The U.S. Navy is beginning work on how to fire long-range hypersonic missiles from its stealthy DDG 1000 Zumwalt-class destroyer, a move which would bring new tactical opportunities for maritime warfare commanders looking to launch long-range precision attacks from the sea.
“We are in the throws of finishing up the development of motors, and we have had two very successful tests of the hypersonic glide body. We are on a path to perform future flight tests,” Vice Adm. Johnny Wolfe, Director of the U.S. Navy’s Strategic Systems Program, told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
“We will figure out the integration and publish a report,” Wolfe said.
The Army and Navy are working closely together on the effort, Wolfe said, which will rely upon a similar round configuration, yet fire from different delivery systems.
“The Army will field its portion followed by the Navy fielding its weapon. The Army is doing it at a pace that is pretty impressive. The Navy will work on the weapon’s design and the Army will take that design and make sure we can effectively produce it and transition it to industry,” Wolfe explained.
What might it mean to fire hypersonic weapons from surface ships? Could certainly impact any ocean warfare scenario and also support joint, multi-domain ops. An ability to hit anywhere in the world quickly opens up new options when it comes to a first strike, as firing from the ocean would open up new attack angles, ranges and possibilities not currently available to surface ships firing Tomahawk missiles. A hypersonic missile could not only attack otherwise out of reach or inaccessible targets inland but also strike quickly, reaching far away global targets in minutes.
Perhaps a Navy destroyer is positioned such that it can leverage its location to attack and then move quickly to obscure where the attack came from? Since speed can be a decisive and determinant factor when it comes to the relative success of any attack, an ability to propel a missile at five times the speed of sound could achieve the desired result of destroying an enemy position before there is any chance for the enemy to respond. Multiple hypersonic missile attacks could also overwhelm an enemy with rapid, successive firepower to the point wherein any potential defense or counterattack is rendered inoperable.
Hypersonic glide bodies fired from ships could also serve significant defensive purposes as, depending upon guidance systems, they could operate as missile interceptors along the upper boundaries of the earth’s atmosphere. Should these kinds of weapons be integrated into ship-based radar systems, fire control computers or even space-based sensors, they could offer a new kind of protective envelope for maritime forces on the move such as Carrier Strike Groups.
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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.
Image: U.S. Navy.