The U.S. tested a hypersonic missile in mid-March but didn’t publicize the test to avoid inflaming tensions with Russia as the country continues to decimate Ukraine with its needless war. Any confusion between the U.S. and Russia during a time of heightened world conflict runs the risk of starting a nuclear war, and the potential of destroying all life on planet Earth, something many humans who live on Earth say would be a bad thing.
The news of America’s hypersonic missile test comes from CNN, which cites an unnamed senior official with the U.S. military. The missile, reportedly fired from a B-52 somewhere on the west coast, traveled at a height of 65,000 feet and a distance of 300 miles, according to the unnamed official.
The hypersonic missile tested last month was part of Lockheed Martin’s Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept, though other major defense contractors are also working on hypersonic missiles for the U.S. in a race to match the capabilities of China and Russia. North Korea also claims to have tested a hypersonic missile, though details about that program are still unclear.
Russia even claimed to have used its Kinzhal hypersonic missile technology against Ukraine to destroy an underground weapons depot on March 19. If true, it would be the first known use of a hypersonic missile in war. It’s not clear if the U.S. hypersonic test occurred before or after Russia’s use of the weapon because the CNN report only cites “mid-March” without narrowing it further.
Despite the name “hypersonic,” the big advantage of hypersonic missiles isn’t necessarily their speed, which is admittedly fast, but their ability to maneuver at relatively low altitudes to avoid anti-missile defense systems. Hypersonic missiles travel at Mach 5, five times the speed of sound, but intercontinental ballistic missiles reach speeds of Mach 20. But once an ICBM like the Minuteman III is launched, it can’t be rerouted to a different target like the ocean in the event of a misunderstanding.
Hypersonic missile technology is still very much in its infancy, with many critics questioning its usefulness and the technology underlying the construction of these systems. Lockheed Martin’s Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon failed in at least three tests during 2021, according to the Arms Control Association. But critics have never really kept enormous weapons systems from being produced, especially during a time of heightened alert.
Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 and photos have been emerging from places like Bucha showing civilians shot dead in the streets. President Joe Biden has called for Russian President Vladimir Putin to be investigated for war crimes.
The U.S. also cancelled an ICBM test on Friday, which had already been postponed from earlier in Russia’s war against Ukraine. ICBM tests are often conducted by the U.S. throughout the year and often land near the Marshall Islands. Typically, these tests don’t get much coverage (unless North Korea does them, naturally), but holding off these tests is a big deal. If Russia interpreted a test as an actual nuclear missile heading for Moscow, Putin and his advisors would have roughly 20 minutes to decide whether to retaliate.
Again, you can’t recall an ICBM once it’s launched, so you don’t want that kind of misunderstanding in an already tense environment. To make matters worse, U.S. defense officials and their Russian counterparts aren’t communicating right now, making the risk of miscalculation that much worse. Let’s just hope we live to see the end of the year, given how things are going.
It’s truly a miracle humanity survived the first Cold War. Our chances of surviving the second one seem less great.