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A 21st-century arms race in our backyard

Raytheon missiles on display at an airshow. Photographer: Simon Dawson/BloombergSimon Dawson/Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloom

A version of this essay appears in Innovation Beat, the Globe’s technology newsletter. Sign up here.

As I was scrolling through Twitter recently, I saw coverage of Raytheon’s chief executive, Greg Hayes, on Bloomberg TV. It was around the time the Waltham-based defense juggernaut was sharing its third-quarter earnings, so I decided to tune in.

But instead of normal financial jargon, I got schooled in something new: hypersonic missiles. To hear Hayes tell it, China is several years ahead of America in developing this military technology, which can fly lower, faster, and penetrate missile defense systems. “The most destabilizing threat to the homeland,” Hayes called it. “The time to react is very, very short.”

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The language seemed inflammatory for the normally tight-lipped defense firm. But digging deeper, it made more sense. Raytheon, which employs nearly 15,000 people in Massachusetts, is developing a hypersonic weapon of its own, one that is still in the research phase, and if successful, could be sold to the US Air Force. (The company recently completed its first successful test of its “Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept.”)

After a few calls with weapons experts and arms control activists in Washington and Boston, things got worrisome.

Much of the US defense community is obsessed with China’s advances in hypersonic technology, they told me — so much so that it could fuel an arms competition between the two countries. On the other hand, they said, the technology is not new, China’s actual advances are unclear, and the program itself is potentially another military boondoggle.

The narrative Hayes was peddling is dangerous, they said, and could help make the missile program a focal point of tension between two superpowers that are already sparring over intellectual property, technology, and human rights issues. Indeed, we’re starting to see more discussion about the prospects of a war with China.

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William Hartung, the director of arms and security at the Center for International Policy, put it bluntly. “They see a potential jackpot here, and they’re gonna keep pushing it,” he said of Raytheon, adding that Hayes’s statements are “dangerous at this point when we’re on the cusp of this US-China arms race.”

It’s unclear if Raytheon will succeed in developing its own hypersonic missile, but its business may depend on it, at least in part. Third-quarter sales dipped $75 million due solely to America’s pullout from Afghanistan. And the company worries that $440 million in advance payments from a “Middle East customer” will not get regulatory approvals, meaning the money will have to be returned, recent SEC filings show.

A tough decision might be forthcoming: stop fueling a 21st century arms race, or deliver profits for shareholders. And we’ll get to watch it unfold in our backyard.







Pranshu Verma can be reached at pranshu.verma@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @pranshuverma_.