February 21, 2022

NATO’s Hypersonic Challenge

A display of a flight of the warhead of the Avangard hypersonic boost-glide weapon.
A display of a flight of the warhead of the Avangard hypersonic boost-glide weapon.

Russia is investing in the development of a variety of hypersonic delivery systems. These can travel to targets at five or more times the speed of sound, elude defences by evasive manoeuvring, and deliver munitions with great precision.

Russia’s arsenal includes, at various stages of development, systems that can be launched from subsonic and supersonic aircraft, from ships and submarines, and from ground-based launchers. They can deliver conventional and nuclear payloads at long range, threatening American and European targets. China too is researching, developing, and deploying hypersonic delivery systems.

Hypersonic systems present NATO with a novel set of defence planning challenges. Their high speed can increase surprise and compress reaction time. They are difficult to track and to intercept. Their potential to produce strategic effects even in small numbers offers a range of hostile options to an adversary, from peacetime coercion to achieving rapid gains in wartime. At present, they are likely to be used only for special missions, but their importance may grow as technologies improve and production costs fall.

In this analysis, Richard Weitz describes the challenges that Russia’s investment in hypersonic systems pose to NATO and outlines a range of possible responses. These include passive defence measures and focused exercises, missile defence technologies, and export controls. The Allied nations’ own pursuit of hypersonic capabilities is less advanced, but programmes are underway, for example in the US and in the EU through Permanent Structured Cooperation. As well as giving the Allies more military options, they could also provide leverage for pursuing new arms control agreements with Moscow. NATO will most likely need a menu of options including deterrence measures, active and passive defences, offensive strike capabilities, and arms control to deal with the challenge of Russia’s hypersonic systems.

Download and read: NATO’s Hypersonic Challenge (PDF)