A Q&A on Hypersonic Glide Vehicles

Graphic: DARPA

What’s the expert view on hypersonic glide vehicles, in light of recent news? To get some answers, we spoke with Jaganath Sankaran, a professor at UT Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. Sankaran’s research spans space weapons, missile defense, and arms control policy. 

  • NB: HGV = hypersonic glide vehicle; FOBS = fractional orbital bombardment system. Payload questions in bold; Sankaran answers in standard typeface. 

If we’re assuming that the Financial Times story holds up, how much of a surprise is this development?
Politically speaking, it’s a significant surprise. There hasn’t been a significant shift in US missile defenses that would justify the Chinese pursuit of a FOBS. Technologically, it isn’t much of a surprise. The Soviets had done it. The Chinese apparently had a test program during the Cold War and later abandoned it.

How could this technology affect global security? Do HGVs change deterrence?
Not much. There are better and cheaper ways to reinforce second-strike capabilities and China’s nuclear deterrent. A FOBS has no effect on American nuclear deterrence. We have always accepted nuclear vulnerability with China. This development does not alter that fact. 

The only plausible negative consequences would be if China deploys an extensive system and expands its nuclear arsenal. In that case, it would certainly provoke a debate in the American nuclear enterprise and may require offsetting actions. But we are not there yet. 

Are there any adequate ways to track or intercept HGVs? 
The consensus seems to be that we need newer tracking capabilities for HGVs. However, some recent research indicates that existing tracking capabilities may have more residual capacity than previously assumed.

Will this development drive calls for increased spending on specific military programs?
There is already a robust effort to fund R&D in hypersonic offense/defense weaponry. This development may be politically used to support some of those existing funding priorities.

Related Stories

Congress Reveals Russia’s Possible Nuclear ASAT Plans

Congress was thrown into a frenzy yesterday amid reports that Russia is working on a space-based nuclear capability that could target satellites in LEO.


The State of National Security Space Policy 2024

It’s time for the four-year-old Space Force to move out of the establishment phase and work through what it really means to conduct military operations in orbit, including translating 30,000-foot doctrine to the tactical level, according to two former defense officials.


Understanding AI’s Impact on Space Data with Planet’s Head of Product

Payload spoke to Nate Gonzalez, Planet’s head of product, to understand what the last year of AI hype means for earth observation companies like his. 


Report: DoD Needs Better Plan to Partner With Allies In Orbit

A lack of cohesiveness across the US space enterprise is getting in the way of cooperation with allies, according to a report released this week by RAND.