Russian Hypersonic Missiles Have 1 Goal (And They Might Be Unstoppable)

September 11, 2019 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: RussiaMilitaryTechnologyWorld

Russian Hypersonic Missiles Have 1 Goal (And They Might Be Unstoppable)

The main reason for Russian hypersonic missiles is a nuclear surprise attack--and America has no defense against them. 

Not only has U.S. defense policy prior to the Trump administration given Russia its current monopoly on hypersonic missiles, we apparently have given them a monopoly on defenses against hypersonic missiles. Until recently, we have simply not significantly invested in countering them because we were not viewing the near-peer threat seriously and put a priority on cutting defense spending. We do not now have defenses against hypersonic weaponsMoreover, we are apparently not playing catchup in this arena because the Pentagon's F.Y. 2020 budget request has only $157 million for hypersonic missile defense. The urgency for defenses against hypersonic missiles clearly suggests we should be doing more than this.

Hypersonic missiles (as defined above) have substantial advantages in defense penetration. This factor only comes into play if advanced defenses exist, and they are numerous as they are in Russia and China. Russian hypersonic missiles have not been developed to attack U.S. strategic missile defenses. Currently planned U.S. strategic missile defenses do not require the Russians to have hypersonic missiles to penetrate them. The highest officials of the Russian Federation have repeatedly stated that existing Russian capabilities can easily penetrate U.S. strategic missile defenses. The U.S. government has said the same thing countless times. Indeed, the Pentagon’s summary of its F.Y. 2020 missile defense budget request talks only about the need to defend against rogue states and does not even mention Russia or China. The main reason for Russian hypersonic missiles is a nuclear surprise attack.

Defending against Russia would require massive missile defenses including space-based sensors and interceptors. Even with the revised Trump administration programs, the U.S. currently plans only 64 interceptor missiles for strategic missile defense. While the SM-3 Block 2A naval missile defense interceptor, according to the 2019 Missile Defense Review, has the potential to intercept ICBMs, the capability of the system is apparently limited to rogue state threats. In light of the shortage of U.S. warships, it is unlikely that many Aegis destroyers would be devoted to homeland defense and the system itself is unlikely to have good capabilities against sophisticated Russian strategic ballistic missiles with advanced countermeasures. The upgrades to the DG-51 Flight 3 will be very useful for missile defense but to deal with a major attack by Russian strategic ballistic missiles, the interceptor missiles will have to be upgraded with multiple kill vehicles.

Hypersonic missiles are dramatically more important in the theater attack role against heavily defended theater targets and Aegis cruisers and destroyers (which have advanced air defenses and some missile defense capability) protecting carrier strike groups. In an anti-ship role, Russian hypersonic missiles will have a large advantage over U.S. subsonic cruise missiles. This is important because Russia has advanced land-based and naval air defenses. The advantage posed by hypersonic missiles will be particularly important regarding the defeat of terminal ship defenses.

Russia claims that its new and soon to be operational S-500 missile/air defense system is capable of intercepting hypersonic missiles. Russia has said the same for its now widely deployed S-400 system. These claims could very well be true, particularly for the S-500. However, the capability is likely limited to the nuclear-armed missiles. There is no indication in open sources that the Russians have tested hit-to-kill versions of their new high capability SAM systems against either very high speed ballistic or hypersonic weapons.

The S-400 and S-500 systems are reportedly nuclear-capable and these systems were designed to fight against the U.S. The S-500 would certainly have a greater capability against hypersonic missiles than the S-400 because the S-500 is designed to intercept ICBMs. The Russians are planning to deploy these systems in large numbers. Early reports indicated an intent to deploy ten battalions of S-500, and recent reports speak about deploying regiments, which is about the same number. TASS has stated that the S-500 will replace the S-400 in the 56 battalions which will be deployed.

Ironically, the capability of hypersonic missiles to penetrate advanced air defenses (which Russia and China have) is potentially much more important to the U.S., but we don't have them while the Russians do. The S-400 is being sold to China. The Chinese may very well upgrade it and turn it into their major missile defense asset.

Russia is well ahead of us in both hypersonic missiles and hypersonic missile defenses.  We are two years away from having our first hypersonic missile and even further away from active defenses against hypersonic missiles. Our hypersonic missiles are conventional only while Russian missiles are dual-capable. This represents a major disparity which will continue until U.S. policy changes. This creates a grave threat to the U.S. national command authority and, hence, our ability to deter nuclear war.

Protecting the U.S. national command authority and key strategic missile and bomber bases against Russian ballistic and hypersonic missile attack is critical. Ideally, this should be combined with the construction of deep and hardened underground facilities to protect our nuclear command and control, but this is unlikely because of the cost. At a minimum, resumption of nuclear command and control flights commanded by a general officer should be undertaken.

Dr. Mark B. Schneider is a Senior Analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy. Before his retirement from the Department of Defense Senior Executive Service, Dr. Schneider served in a number of senior positions within the Office of Secretary of Defense for Policy including Principal Director for Forces Policy, Principal Director for Strategic Defense, Space and Verification Policy, Director for Strategic Arms Control Policy and Representative of the Secretary of Defense to the Nuclear Arms Control Implementation Commissions.  He also served in the senior Foreign Service as a Member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff.

This first appeared in RealClearDefense here

Image: Reuters.