Inadvertent escalation risks of Hypersonic Boost-Glide Vehicles

| Issue Brief

In the coming years, the United States is expected to join Russia and other states in deploying a new generation of hypersonic weapons. This Issue Brief looks at how hypersonic boost-glide vehicles affect elivery times, maneuver capability, attack warning and performance against missile defense.


The United States, Russia, and China are developing a new generation of hypersonic weapons. The systems under development include both cruise missiles and glide vehicles that are launched by ballistic missiles. This issue brief focuses on hypersonic boost-glide vehicles (BGVs). Although alarmism is misplaced, BGVs could create new pathways for inadvertent escalation and present additional challenges for arms control. One of the key findings is, that indeed much of the alarm around BGVs is unwarranted. The deployment of BGVs should not negatively affect the survivability of nuclear forces. However, BGVs increase inadvertent escalation risks due to their target ambiguity during flight and by limiting the dual confirmation of a detected launch through radar and heat signatures. Therefore, one key recommendation is that risk-reduction measures should aim at decreasing declaratory ambiguity and diffusing worst-case assumptions.

DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.11258958

Policy recommendations

  • Risk-reduction measures should therefore aim at decreasing declaratory ambiguity and diffusing worst-case assumptions.
  • States should clarify internally the mission sets of their BGVs and brief each other on their doctrinal position similar to their nuclear strategy.
  • States should keep a hotline open between military commanders with the authority to launch BGVs.
  • NATO allies should prepare for future arms control opportunities and prioritize among possible measures and try to form a consensus around the items they deem most important and feasible.


  • Steve Fetter

    Steve Fetter has been a professor in the School of Public Policy since 1988 at the University of Maryland. He served for five years in the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in the White House during the Obama Administration, and until January 2017 led OSTP’s national security and international affairs division. Other governmental experience includes stints at the Department of State and the Department of Defense, and service as an advisor or consultant to the Department of Energy, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and the Office of Technology Assessment.

  • Victor Mizin

    Victor Mizin is the Leading Researcher with the Center for International Security at the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) of the Russian Academy of Sciences. From 1978 to 2001, he was on diplomatic service at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the USSR and the Russian Federation. He headed the related desks at the Russian Foreign Ministry, was the member of the Russian Mission to the UN in New York and an UNSCOM/UNMOVIC inspector. As a member of official delegations, he took part in bilateral and multilateral negotiations, in particular, on strategic offensive arms limitation and reduction, intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles (INF) and the Conference on Disarmament.

  • Tim Thies

    Tim Thies is a Researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (IFSH) and a PhD candidate at Radboud University Nijmegen. Previously, he was an EU Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Consortium Intern at the Peace Research Center Prague and a Visiting Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey.