The disclosure that the United States may at all be interested in the development of a nuclear hyperosnic weapon with ICBM range also comes amid tense negotiations between U.S. and Russian government officials over extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START. The treaty limits how many nuclear warheads each country can have, as well as the total numbers of certain delivery systems. Russia has declared its Avangard missiles as being covered by the treaty, but has said, at least at present, that other novel nuclear weapons, such as a nuclear-powered cruise missile and a long-range nuclear-powered torpedo, are not within that agreement’s purview. The U.S. government has also, so far unsuccessfully, tried to bring China into these negotiations to craft some sort of trilateral arms control deal.
The U.S. military has already fielded submarine-launched ballistic missiles with lower-yield nuclear warheads in direct response to concerns about Russia’s nuclear modernization efforts and doctrine, especially a potential “escalate-to-deescalate” strategy that could see the Kremlin employ a limited tactical nuclear strike in an effort to effectively settle a tertiary conflict before the United States or its allies could response. Experts dispute whether this doctrine actually exists. Regardless, Russia has made it clear that it will not be able to tell if an incoming weapon has a lower-yield warhead on top and will treat them the same as any other nuclear strike, triggering a massive retaliatory response.
Fielding future GBSDs with nuclear-armed hypersonic boost-glide vehicles might raise a separate discrimination issue in that opponents will very likely not be able to tell if an incoming hypersonic weapon is nuclear or conventionally armed. However, the conventional hypersonic boost-glide vehicles that the U.S. military has in development now will be fire from road-mobile launchers, submarines, and aircraft, which could make it easier to separate them from the silo-launched GBSDs.
At the same time, it remains unclear how far along the U.S. Air Force may be in even considering arming its GBSDs with these hypersonic weapons. The new ICBMs are not set to enter service until the late 2020s or early 2030s. Subsequent upgrades for those missiles, which is how the Air Force framed the possible addition of a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle payload, would likely come sometime after that.
Still, it’s notable that the service is exploring the option at all, which would represent a significant new addition to America’s nuclear deterrent arsenal.
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