Russia closed out 2018 with an announcement of a successful test of a nuclear-capable glider that President Vladimir Putin called “a major event in the life of the armed forces and, perhaps, in the life of the country.” All advanced militaries, including that of Japan, are pursuing “hypersonic” technologies, prompting fears that this will launch the next major arms race. Unfortunately, there is little appetite for arms control measures these days; that must change.

Hypersonics are extremely fast missiles — by definition, they travel at least five times the speed of sound — that can maneuver independently upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Because their flight paths are not smooth, they pose real problems for missile defense systems that track consistent parabolas or trajectories.

Early in 2018, Putin announced that Russia was developing hypersonic missiles, along with other critical technologies that would transform the strategic balance. Days before the new year, Putin revealed that his military had tested the Avanguard, which flew 20 times the speed of sound from a launch site in southwestern Russia to hit a target in the Kamchatka Peninsula on the Pacific coast some 5,600 km away. The “wonderful, perfect New Year’s gift for the country” would, he promised, be incorporated into Russia’s military arsenal in 2019.

China has been developing hypersonic technologies as well. It unveiled the CM-401 hypersonic ballistic anti-ship missile at an air show in early November. That weapon is expected to threaten aircraft carriers and other major surface ships. In other words, it could pose a formidable threat to the U.S. military assets that would be expected to defend Japan during a crisis.

U.S. officials and experts worry that they are losing out in the race to develop hypersonic technologies. Washington had a hypersonic program, but it was terminated after test failures in 2010 and 2011. Chinese and Russian advances have prompted the U.S. to make resumption of the program a priority: “We’re playing catchup ball,” an official at the Department of Defense stated in congressional testimony last year.

Even Japan is developing hypersonic weapons. The new mid-term defense plan, released late last month, calls for research on and eventual deployment of hypersonic weapons to help defend distant islands in the southwestern approaches; they are expected to be added to the defense arsenal in the mid-2020s. The fast-moving, radar-evading weapons would be used against large ships that could threaten Japanese territory. Critics argue that such weapons would cross the line that forbids Japan from possessing offensive capabilities.

There is much about the hypersonic discussion that is hype and divorced from reality. For example, Moscow claims that the deployment of U.S. missile defense systems in Europe and Asia have forced it to develop such technologies. In fact, however, those systems were not intended to defend against Russian strategic weapons and would be quickly overwhelmed if used in that way.

Russia’s deployment of hypersonic weapons is a chest-thumping ploy by Putin to remind the world — and just as significantly, the Russian people — that they are a nuclear power that must be taken seriously. The missiles are a message to Washington that Moscow must not be ignored and that U.S. disregard for existing arms control measures is not a cost-free move. There is very real concern in the wake of the U.S. government’s decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the possibility that the New START strategic arms control treaty, the last remaining major U.S-Russian arms control measure, will not be renewed when it expires in February 2021. Those agreements are not perfect, but they should not be allowed to collapse.

Tokyo is one of the primary targets of Russian military signaling. In talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over the future of the islands off Hokkaido seized by Moscow in 1945, Putin has attempted to impose restrictions on how Japan can defend those territories if and when they are returned. More important than the actual terms of any eventual deal is the doubt that Putin is trying to insert into relations between Tokyo and Washington. Abe has not risen to the bait, noting in a recent interview that “the presence of the U.S. military is for the purpose of maintaining peace and security in Japan and the Far East and is absolutely not a force hostile to Russia. I have explained this to President Putin. … Russia will come to understand this.” Equally revealing is the recently approved National Defense Program Guidelines, which take note of Russian efforts to modernize its military forces and the expansion of its military activities in the Far Eastern region, including around the disputed islands.

Also important are efforts to reinvigorate arms control talks. As many countries are developing hypersonic technologies, it seems like an obvious opportunity for multilateral talks. This is another area in which Japan can attempt to lead in rule-making.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.