Hypersonics: Changing the NATO Deterrence Game

By Dr

By Dr



Australian Defence College

 June 2020


As NATO ‘increases investment into innovation to harness the benefits and mitigate the risks of emerging technologies, such as hypersonic systems,’ will the current ‘balanced and defensive package of measures that ensure the credibility and effectiveness of our deterrence’1 defend against this new capability? The emergence of hypersonic weapons provides a new challenge to strategy and the way we think about deterrence. Russia’s new hypersonic capability demands NATO reconsider its approach to its deterrence and defence posture. This paper argues that hypersonic weapons will change the nature of NATO’s strategic posture. The threat of hypersonic weapons increases the likelihood of compellence or coercion by risk as defined by Pape and Schelling.2 The integration of the offensive use of hypersonic weapons capability into Russian operational doctrine, in tandem with the use of nuclear weapons, creates serious escalatory dynamics for NATO. The purpose of this piece however is not to detail the engineering feats of hypersonic missiles, rather it is to highlight how these technologies can be used for deterrent and coercive purposes. Beginning with an examination of the current state of NATO Air and Space power, the paper will outline traditional understandings of deterrence and how emerging hypersonic technology could change this. Thus, the development of hypersonic technology will have a large and possibly irreversible impact for NATO, and globally will have far-reaching consequences for the international system, state behaviour, escalatory dynamics and the distribution of state power. The paper then concludes that a theoretical (not just scientific or operational) understanding of hypersonic weapons and the strategic impact of such systems is imperative.

Current State of NATO Deterrence

In the twentieth century, NATO existed to perform a specific function: keep the people and territory of the NATO member states safe from Soviet attack. In order to achieve this, NATO members unified militarily and politically to prevent possible threats from the Soviet Bloc through a doctrine of deterrence. In the twenty-first century, however, this doctrine of deterrence needs reinvigorating due to the rising tensions reappearing among great powers; the continuing threat of terrorism; and the changing character of war to include hybrid, asymmetrical, cyber and information warfare. In the area of air and space disruptive technology, the Russian testing of hypersonic weapons is chief among the threats to NATO deterrence doctrine. In the 2017 JAPCC Conference Read Ahead, which focused on NATO Deterrence, Henrik Breitenbauch argued that after the Ukraine conflict in 2014, NATO shifted its attention to conventional deterrence and defence. He reasoned that while Russia was unlikely to ‘commit the bulk of armed forces in an incursion in a Baltic state, Russia’s conventional advantage in the region is still decisive’. 3 He was correct in observing that Russian conventional advantage is powerful and therefore NATO neighbours are at risk of military intervention. If Russia is willing to escalate its use of conventional weapons, as we saw in Syria with the surprise use of cruise missiles, is NATO’s deterrence and defence doctrine ready for the possible use of the hypersonic weapons?

Traditional Understandings of Deterrence

Deterrence is a relatively simple idea; convince your opponent that the costs of attacking you will outweigh any potential gains. During the Cold War deterrence generally worked due to three factors. First, the West had the political will to act as one against the adversary. Second, the West had the military power to back up its own threats. And third, there was a clear and consistent message that the West would – without doubt – be ready, willing and able to defend the alliance. But, as Shelling observed, deterrence and international relations are often characterised by the competition of risk-taking – not so much by a test of force but a test of nerve. The test is not who can bring force but who is willing to bring the most force to bear or at least make it appear so.4

In the case of nuclear deterrence, which was key for NATO in the last half of the twentieth century, Brodie argued that it was nuclear weapons themselves that were the existential deterrent, not the nuclear deterrence strategies. In the Cuban Missile Crisis ‘neither side needed to believe the other side would deliberately and knowingly take the step [to use the weapons] that would raise the possibility [of war] to a certainty … it a was a contest of risk taking’.5 Having a nuclear deterrent threat is generally considered more credible because of the magnitude of the weapon. Sir Michael Quinlan argued that ‘weapons deter by the possibility of their use’6, or in other words, no matter how distant the possibility of their use it is necessary to understand the doctrines and plans for their employment. However, in the game of deterrence and coercion, which are in effect complementary, deterrent threats ‘can shift the burden of the first hostile move to the target of the threat’.7 As will be discussed later, Putin has made statements which would lead one to believe we will see this ‘existential use’ of hypersonic weapons in the future.

Coercive threats are inherently less credible against a legitimate deterrent threat. However – and this is where hypersonic weapons may become a credible and conventional alternative to a nuclear capability – a coercer ‘tends to bolster their credibility by favouring threats that can be fulfilled in progressive stages’. Nuclear weapons do not provide this option. The destruction wrought is so significant there is too little left of the state to warrant changing its behaviour.8 The next best thing for military coercive tactics would be to threaten the use of a hypersonic weapon because of its agility and manoeuvrability. Unlike its precision-guided missile cousins, the act of such a surprise attack (if they were to be used) still allows for an operation of progressive attacks to coerce the adversary to change their behaviour. Therefore, deterrence in this instance needs be understood in relation to this uncertainty.

Emerging Hypersonic Tech

Hypersonic development is not new; but, it is important. Why? Because these weapons are primarily designed to breach existing or forthcoming missile defence systems that currently ensure the ability to deter advances from adversaries. Not only can they reach speeds faster than Mach 5 – they are able to manoeuvre. Unlike ballistic missiles, which follow a stable trajectory that allows for missile detection systems to estimate the missile’s destination, hypersonics that can manoeuvre at hyper-speed are the new danger.9 Two systems of interest with this capability are hypersonic glide vehicles and hypersonic cruise missiles. The former is a high-velocity booster, where the missile separates and uses momentum in the upper atmosphere before zeroing in on its target. The latter utilises a SCRAMJET propulsion system to reach its target.10 Russia, China and the United States all have hypersonic development programs. Russia is at the forefront of fielding this capability, having tested its Avangard glide vehicle in December 2019.11 Further tests were conducted near Crimea on 9 January 2020, when Russia practiced the launch of the hypersonic air-launched ballistic missile Kinzhal from two MiG-31K fighters. Both are now considered ‘in service’ and thus deployable capability for the Russian military.

Russian Doctrine and the Use of Hypersonics/Deterrence

So, what does this mean in Russian military doctrine? According to a comprehensive report by David Johnson, ‘the role of conventional precision weapons’ in strategic deterrence is their instrumentality’.12 President Putin went so far as to claim that a ‘state with such weapons [conventional (non-nuclear) precision weapons] at its disposal seriously increases its offensive potential’. Furthermore, [they] ‘are comparable to employment of nuclear weapons in results but more ‘acceptable’ in political and military terms’.13

If it is true, as Putin claims, that his new capability can bring the neutralization of any military threat to Russia then NATO must reconsider its deterrent and defence posture. As Johnson argues though, one cannot take this instrumentality for granted or as a fait-accompli. Strategic deterrence with nuclear weapons is primarily utilised in this instance ‘in their non-use’. Putin may have a point; strategic objectives can be advanced by threatening to use hypersonic capabilities, maybe not toward the US but certainly for proximity nations like European members of NATO. As Cummings points out, an air-launched Kinzhal on the Russian western border could target and hit London, Paris or Rome in about 11 minutes; the recently tested Avangard expands this reach both in range and limiting the time to impact even further. Currently, neither the US nor NATO have the capability to intercept or defend against this capability. Thus, NATO must consider how it will interact with Russia in this new world of hypersonic capability.

Just as nuclear weapons change state behaviour and the military escalation calculus, so can the threat of the Russian hypersonic capability. Rhetoric could quickly escalate to kinetic action and the speed could ‘[inflict] damage using units that are well-dispersed and may appear unrelated to each other or to the conflict’.14 To this end, what will need to change for NATO and what questions do NATO partners need to ask themselves?

  • Do our current deterrent measures account for the new Russian capability?
  • If not, what are we willing to risk if this capability is put into use?
  • Who will take the lead and counter the new Russian capability?

Putin has argued that his new hypersonic capability is just as powerful a tool in coercing adversaries as his nuclear capability. But we also know that he is willing to escalate his military capability; no one saw the use of cruise missiles in Syria coming. Therefore, it is prudent for NATO to consider all options in the hypersonic era.


When it comes to hypersonic deterrence, political as well as military strategy is key. In the same way as during the Cold War NATO’s deterrence strategy was underpinned by the three pillars of political will, military capability and coherent communications among the allies, hypersonic deterrence will need a concerted and coordinated effort to bind political and military strategy together. Strategy and policymakers must shift from a doctrine of mass retaliation to an agile response to new and disruptive technologies. The recent successful testing of Russian hypersonic missiles means that this is not an abstract conversation to have on a theoretical or academic level. Nor is this just a concern raised in the face of Russia’s developments given China’s force modernisation and the US’s own development of hypersonic missiles. It is not just a theory anymore but a real and known threat that could very easily be operationalised by Russia if threatened – or used as a coercive tool to change great power politics.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization. 2019. NATO: Ready For The Future – Adapting the alliance (2018–2019). North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Pape, Robert, A. 1996. Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. Schelling, Thomas, C. 1966. Arms and Influence. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Breitenbauch, Henrik. 2017. ‘NATO: Conventional Deterrence is the New Black.’ Germany: The Joint Air Power Competence Centre. 45-51
Schelling, Thomas, C. 1966. Arms and Influence. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. 69-91.
Ibid., p. 96.
Quinlan, M. (1997). Thinking about Nuclear Weapons. London, UK: The Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies.
Pape, Robert, A. 1996. Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. p. 7-10
Thompsen, Loren, ‘To defeat hypersonic weapons, Pentagon aims to Build Vast Space Sensor Layer’, Forbes, 4 Feb. 2020. Accessed 19 Feb. 2020 Available from www.forbes.com.
Cummings, Alan ‘Hypersonic Weapons: Tactical uses and Strategic goals’, War On The Rocks, 12 Nov. 2019, https://warontherocks.com/2019/11/hypersonic-weapons-tactical-uses-and-strategic-goals. Accessed 23 Jan. 2020.
BBC News. (27. Dec 2019). Russia deploys Avangard hypersonic missile system. BBC News Online. British Broadcasting Corporation.
Johnson, D. (2018). Russia’s conventional Precision Strike Capabilities, Regional Crises, and Nuclear Thresholds. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Livermore, California: Center for Global Security Research, p. 46.
Cummings, A. Hypersonic Weapons.
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Australian Defence College

Dr Cathy Moloney is the Head of the Centre for Defence Research, Australian Defence College. She holds a PhD in Nuclear Policy and International Relations (Griffith University), and a Master of International Politics (1st Class, University of Melbourne).

Information provided is current as of June 2020

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