Don’t believe the hype about Russia’s hypersonic missile

Every missile is a carefully packaged bad day traveling at high speeds. Hypersonic missiles are a modern development in the long-running military arms race to figure out just how certain that bad end is for the humans on the receiving end. Russia’s Zircon missile could enter arsenals as early as 2018. Despite headlines to the contrary, not enough about the missile is known yet to definitely claim that it poses an uncounterable threats ships in the sea.

Sputnik, a news organization owned by the Russian government, boasted of the missile’s prowess, noting “Britain’s carrier strike groups would have to stay clear of the Zircons’ reach and their onboard aircraft would not have enough fuel to cover the distance.”

A missile that threatens aircraft carriers is a cheap way for to stop a deadly threat, but it’s a clearly known threat. For years, military planners have grouped carriers with other ships armed with missile defense systems, using their own radars and interceptor missiles to protect the massive carriers from existing missiles. What makes hypersonic cruise missiles a potent threat isn’t just the speed, though that’s part of it.

Speed is an enabler, not an end it itself. It’s what the missiles do with the speed.

“I think the question about Zircon is characteristics like how detectable is it at long distances,” said James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “how rapidly can it maneuver in the terminal phase. Those are more interesting questions than just raw speed.”

In part, speed alone isn’t enough because existing missile defenses are built to tackle much faster weapons.

“It’s really fast for a cruise missile, but it’s not particularly fast when you start thinking about ballistic missiles,” said David Wright, of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Missile defenses aimed at intercepting ICBMs are only starting to have some success against practice…

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