Scott Wight / AP

Superfast US test rocket fails but could still change how we wage war

Hypersonic rocket explodes during test, but the technology could upset weaponry among major powers

A U.S. military test rocket, designed to fly up to 10 times the speed of sound and attack targets anywhere in the world in under an hour, failed spectacularly this week just after taking off from a site on Alaska’s Kodiak Peninsula.

The setback comes as China and perhaps Russia have forged ahead with their own versions, defense research agency IHS Jane’s reported. With some support in the U.S. Congress, the Pentagon has been working on these new rockets for a decade. Analysts say the weapons have the potential to shake up the balance of military might and missile defense among Washington, Beijing and Moscow.

"Due to an anomaly, the test was terminated near the launchpad shortly after liftoff to ensure public safety. There were no injuries to any personnel," the Department of Defense said in a news release.

Officials were overseeing the test remotely when they blew up the rocket after detecting an unspecified problem, Reuters reported. Alaska radio station KMXT cited witnesses as saying the rocket started a nosedive before it exploded. 

The hypersonic rocket could give the U.S. military more options when a chance to strike an enemy arises and when no drone, aircraft carrier or other piece of military hardware is nearby, said Elbridge Colby, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank. 

Defense officials hope the rocket could be used to bombard faraway targets with nonnuclear explosives and without appearing on radar like a weapon that countries such as Russia could mistake for a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) — a nightmarish mistake that many fear could trigger an apocalyptic response from the Kremlin.

“Right now, if you see a long-range ballistic missile coming from the U.S., you know it’s a nuclear weapon,” Colby said.

But the advanced hypersonic weapon (AHW) behaves very differently from a ballistic missile. An ICBM, able to travel thousands of miles around Earth just above the atmosphere, goes up and comes down in an arc. The AHW can also cross continents but takes a distinctively different path, shooting straight up to the edge of space and then gliding to its target at speeds as high as 13,000 mph. Colby said the unconventional path of the AHW makes it much harder to destroy than ICBMs.

ICBMs, developed in the middle of the 20th century by the U.S. and the Soviet Union, were meant to annihilate an enemy’s civilian and military hubs with nuclear explosions equivalent to millions of tons of TNT. During the the Cold War the two nations built up their ICBM stockpiles to the point that the destruction of both countries — and much of life on earth — was mutual and assured. 

The AHW was first successfully tested in 2011 and remains in development. Colby said it could have big implications for international relations in the coming decades.

For example, the new weapon could affect agreements such as the U.S.-Russia Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which has dramatically reduced the number of nuclear warheads each country holds. The new weapon could require a return to the negotiating table, because by evading missile defense systems, it could give users a new advantage. Furthermore, it is possible to affix a nuclear warhead to a hypersonic rocket.

“The traditional arms control treaties would need to be adapted,” Colby said, adding that such moves are “very unlikely” in the near future, given the strained relations between Russia and the U.S. over the ongoing civil conflict in Ukraine between pro-Russian factions in the east and the pro-Western government.

If Washington and Moscow return to the table, talks would be motivated more by fear than by goodwill. “At the end of the Cold War, arms control was done as a sign of friendship,” he said. ”I don't think that’s going to happen now for a while.”

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