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Review: Accelerating Combat, Hypersonics & Lasers (25/5/23)

The CCW Emerging Threats Group convened on May 25, 2023, for a working group session on hypersonics, lasers, and AI. The session began with the observation that, historically, new weapons technologies like hypersonics are associated with escalation risks. With the rise of technology (such as nuclear missiles) with catastrophic capabilities, there is a fear that arms races may occur, causing great international anxiety. The session focused on potential consequences of such tension and what could be expected in the future of such areas.

Ukraine, Patriot vs. Hypersonic Missile

As with many current discussions, the question of Ukraine and emerging technology usage gained strong attention. However, the session emphasized the challenges surrounding assessing technological capabilities. Mutually assured destruction was also explored, which is a theoretical construct often adopted by scholars, with an emphasis on rationality limitations.

Strategic Shift, CT to Great Power

Returning to hypersonic missiles, the session examined the Russian and Chinese emphasis on hypersonic technologies, potentially seeking supremacy over the U.S. Asymmetry between the technology’s attention paralleled divergent strategies adopted by each nation, e.g., the last two decades of Anglo-American emphasis on counter-terrorism.

Counter-Hypersonics: Lasers, Artificial Intelligence

Following on from the previous working group session on space, the question arose over potential hypersonic defenses in the air. The session delved into the potential impact of AI within the field. Many fear that although AI may act swiftly, there are still margins for error and the potential for missiles to be released without any human interaction. There is also a fear that once AI is used to control weapons, humans will not be able to regain control.

Some have argued that hypersonics are invulnerable due to the difficulty in detectability as well as the challenges of shooting such devices down (as a result of speed and unpredictability). The session looked at the theoretical potential of lasers as a defense mechanism, examined strengths and weaknesses, and drew historical cases from Soviet technology.

Looking Ahead

Moving forwards, the session indicated that defenses and potentially low-tech strategies can create asymmetric threats to high-tech systems. Strategies and knowledge, as well as diplomatic relations, may provide the strongest defense to hypersonic missiles.

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