Will America Lose the Hypersonic Arms Race?
Russia and China’s hypersonic weapons have been in service for a few years, and it stands to reason that America’s missiles could be as much as five years behind them before becoming operational themselves.
“U.S. hypersonic weapons will likely require greater accuracy and will be more
technically challenging to develop than nuclear-armed Chinese and Russian systems. Indeed, according to one expert, ‘a nuclear-armed glider would be effective if it were 10 or even 100 times less accurate [than a conventionally-armed glider]’ due to nuclear blast effects.”
-“Hypersonic Weapons: Background and Issues for Congress” via the Congressional Research Service, dated October 19, 2021
Both of Russia’s operational hypersonic weapons, the KH-47M2 Kinzhal and the Avangard boost-glide vehicle, can be armed with nuclear warheads. China’s DF-17 is considered nuclear-capable but is not openly called a nuclear weapon. Its primary purpose, however, is to engage aircraft carrier-sized targets at great distances (potentially in excess of 1,000 miles), and to date, there’s little evidence to suggest that their targeting apparatus could accomplish such a feat with a conventional warhead.
“The U.S. focus relative to hypersonic weapons is on the delivery of conventional weapons while Russia and China are more likely to use hypersonic missiles for nuclear payloads,” explained George Nacouzi, a senior Engineer at the RAND Corporation.
Related: How hypersonic drones could defeat missiles the same way the SR-71 did
There’s an argument to be made that new and more advanced nuclear weapons, hypersonic or otherwise, offer little strategic value. Any nuclear exchange would almost certainly result in full-scale nuclear war, so unless a new weapon can neuter the opposition’s nuclear triad or equivalent, a dated nuke is just as good as a 21st-century one. Strategic value can only come from a weapon that forces a shift in your opponent’s strategy. To date, Russia’s hypersonic weapons don’t seem to cross that barrier.
China, however, has forced a massive shift in U.S. Navy and Marine Corps priorities thanks to the introduction of the DF-17, but it’s still important to remember that this shift is based on the expectation that China will eventually get over the massive technical hurdles associated with targeted a moving vessel at range… not necessarily the understanding that they already have.
Related: Russia’s massively powerful nukes are strategic duds
But America’s recent technical failures can’t be ignored
It seems clear that the conversation about the modern hypersonic arms race has been slightly skewed by a combination of confusion about the latest defense buzzword and maybe even some good old fashioned media sensationalism. But to call that the end of this story would mean ignoring the Mach 5 elephant in the room: America’s hypersonic weapons programs have been riddled with failure in recent years.
When looking back at hypersonic test programs operated by the Department of Defense over the past decade or so (not including some of the tech demonstrator tests discussed earlier), you won’t just find a list ripe with frustrating failures, but seemingly preventable ones. Many of these failures occurred before reaching hypersonic velocities, meaning it was tried and true technology like rocket boosters and stage separation mechanisms that went wrong. Most frustrating of all, there’s no data to be poured over with these sorts of failures, and thus, no lessons to be learned about the nature of hypersonic flight.
Out of 16 tests conducted since 2010, four failed due to problems with the missile’s conventional rocket booster, with one other called a total failure for undisclosed reasons. Two more failed due to issues with stage separation mechanisms or control fins, both of which are technologies the U.S. has had in service for decades. An additional three tests were considered partial failures after achieving hypersonic speeds before something went wrong.
In all, the Pentagon has only had six successful hypersonic weapons tests since 2010, with the most recent in September of this year. That, however, was the only successful test out of America’s last five attempts. The most recent failure came on October 21 of this year, when again, a conventional rocket booster failed. If these were tests in Geometry instead of hypersonic missiles, it’s safe to say America would be looking at summer school.
Related: How the B-21 Raider could shift power in the Pacific
America’s limited test infrastructure can’t be ignored either
But weapons tests are supposed to fail, that’s the very nature of testing. There’s no telling how many undisclosed failures both Russia and China have experienced in their own hypersonic efforts, thanks to these nations lacking a free press to report on them. The more egregious issue here isn’t necessarily that 10 out of 16 tests at least partially failed… it’s that the United States has only conducted 16 tests since 2010 to begin with. The fact of the matter is, until recently, the U.S. simply didn’t feel a pressing need to invest in hypersonic technology.
“The bureaucracy that we’ve built into our defense and acquisition enterprise, not just in space but in other areas, has slowed us down in many areas,” Gen. David Thompson, vice chief of space operations, recently told Politico.
“The fact that we have not needed to move quickly for a couple of decades — in the sense of a strategic competitor with these capabilities — has not driven us or required us to move quickly.”
But even after the defense apparatus shifted focus toward hypersonics, it remains just one area of focus. That means hypersonic weapons have to compete for time on test ranges with other developmental programs that have similarly far-reaching implications and national importance.
“We prepared a number of different investment portfolios to try to improve our capacity both in tunnels and test ranges, but right now, there are just too many pressures on the Air Force budget to address all of them,” Maj. Gen. Christopher P. Azzano, commander of the Air Force’s Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, recently told Air Force Magazine.
It’s not just military test ranges holding hypersonic efforts back. There is only one wind tunnel in the country that can manage both the high speeds and the high temperatures associated with hypersonics testing, and it belongs to NASA (who have their own programs to focus on). The U.S. has earmarked around $500 million to put toward wind tunnel facilities to ease this choke point, but it’s not the only one. Test range facilities are expanding, but will remain limited for years to come.
“To deliver on the time scales required, I think we need to be testing on the ground and in flight at a pretty high pace,” explained Mark J. Lewis, Executive Director of the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies Institute.
“Stepping up the tempo of testing will also make all the steps involved—range safety, telemetry, checklists, etc.—more routine and reduce errors that can stop a program in its tracks.”
Related: The US Navy may soon have a way to shoot down hypersonic missiles
The hypersonics arms race isn’t quite what it seemsChinese DF-17 hypersonic anti-ship missiles
Maybe it’s not quite fair to say that nobody is currently winning the hypersonic arms race, because it seems clear that not all nations are pursuing this technology with the same goals. For a nation like Russia, suffering under international sanctions and a stagnate economy, fielding the first hypersonic weapons was incredibly important.
These weapons offer little in the way of strategic capability, but garnered the nation’s weapon programs a great deal of international attention and prestige. That matters for a country that can’t afford to repair its single, ailing aircraft carrier, has struggled to fund its standing Su-57 orders, and has yet to find a way to finance large-scale production of their advanced T-14 Armata tank (among a long list of other unfunded or underfunded programs). Russia needs foreign buyers for platforms like their new Checkmate fighter in order to be able to afford to build their own in any real numbers. The same can be said for advanced missile systems.
Related: Checkmate: The details on Russia’s new stealth fighter revealed
China’s hypersonic goals have a lot to do with presenting an image of military parity with the United States, in keeping with their stated aim of becoming the dominant world power by 2049. The DF-17 system has also forced the U.S. military to reconsider its approach to force projection in the Pacific, making it a successful strategic weapon even if it never proves capable of hitting an aircraft carrier at all.
And then there’s the United States, which is not reliant on foreign weapon sales to fund its own programs, and is already perceived as the world’s preeminent military power. America has nothing to gain by rushing a hypersonic weapon into service beyond prestige, but prestige itself is a funny game. Russia and China’s hypersonic weapons have been in service for a few years, and it stands to reason that America’s missiles could be as much as five years behind them before becoming operational themselves.
But from that point forward, the hypersonic arms race will stop being about when each nation brings them online and start being about the strategic and tactical capability these weapons provide. America was poorly positioned to win the first leg of this race, but is now well-positioned to win the second.