Does the UK really need Hypersonic Weapons?

Photo by Chen Wui

The UK government’s Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy has been presented to Parliament but what does it mean? First, it is assertive in style and does not elaborate precisely why Russia, Iran and North Korea are threats to UK national security. Second, while the defence industrial strategy is to build more ships, aircraft and armoured vehicles, and fund research into ‘battle winning technologies’, there’s no mention of whether the use of such technologies should be limited by international agreements.

Compare these two sentences:

Through our investment in priority equipment and technologies to meet national security requirements, we will convert innovation into commercial opportunities more effectively and support prosperity and growth in the wider economy. (Page 73)

We continue to work for the preservation and strengthening of effective arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation measures, taking into account the prevailing security environment. (Page 78)

At what stage do commercial opportunities such as lucrative contracts sold to companies such as Lockhard Martin, Raytheon and Boeing enhance the UK’s national security? A non-proliferation treaty limiting or even banning the sale of ‘battle winning technologies’ to dodgy governments might actually achieve peaceful relations between states rather than producing instability and insecurity. As Spinoza once observed peace has to be more than an absence of war. The mind set has to change.

The expression ‘Battle winning technologies’ clearly does not refer to cross bows and halberds. We need to travel speedily forward in time to 2019 to hear Air Vice Marshall Simon Rochelle announce that the UK’s first hypersonic weapon will be deployed in 2023. Travel forward to 2021 and ask your neighbours if they have heard about these new weapon technologies. Don’t be surprised if they insist you call them ‘supersonic’, and send you on your way with a benign smile. But hypersonic missiles will replace less agile weapons in the coming years. They are described as hypersonic because they can be delivered to targets such as cities and densely populated areas at 5 times the speed of sound. This is not as fast as some intercontinental ballistic missiles but the flights of the new hypersonic boost gliding missiles are not fixed in advance and can be adjusted (apparently). This makes such weapons difficult to detect and intercept before it’s too late. Meaning: a payload that contains a nuclear warhead could be deliver to London before defence systems are alerted.

Two years before the Air Vice Marshall Simon Rochelle made his speech Investor’s Business Daily declared:

Back in 2017 the champions of big business seemed to know more about the coming of the new weapons than our politicians and voters. It is now 2021 and both China and Russia have declared they have such weapons. In December 2019 the Russians announced their “Avangard hypersonic glide” vehicle had entered service. This announcement came a few months after Lockheed Martin was awarded military contracts to the value of $2.5 billion, and a year after the Chinese announced they had tested a hypersonic aircraft. By 2020 the new arms race was under way and the Russians were ahead, or so it appeared.

Today the governments of Russia, China and the U.S. are all focused on building up hypersonic offensive and defensive capabilities. The proliferation of weapons that might initiate an unstoppable cascade of mass destruction is coming at a time when there is little political will to set up new global arms control treaties. The US withdrew from the Intermediate Range Nuclear forces Treaty (INF) in 2019. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is to be extended for a further 5 years, but is it fit for purpose?

This is the prevailing scenario lurking behind the UK government’s defence and security review. It’s unfortunate ministers could not take the lead in identifying the need to control the proliferation of hypersonic weapons by a new international arms control treaty, rather than merely ‘preserve’ what’s left of previous arms control measures. The new ‘Global Britain’ offered in the review would more likely rally to the interests of the arms industry than be concerned about the human right to be free of the fear of obliteration by a ‘precision strike’. How would that support ‘prosperity and growth’ in the wider economy?

What’s not well understood in the defence literature is that there would be civilians on the receiving end of any successful strike; that a hypersonic weapons arms race is not a computer game. The safety of citizens is at stake. In the UK protecting British citizens from precision strikes would not be achieved by a government spending millions on hypersonic weapons systems in order to compete aggressively with Russia and China. The UK should pursue a peaceful role and encourage openness and transparency.

With minds focused on the need to reduce carbon emissions less attention has been paid to arms control and elimination. However, there’s no point in demanding green policies and transformations when politicians are plotting to ‘precision strike’ our cities and communities. The hydrogen that fuels some hypersonic missiles is a pollutant and contributes to global warming as does the production, marketing and ‘deployment’ of hypersonic vehicles and payloads. We need to know precisely how much the arms industry contributes to global warming. That means scrutinising all aspects of the production of weapons. Meanwhile, electing citizens who are not afraid to challenge the military-industrial status quo should help to mobilise support for change.

Citizen, Voter, Reader. Critic of social exclusion practices and unequal justice.

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