Ultra-fast hypersonic weapons have rocketed to among the chief concerns for U.S. military planners as Moscow and Beijing eye the means to combat U.S. missile defenses.
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Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan recently sounded the alarm that the U.S. military "is not moving fast enough to stay ahead" of rivals China and Russia in space, citing advances in a several technologies, especially hypersonics.
Russian leaders have claimed they are building a new hypersonic missile that can travel at nearly nine times the speed of sound and be used to combat ships at sea or land targets. And China “is developing a range of technologies to counter U.S. and other countries’ ballistic missile defense systems, including maneuverable reentry vehicles, multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles, decoys, chaff, jamming, thermal shielding and hypersonic glide vehicles,” the Pentagon said in a report to Congress earlier this year on China’s military might.
The hypersonic weapons threat is especially worrisome because of its technological superiority over any existing counter measures.
“Hypersonic weapons use advances in electronic capacity, sensor quality, and miniaturization to create a new threat,” said Trey Obering, former head of the Missile Defense Agency. “They’re fast and maneuverable. That combination creates a threat that is imperative for the U.S. to address.”
Michael Griffin, the Pentagon’s undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said that matching potential adversaries in hypersonics is the “highest technical priority” for the U.S.
“I’m sorry for everybody out there who champions some other high priority, some technical thing. It’s not that I disagree with those. But there has to be a first, and hypersonics is my first,” Griffin said last year.
The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency puts a fine point on the value of hypersonic capabilities. “Developments in hypersonic propulsion will revolutionize warfare by providing the ability to strike targets more quickly, at greater distances, and with greater firepower,” the agency said in congressional testimony.
Two broad types of hypersonic weapons are in development. One is like a super-fast cruise missile and powered during its entire flight. The other is a so-called glide vehicle that would be launched atop a ballistic missile and then separate on reentry. But unlike an ICBM reentry vehicle, it would be maneuvered as it descends and able to evade defenses due to its high speeds and unpredictable path. Either system would be highly destructive with or without a warhead due to the kinetic power of something traveling at over five times the speed of sound.
Unfortunately, in this category of weaponry, the U.S. is playing catch up.
“We have lost our technical advantage in hypersonics," Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last year, " but "we haven't lost the hypersonics fight.”
Among the essential Pentagon efforts to regain the technological lead, the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division (NSWC Crane) in Indiana recently unveiled an innovative program that rapidly develops technologies and systems into prototypes for testing and fielding. It draws from a network of leading-edge companies and universities from which the U.S. government can mine the best ideas. The program has the mandate to assess myriad systems that might be applicable to hypersonics, from sensors and tracking technologies to propulsion and glide vehicles.
The hypersonics focus at NSWC Crane is part of a larger program there aimed at prototyping systems to address a range of critical Department of Defense priorities, from machine learning and hypersonics, to radiation-hardened microelectronics and various warfare technologies.
The ascendance of the hypersonic threat and its ability, if perfected, to strike with little or no warning, is sparking concern about the potential for proliferation of such systems by Russia and China to other nations.
“Fortunately, no state currently has a vested interest in offering hypersonic missiles for sale,” said Richard Speier at the Rand Corp., adding that “this could change within ten years.”