosphere, where the warhead disengages using its own rockets. Rather than plummeting straight back to Earth, the warhead glides, traveling faster than 3,500 miles an hour before it hits its target.
The hypersonic weapon is part of a characteristically blandly named Defense Department program called Prompt Global Strike. Founded after 9/11, the project aimed to discover how to strike anywhere on the planet within an hour to prevent terrorism, or a crisis like North Korea launching a nuclear attack.
The missiles wouldn't necessary carry nuclear payloads, said experts. Rather, they likely would deliver conventional explosives, but far more quickly and accurately than current options.
They would also be an alternative to nuclear weapons — the only sure-fire way to overwhelm enemy defenses — said Marine Corps General James Cartwright in a 2010 interview with the Washington Post. "Today, unless you want to go nuclear, it's measured in days, maybe weeks," he said. "That's just too long in the world that we live in."
'It essentially only has an offensive use. Russia and China are both wondering if this is something they need to worry about.'
The missile that exploded on Monday was supposed to deliver its warhead to Kwajalein Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. In a 2011 test, a hypersonic weapon successfully travelled to Kwajalein from Hawaii, a distance of 2,400 miles, in less than half an hour.
Some questioned if a lightning-quick, devastating weapon would make the world safer, however.
"You worry about a very short warning time of attack, and you need to respond to things so quickly," David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told VICE News.
He also wondered why the US needed a weapon that could strike anywhere from near orbit when the Pentagon had spent decades building a far-flung network of overseas military bases to support the country's role as the only global superpower.
"The US has forces stationed all around the world," Wright said. "What sense does it make to develop something that has that long kind of range? It essentially only has an offensive use. Russia and China are both wondering if this is something they need to worry about."
As a result, Beijing and, to far a lesser extent, Moscow have been devoting resources to hypersonic flight in recent years.
But while American hypersonic warheads can reach speeds of Mach 20 — generating enormous heat and pressure at 20 times the speed of sound — the rocket China launched in January travelled at only Mach 10, said Wright. Moscow's program is far smaller, though active.
So, for China and Russia, this arms race might be more like a game of catch-up. They're studying hypersonic weapons not to deploy them but rather to study what their forces might confront in a future conflict.
"Even if they aren't interested in spending the money and churning out the same weapon, it's their way of keeping up with the technology out there," said Wright.
Follow John Dyer on Twitter: @johnjdyerjr
Image via US Army