Key point: DARPA is at the forefront of the Pentagon’s efforts to get back in the hypersonic delivery vehicle race.
In a speech on the Senate floor on August 14, 1958, then-Senator and aspiring presidential candidate John F. Kennedy proclaimed the existence of a “missile gap” between the United States and Russia. Kennedy went on to warn that unless this gap was immediately addressed, the result would be the erosion of the U.S. strategic forces’ ability to deter the Soviet Union. It later became apparent that the balance in nuclear-capable ballistic missiles decisively favored the United States.
A new “missile gap” is emerging, one that is based in fact. This is the disparity between the United States and its main competitors, Russia and China, in the field of hypersonic weapons systems. A hypersonic vehicle is one that moves through the atmosphere at a minimum speed of five times that of sound, or Mach 5. A hypersonic cruise missile travels continuously through the air employing a special high-powered engine. A hypersonic glide vehicle is launched into space atop a ballistic missile, after which it maneuvers through the upper reaches of the atmosphere until it dives towards its target. Both vehicle types can carry either conventional or nuclear weapons.
Hypersonic weapons systems could dramatically alter the existing balance of conventional military power forces between the United States and its major competitors. They could strike key military targets such as airfields, command and control centers, depots and force concentrations almost without warning. Hypersonic delivery systems are viewed as particularly useful against aircraft carriers, large surface combatants, amphibious warfare ships and even transports carrying critical military supplies.
This new gap could be far more consequential than that which concerned Senator Kennedy some sixty years ago. Hypersonic weapons are extremely difficult to track with existing air and missile defense sensors and virtually impossible to intercept. According to General John Hyten, Commander of U.S. Strategic Command: “We don't have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us, so our response would be our deterrent force, which would be the triad and the nuclear capabilities that we have to respond to such a threat.”
Senior U.S. defense officials have made it clear that Russia and China currently have the lead in the race to develop and deploy hypersonic missiles. Last year China tested a hypersonic missile, the DF-17. According to the recently confirmed Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, Dr. Michael Griffin:
China has fielded or can field... hypersonic delivery systems for conventional prompt strike that can reach out thousands of kilometers from the Chinese shore, and hold our carrier battle groups or our forward deployed forces... at risk.
We, today, do not have systems which can hold them at risk in a corresponding manner, and we don't have defenses against those systems. Should they choose to deploy them we would be, today, at a disadvantage.
In his election-eve televised speech to the Russian Federal Assembly, Vladimir Putin emphasized the point that the Russian military had deployed invincible strategic weapons capable of defeating any defense. He went on to announce that his country is “actively developing hypersonic weapons.”
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) director Steven Walker pointed out that China has built significant scientific and engineering infrastructure to support the development of hypersonic weapons systems. “If you look at some of our peer competitors, China being one, the number of facilities that they’ve built to do hypersonics… surpasses the number we have in this country. It’s quickly surpassing it by 2 or 3 times. It is clear that China has made this one of their national priorities. We need to do the same.”
Hypersonic delivery systems will be an integral part of Russian and Chinese anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategies. The goal of these strategies is to create a lethal offensive and defensive environment that reaches possibly thousands of miles from their respective homelands that adversaries, especially the United States, cannot penetrate. Both countries are already busily deploying highly sophisticated and integrated air and missile defense systems along with land- and sea-based ballistic and cruise missiles, some capable of striking mobile targets.
It is vitally important that the U.S. military develop the capabilities to defeat Russia’s and China’s A2/AD strategies. This requires systems that can penetrate integrated air defenses and counter the threat posed by long-range strike systems, particularly hypersonic weapons. Stealthy systems such as the B-2, F-22, F-35 and, in the not-to-distant future, the B-21 are part of the answer.
Enter U.S. hypersonic delivery systems. According to recent press reports, what was for a long time nothing more than a series of science experiments has now been organized into a coherent program intended to produce a new generation of long-range, extremely high-speed weapons capable of negating hostile integrated air defenses and holding at risk a range of targets including ballistic missile launch sites.
The Air Force has a roadmap to develop a hypersonic strike weapon by 2020 and a hypersonic aircraft to perform intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in an A2/AD environment by 2030. In mid-April, the Air Force awarded Lockheed Martin a $1 billion dollar contract for an air launched, hypersonic conventional strike weapon.
DARPA is at the forefront of the Pentagon’s efforts to get back in the hypersonic delivery vehicle race. Resources for hypersonics research has tripled over the past three defense budgets. DARPA plans to start flying air breathing test vehicles in 2019 and a tactical boost-glide prototype in 2022 or 2023. These developments come none-to-soon in light of what China and Russia are doing.
Over the past several decades, the U.S. may have lost its erstwhile lead in a number of advanced military technologies, including hypersonics. But this does not mean it is out of the race. In reality, hypersonics is one area that must be a modernization priority for the Trump Administration and those that follow.
Daniel Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here. This article first appeared in 2018.
Image: Creative Commons.