China says UK will 'inevitably pay' for olympic boycott
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Mark Hilborne, who runs King’s College, London’s Space Security Research Group, cast doubt on how groundbreaking the missiles are in terms of their impact but he claimed the US may have been blindsided by the move. He told Express.co.uk: “This is slightly alarming to the US. Its defence systems are predicated on threats coming from the north. Although it could probably have detected this test, its defences aren’t aimed in that direction.”
Describing hypersonic missiles, which reach speeds of Mach 5 or above, as extraordinarily difficult to engineer, the lecturer based at the Defence Academy in Oxford questioned the true impact of their advantages.
Such weaponry could make it harder for the US to mount a defensive response because it would be harder to detect where the missiles might hit, compared to a nuclear missile which has a predictable trajectory following a simple arc.
The hypersonic alternative is more manoeuvrable, but the amount of damage such missiles would inflict pales in comparison to nukes. Hypersonic weapons are another way of carrying a warhead – be that nuclear or conventional – but they essentially fly in a different way.
A bigger shock may be China’s apparent supremacy in their development.
Dr Hilborne said: “The US and Russia have always been first [in terms of strategic technology], but it looks like the Chinese might be the first to make these operational. It will be an engineering feat.
“I don’t see it changing the balance of power, but it might provide a niche capability.”
Hypersonic missiles could also be used as bargaining chips in arms control negotiations, although other capabilities, such as stealthy long range cruise missiles, possess strike capabilities that are much cheaper and no less effective.
Dr Hilborne said: “I’m sceptical. There’s a lot of hype around hypersonic missiles.”
While the UK does not possess any long range designs of the kind developed by Russia and China, it is partnering with France over hypersonic anti-shipping missiles with a range of about 300km and capable of Mach 5.
The AUKUS deal may have complicated relations between London and Paris, but the development appears to be progressing.
Dr Hilborne said: “That makes much more sense from an operational perspective.
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“You can see why that would be an advantage. The engineering problems are not as significant. It’s a short flight so the cooling, especially, is probably less daunting than for a long range hypersonic weapon. It does make sense.
“[The UK and France] are not really entering the same game as the US, Russia and China.”
However, a spaceplane engineered in the UK combining “world-beating” jet and rocket engine technology could offer a useful propulsion system, though it is not currently being developed for military purposes.
Justin Bronk, a research fellow and editor of RUSI Defence Systems, said that hypersonic missiles offer hostile nations ways to overmatch their current air and missile defence systems.
He continued: “However, since the UK currently has extremely limited ground-based air and missile defence capabilities, hypersonic missiles do not particularly increase the already existing vulnerability to hostile missile attacks.”
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On whether the hypersonic arms race can be slowed, Dr Hilborne pointed to challenges including the secrecy surrounding their development as well as a lack of strategic dialogue between countries developing them.
“The US has said they would be transparent about their weapons should they make them operational. We don’t know about Russia and China.
“There’s not much strategic dialogue between any of these three. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and activities in Eastern Ukraine really soured the relationship, and disagreements over the South China Sea and Hong Kong has kept US-China relations cool.
“There doesn’t seem to be much trust there.”
However, Dr Hilborne raised the hope that agreements to limit the weapons can be reached, as evidenced by deals struck at the end of the Cold War.
He added that a flashpoint, such as the situation at Ukraine’s border, if it escalates further, could act as a wake-up call with nations scrambling to avert military conflict. It might provide the catalyst to negotiating a limit or ban on hypersonic weapons becoming operational.
And Britain has taken a proactive lead by pushing a UN resolution through over responsible behaviour in space, getting 160 countries to line up behind it in support.
Dr Hilborne described it as one area where the UK is leading the discussion and a demonstration of its diplomatic sway.
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