Sunday, January 29, 2023

AUKUS Beyond SSN: Alarming Hypersonic Arms Race Escalation

Chantika Salsabila Alarsah

Department of International Relations, Universitas Hasanuddin

A US-led tripartite security pact, featuring the US, Australia, and the UK, ‘AUKUS’ received various reactions when it was announced a year ago. Some parties were welcoming, some were declining, and some were ambivalent about the pact. Some of the welcoming parties like India, Singapore, and the Philippines believe that AUKUS would restore peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific. In contrast, the concerned actors like Indonesia and Malaysia, believe it would escalate arms race and power projection in the region. Undoubtedly, stronger rejection came from China, as it seemed fully aware that the pact is established to counter its power and flourishing presence in the Indo-Pacific.

The repudiations were not something unexpected, given one of the main primaries of AUKUS is to deliver eight nuclear-powered fast attack submarines or SSNs (Submersible Ship Nuclear) for Australia. The initiative then predisposes the rejecting actors worried that the pact would intensify nuclear arms race in the region. While the AUKUS anxiety mostly circled around the potential nuclear arms race, there is another thing that should be as frightened about: the hypersonic arms race.

AUKUS has been progressive in working on its two main initiatives throughout its one-year running, reflecting the high commitment of the parties to make this pact successful. Besides major improvements in its SSN initiative, the AUKUS also made significant progress in its advanced capabilities agenda. Initially, the advanced capabilities effort includes four areas of cooperation: cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence and autonomy, quantum technologies, and contemporary undersea capabilities1. A few months later, they extend to four more areas including hypersonic and counter-hypersonic capabilities, electronic warfare, information sharing, and defense innovation.

Its objective to deliver SSNs for Australia somehow overshadowed its advanced capabilities agenda, which is in fact just as significant, or even more consequential for the next few years; although it is understandable given the term “nuclear” radiates more horrors. Since it will take decades to complete the manufacture of SSNs, the immediate priority would be enhancing the contemporary weapons and advanced technology collaboration that takes a shorter time to deliver deterrence2 and to countervail the continuing rapid growth of China’s military capability. That is why it is safe to say that AUKUS’ advanced capabilities agenda could be more consequential for the region in the near time.

Beyond SSN, hypersonic development in AUKUS should be alarming for several reasons. First, it has remarkable capabilities that are more threatening and destabilizing than ordinary missiles. When we talk about hypersonic, its extreme speed- which is known to be at least five times faster than the speed of sound- might be the first thing that comes to mind. If commercial aircraft fly below Mach 1 (Mach 1 is the local speed of sound3 or 1.235km/hour), and modern fighter jets fly at Mach 2 or 3; the hypersonic weapons can travel with a velocity ranging from Mach 5 to above Mach 204. For illustration, a hypersonic missile can travel from New York to Beijing in 1 hour and 40 minutes at its minimum speed (Mach 5)5. However, its speed is not the sole feature that distinguishes a hypersonic weapon from a conventional one because, in fact, ordinary ballistic missiles also travel at Mach 5. What makes it distinctive is the combination of its speed and ability to maneuver at various altitudes, which make it extremely difficult to predict its trajectory and target, and almost impossible for most defense systems to defend against. On top of that, hypersonic missiles can also be used to deliver both conventional and nuclear warheads. Since this kind of weapon could penetrate most defense systems, this hypersonic offensive capability is very destabilizing.

Second, developing hypersonic weaponry and associated technologies would not take as much time as SSN. It is reported that the completion of eight SSNs is forecasted to be in 2059 and the arrival of the first SSN is not likely to happen before the late 2030s6. In comparison, it takes approximately a decade for hypersonic missiles ready for military use7 and perhaps less for the supporting technologies, which are much earlier than SSN. Since it can be developed within a shorter time frame, and the U.S. and Australia themselves have the ambitious intention to rush their hypersonic development, there is a high possibility that hypersonic weapons would be many produced under AUKUS. Australia’s Defense Minister, Richard Marles, even confirmed that AUKUS could produce much more advanced technology, including hypersonic capabilities, than submarines8.

Third, until now there is no effective international regime that regulates hypersonic proliferation. Although there is ‘Missile Technology Control Regime’ (MTCR), which already includes some limitations on missiles that can deliver mass destruction warheads like nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons- which hypersonic missiles are capable of- hypersonic missiles do not need all of those to be destructive. Hypersonic weapons can be destructive even with conventional payloads. Hence, the existing regime is not so effective to hamper its proliferation.

It is important for such destabilizing weapons to be restricted. However, the complete ban on hypersonic production cannot be the end goal of the non-proliferation effort, as it would be most likely to be counterproductive. Instead, controlling its shares and exports would be more promising to hamper the proliferation. The effort to deliver these suggestions has also been made by the RAND Corporation, a US-based global policy think tank years ago. Looking at the trend of Hypersonic is currently much more prominent than it was, and now more countries acquiring hypersonic weapons, the negotiations for hypersonic non-proliferation should be reiterated.


1Australian Government Department of Defence. “FACT SHEET: Implementation of the Australia-United Kingdom-United States Partnership (AUKUS),” April 6, 2022.

2Davis, Malcolm, Ben Stevens, Alex Bristow, and Marcus Hellyer. “INSIGHTS ASPI AUKUS Update 2: September 2022-the One-Year Anniversary,” no. September (2022).

3Wright, David, and Cameron Tracy. “The Physics and Hype of Hypersonic Weapons.” Scientific American, August 1, 2021.

4The RAND Corporation. “Hypersonic Missile Nonproliferation.” The RAND Corporation, September 28, 2017.

5Carnegie Endowment. “Hypersonic Missiles Arms Race: What You Need to Know,” May 28, 2020.

6Lee, Peter K, and Alice Nason. “365 Days of AUKUS: Progress, Challenges and Prospects.”  United States Studies Centre, September 14, 2022.

7Speier, Richard H., George Nacouzi, Carrie A. Lee, and Richard M. Moore. “Hypersonic Missile Nonproliferation of Weapons,” 2017.

8Nicholson, Brendan. “AUKUS Will Deliver the Potent Military Australia Needs: Marles.” ASPI The Strategist, September 16, 2022.