Yes, military experts around the world love the concept of hypersonic weapons and especially hypersonic missiles. However, are they the most effective weapon in the era of great power competition with Russia and China? Here is an idea: lots of cheap Tomahawk missiles.
The most commonly cited selling point for hypersonic missiles is that they can’t be stopped by existing air defense systems, but that argument itself comes with its own problems.
As we’ve discussed on Sandboxx News before, nations have a tendency to overestimate the efficacy of their missile defense systems in public discussion for good reason. Deterrence is a game of managing perceptions, so you’ll be hard-pressed to find a nation making statements to the global media about just how easy it already is to get missiles past their defenses.
In April of 2018, the U.S., U.K., and France fired 105 subsonic cruise missiles at targets in Syria tied to a chemical weapon attack on civilians that occurred the week prior.
The U.S. and its allies reported the attack was an overwhelming success, but Russia countered in the press, arguing that they had managed to intercept more than 70 of the inbound weapons. Intelligence gathered in the days that followed substantiated America’s claims, with reports from the three nations showing that Syrian forces fired more than 40 interceptors at the inbound missiles without successfully destroying a single one.
But even if Russia were telling the truth, it would still mean their air defense systems let 30 or more slow-moving weapons cruise on by to find their targets. The majority of the weapons used in this strike were Tomahawks that travel at around 550 miles per hour — more than 3,000 miles per hour slower than the slowest hypersonic weapons.
Even if modern air defense systems like Russia’s S-400 or America’s Patriot missile system, were magically capable of having their interceptors find their targets 100 percent of the time, all it would take to defeat them would be launching more missiles than they have interceptors for. And that’s where the question of cost comes in.
America’s subsonic Tomahawk cruise missiles come in a variety of forms, but the most modern iterations ring it at around $2 million each. Contrast that against the $100 million unit cost of hypersonic missiles and the problems become evident: You could launch 50 Tomahawks at a target for the same price as a single hypersonic weapon.
The math associated with intercepting a single missile moving at speeds above Mach 5 is too complex for systems to manage today, but the fact of the matter is that a high volume of lower-cost weapons could prove just as effective as a low volume of high-cost ones in a large number of mission sets, and these lower-cost weapons are already in service today.
The only situations where hypersonic missiles could offer real tactical value are when the target itself is more expensive, important, or time-consuming to replace than a hypersonic missile that could potentially come with a $100 million price tag itself. While these targets would exist in a large-scale conflict with a nation like China, they would be relatively few.
Hypersonic missiles do have legitimate wartime applications, but the truth is, cheaper, slower, and older missiles can often do the trick just as well — or maybe even better.
Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran who specializes in foreign policy and defense technology analysis. He holds a master’s degree in Communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications from Framingham State University. This first appeared in Sandboxx.