New Analysis Finds Hypersonic Weapons Offer Few Advantages over Existing Missile Systems

Billions Spent on Hypersonic Development is Driving a Costly Arms Race

Published May 5, 2021

A new technical analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) finds that hypersonic weapons offer few meaningful advantages over existing missiles in terms of speed, maneuverability, accuracy, stealth, or the evasion of missile defenses. It recommends that the United States slow its development and acquisition of these weapons to better align funding with their limited tactical and strategic utility.

“Hypersonic weapons are widely promoted as revolutionary missile technologies. That misperception is driving a new and expensive arms race between the United States, Russia, and China that poses a global security risk,” said Dr. Cameron Tracy, a Kendall Fellow for the UCS Global Security Program and author of the report. “Unfortunately, the overhyped claims regarding the performance of these weapons are rarely backed up with data.”

Tracy was the co-author of a peer-reviewed study published in January in Science & Global Security, an international journal based at Princeton University, that analyzed the operational capabilities of hypersonic missiles that the U.S. Department of Defense is currently developing at a cost of $3.2 billion this year and billions more in the years to come.

The new report notes that the Department of Defense has not articulated a clear military role for hypersonic weapons and recommends that the Biden administration examine instead whether existing missile technologies, which offer similar capabilities, can be refined and deployed more effectively and at a lower cost, freeing up funds to spend on other national priorities.

The “pursuit of hypersonic weapons without a defined strategic role or a clear technical basis for their assessment risks wasteful, inefficient use of limited financial resources,” Tracy writes in the report. “The billions of dollars spent yearly on the multitude of hypersonic weapons currently under development in the United States cannot be used for other priorities that would enhance national security. The diversion of these funds to an overhyped, underperforming missile technology could therefore reduce the overall security of the United States.”

The UCS analysis recommends that Congress strictly exercise its oversight role and withhold funding from hypersonic missile programs that do not demonstrably contribute to national security. In fact, a recent report by the Government Accountability Office determined that the Defense Department is not executing effective leadership over hypersonic development programs, consistently underestimating costs that are projected to reach nearly $15 billion between 2015 and 2024.

“We need a rational approach to hypersonic weapons development that uses evidence-based analysis to weigh the costs and benefits of participating in an expensive arms race over weapons of questionable technological value,” said Tracy.