Why the Pentagon Needs to Accelerate Hypersonic Weapons Development

Why the Pentagon Needs to Accelerate Hypersonic Weapons Development

The military has made progress with its hypersonic weapons. But unless testing and production can be accelerated, new hypersonic weapons may not arrive in time to compete with China.

The Department of Defense needs to increase its production of hypersonic weapons and continue to search for disruptive technologies. 

Volume matters when it comes to hypersonic weapons for both tactical and strategic reasons. The only real way to prevent a large incoming salvo would be to deter it with an equally powerful response. This is true when it comes to both conventional and nuclear weapons options. That truth underscores the need for accelerated production of new missiles. 

The U.S. Air Force is making rapid progress with its Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, a hypersonic projectile designed to launch from an aircraft. Meanwhile, the Army reports it is on track to deliver its new Long Range Hypersonic Weapon by 2023. The Pentagon needs to not only have operational hypersonic weapons, but large numbers of them to rival or deter China. 

China’s recent test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle has received a massive amount of attention. The test demonstrated that the United States has fallen behind China in hypersonic missile production and deployment. 

“We are on track to produce two (hypersonic weapons) per month. We need to up that by a factor of 10. The Chinese are not going to be scared by a few dozen rounds a year,” said Dr. Michael Griffin, former Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, said during an event at the Advanced Nuclear Weapons Alliance Deterrence Center called “Policy Implications of Hypersonic Weapons and Strategic Nuclear Deterrence.” 

Griffin also emphasized the need to uncover disruptive technologies to develop new generations of hypersonic weapons.

“We need to be doing one test a week and not one test a quarter,” Griffin added. 

This effort takes on an even greater level of urgency in the context of China’s recent test of a hypersonic glide vehicle reported to be nuclear capable. Of greatest concern, Griffin said, is that the new Chinese weapon appears to operate with the ability to loiter for an extended period. This allows the weapon to optimize targeting, change course if needed, and arrive at unexpected angles of attack. 

“My personal concern is once you are in orbit, you can land along the azimuth of your choice,” Griffin said. 

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.

Image: Reuters.