Here's where major military powers stand in the global hypersonic arms race

Key Points
  • Many have said the U.S. is trailing Russia and China in hypersonic weapons technology.
  • But some experts argue Washington has a different objective than Moscow or Beijing.
  • The U.S. is pursuing hypersonic missiles to deliver conventional weapons, while the other two countries are focused on nuclear payloads, they said.
A U.S. Air Force B-52 carries the X-51 Hypersonic Vehicle for a launch test on May 1, 2013.
Bobbi Zapka/USAF/Handout via Reuters

Recent comments by U.S. defense officials have stoked worries that the world's largest economy is losing the hypersonic arms race to Russia and China. But that's a misleading notion, according to experts.

The U.S. shouldn't be compared to the other two nations because it has a different goal when it comes to developing high-speed missiles known as hypersonic weapons, industry specialists argue.

Hypersonic devices travel five times faster than the speed of sound and typically come in two forms: cruise missiles and a type of ballistic missile called a maneuverable reentry vehicle.

China and Russia are pursuing hypersonic weapons — and the US can't defend against them

Washington is believed to be lagging in the space because Beijing and Moscow conduct successful tests of hypersonic technology at a more frequent pace.

In fact, Admiral Harry Harris, who heads the U.S. Pacific Command, said in February that the country was "falling behind" China's hypersonic development. And Air Force General John Hyten — America's top nuclear commander — said the U.S. lacked "any defense that could deny the employment" of a hypersonic weapon against it.

Hyten's comments came after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his country possessed a new hypersonic missile in a March 1 speech. That same day, a senior Pentagon official told media that U.S. hypersonic research was underfunded.

In many ways, the United States is running a different race from Russia and China.
James Acton
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

"It is very commonly asserted that there is an arms race in hypersonic technology and that the United States is losing," James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a trained physicist, wrote in a note.

But "in many ways, the United States is running a different race from Russia and China," he continued. Beijing and Moscow are focused on developing missiles that can deliver nuclear warheads, while Washington is interested in the delivery of non-nuclear warheads, he explained.

"The U.S. focus relative to hypersonic weapons is on the delivery of conventional weapons while Russia and China are more likely to use hypersonic missiles for nuclear payloads," agreed George Nacouzi, a senior Engineer at RAND Corp.

"Comparing who's ahead isn't a very useful framework" because the countries have different endpoints, echoed Singapore-based defense analyst Zoe Stanley-Lockman, formerly with the European Union Institute for Security Studies.

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"What the U.S. is pursuing is much more difficult," she said, explaining that nonnuclear hypersonic missiles aim to hit smaller, more precise targets so accuracy is essential. In contrast, "nuclear-armed hypersonic gliders don't require the same precision," she said.

And, as it turns out, Washington may actually be ahead in its objective.

"The United States has a very long history of testing in [non-nuclear warheads], which gives the United States an advantage in its current efforts," said Acton.

"For instance, the most successful U.S. boost-glide weapon R&D program, the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon, has seen a glider tested over about 4,000 kilometers. China, by contrast, appears to have been testing boost-glide weapons at a range of less than 2,000 kilometers."

As a result, he doesn't believe the U.S. is behind in the hypersonic race.

Other countries are also joining the competition — New Delhi and Moscow have jointly developed a hypersonic cruise missile called BrahMos and intend to sell it to other nations.