The urgency of the Pentagon’s need to accelerate and deploy hypersonic weapons is serious, according to senior U.S. weapons developers citing extreme concern about Russian and Chinese weapons.
“We are number three in this race. We have to catch up,” Robert Strider, Deputy of the Army Hypersonic Project Office, told an audience at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama, referring to fast-emerging Russian and Chinese progress with hypersonic missiles.
This circumstance, well known and often discussed by Pentagon leaders, is likely a primary inspiration for the Army’s current success in developing an emerging weapon called “Dark Eagle.” Otherwise known as the Long Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW), the new missile will be ready for war by 2023.
By this time, Strider explained, the new LRHW will be able to travel aboard an Air Force C-17 cargo plane to a hostile forward location, set up for a launch, and destroy enemy targets at hypersonic speeds before returning to home base. This level of independent warfare ability with hypersonic missiles, expected by 2023, will be preceded by a series of what Strider called Joint Flight Campaigns involving tests, assessments, and technological refinements of the weapon.
Initial configurations include plans to deploy a missile battery of four launchers and a battery operations center. Interestingly, the LRHW is a joint Army-Navy weapon that uses a common warhead projectile for ground and maritime attacks. Each launcher contains two hypersonic missiles, indicating a total of eight LRHWs in a battery.
“Our all up round is a thirty-four-inch booster which will be common between the Army and the Navy. We will shoot exactly the same thing the Navy shoots out of a sub or ship,” Strider added.
Transportable on board an Air Force C-17, the LRHW is intended to be road-mobile such that it can hold targets at risk from multiple changing locations to maximize surprise and speed of attack.
“We took existing trailers and modified them with hydraulics and electronics and everything associated with being a launcher. We know what these systems are capable of,” Strider said.
The first shot off of a transporter is planned for Joint Flight Campaign 2 in 2022.
A deployable, road-mobile hypersonic weapon could introduce an entirely new sphere of problems and complications for an adversary. Should a battery able to fire eight LRHWs arrive in a sensitive forward location, with an ability to quickly power up and launch from changing locations on a mobile launcher, would put enemy forces, command and control, air defenses and possibly even ships at sea at great risk of destruction. Should a hypersonic weapon, able to travel at five times the speed of sound, land in closer proximity to a set of enemy targets, they could destroy high-value targets much faster and make them extremely difficult if not impossible to defend against. Perhaps most of all, having a mobile, expeditionary hypersonic attack capability in this fashion would surely make launch locations much more survivable. An enemy might not have the ability to know, find or follow any given launch point given that the LRHW weapon itself could maneuver into position.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.