Coming to a War Near You: Hypersonic Weapons
Hypersonic weapons could be used in conjunction with less-expensive weapons in a "tunneling" attack to increase the survivability of all the attacking weapons. Highly survivable hypersonic weapons could be used to help know-out sensors and defensive weapons that threaten a U.S. PGM salvo. Less-expensive munitions, such as SDBs or MALD decoys, could consume a defender's attention and compel him to waste his interceptors, creating a window in time and space for other PGMs to get a clean shot at defended targets.
Kazianis: In what ways do you see China using or not using hypersonic weapons in their much-discussed anti-access/area-denial strategies?
Clark & Gunzinger: China will likely employ hypersonic weapons as part of their A2/AD strategies, but in limited ways. While "boost-glide" weapons will have long ranges and be highly survivable, but they will also be very expensive. China could use them as a "silver bullet" weapon to hit high-value targets, or do so in conjunction with less-expensive weapons that reduce the defender's capacity first.
When they develop them, China will likely also employ air-launched hypersonic weapons to attack U.S. and allied bases with a high probability of being able to circumvent U.S. defenses. U.S. forces will have to think about how they will use point defenses to protect high-value targets.
Kazianis: Finally, looking out ten to twenty years into the future, do you see hypersonic weapons being a truly game-changing weapon? Or just the normal evolution of precision strike weapons?
Clark & Gunzinger: We think hypersonics are an evolutionary improvement, rather than a revolutionary one. They are faster, and more survivable, but have limited payload, less maneuverability and less-sophisticated sensors and logic (because of their speed).
Many people have talked about the quicker time on target achievable with hypersonic weapons. This may be useful in some very limited situations, such as attacking a missile launcher after it launches but before it relocates. This still requires surveillance to provide a target and a launch platform close enough to support the engagement. With regard to a high-value target (like a terrorist leader) it is unlikely our command and control cycle will be able to exploit their speed to hit the target before it moves on.
Harry J. Kazianis serves as Executive Editor of The National Interest and a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest. He is the co-author and editor of the recent Center for the National Interest report: Tackling Asia’s Greatest Challenges - A U.S. Japan-Vietnam Trilateral Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @grecianformula.