The United States desperately needs a New Year’s Resolution to build and deploy both an offensive hypersonic weapons capability and a defense against hypersonic weapons. China and Russia have both tested and fielded them, while the United States had its first successful hypersonic missile test only in December 2022. More worrying, the United States has not deployed any hypersonic weapons to date, and extant U.S. missile defense systems are not yet capable of shooting down our adversaries’ hypersonic weapons, leaving the United States highly vulnerable at this moment. As former Under Secretary for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin put it, “Proliferation of enemy weapon systems with global reach dictate that the United States can no longer presume domestic sanctuary.”
What are hypersonic weapons?
Hypersonic weapons are missiles/projectiles that travel at hypersonic (five times the speed of sound or Mach 5) speeds and are often highly maneuverable. China and Russia have in recent years pursued hypersonic technology with vigor as a way of circumventing U.S. missile defense superiority. Traditional ballistic missiles have been faster than the speed of sound for decades, leaving the Earth’s atmosphere before returning, plummeting toward their targets in their terminal phase at frightening speeds. However, these traditional ballistic missiles are not maneuverable and have a predictable arc, making them easier to track and, ultimately, shoot down.
Hypersonic weapons are game-changers; They come in two forms, travel at Mach 5 or more (3800 miles per hour+), and can maneuver, making them extremely difficult to shoot down and their targets impossible to protect. They could be nuclear tipped, conventionally tipped, or carry no explosive at all, simply relying on the kinetic impact of the projective itself to do significant damage to the target. The first form of hypersonic weapon is a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), which in most cases is a warhead with wings, sitting atop a more traditional ballistic missile. The ballistic missile leaves the Earth’s atmosphere, and at the right stage of flight, the HGV breaks away from the missile and begins its glide. As it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere, its wings give it lift and maneuverability as it glides to its target at hypersonic speeds. The second kind of hypersonic weapon is a hypersonic cruise missile. Like a conventional cruise missile, it never leaves the Earth’s atmosphere. Unlike a conventional cruise missile, the hypersonic variety adds a scramjet (air-breathing) booster that allows the missile to achieve hypersonic speeds at potentially very low altitudes, again with the ability to maneuver to its target. Its extreme speed, maneuverability, and potential for altitudes below radar visibility make it a formidable weapon. Hypersonic weapons of either variety are a formidable challenge to U.S. defenses, for as of today the United States has no defense against them.
America vs. Russia and China
To overcome the U.S. lead in ballistic missile (and other missile) defenses, Russia and China have been developing and testing hypersonic missile technologies for some time. Russia has deployed them in both air-launch (Kinzhal) and sea-launch (Zircon) forms. Russia is believed to have used a Kinzhal missile against Ukraine in March. China has also tested hypersonic cruise missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles. In 2021, China conducted a test of an HGV that circumnavigated the Earth before reaching its target, prompting General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to describe it as, “very close to” a “Sputnik moment.”
Since the 1980s and Ronald Reagan’s dream of a “Star Wars” missile defense system, the United States put most of its eggs in the missile defense basket, whether the Patriot system, the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), or NMD (National Missile Defense) systems, ranging from local to theater to regional/national defenses against incoming missiles, respectively. While the United States has not fielded a bullet-proof system (no pun intended, but missile defense has been called, “hitting a bullet with a bullet”), it has fielded several systems which are quite effective. As a result, U.S. strategists and policymakers have been somewhat sanguine about the challenge posed to U.S. security by technologies such as hypersonic weapons. China and Russia, of course, being behind in missile defense technologies, put their eggs in the hypersonic basket. Given hypersonic weapons’ potential ability to make Washington’s missile defense systems redundant, the United States has lately realized that it too must field offensive hypersonic weapons, lest it be left vulnerable.
Today the United States is making strong headway in two areas of the hypersonic realm: offense and defense. On December 12, 2022, the United States successfully completed its first live-fire hypersonic missile test, wherein a B-52H bomber successfully fired an AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) at a target off the coast of California. The system, using a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), is scheduled to be operational by the fall of 2023. The United States is yet to successfully test a scramjet cruise missile. However, in September 2022 the U.S. Air Force awarded a contract worth almost a billion dollars to Raytheon Missiles & Defense to develop and test prototypes, and in December 2022 the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory awarded Leidos (and partners) a $334 million contract to develop the Mayhem program, also a scramjet cruise missile with hypersonic speeds.
The United States is also moving forward on defensive measures against hypersonic weapons in two ways. First, the United States is developing glidepath interceptors meant to intercept both HGV and hypersonic cruise missiles in their glidepath stage (after launch, as well as after re-entry for HGVs), and before terminal or final approach to target phase (whether for HGV or cruise missile types). Raytheon is currently developing this capability for the Department of Defense. Second, the United States is developing a Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS), a space-based system which tracks the launch and trajectory of HGVs and hypersonic cruise missiles. In 2021, the Defense Department awarded two contracts (one to L3Harris and one to Northrop Grumman) to develop HBTSS prototypes, which are due to be tested in the spring of 2023.
What must the US do?
Given the state of affairs in the hypersonic domain globally today, Washington should consider a couple of New Year’s resolutions. First, the United States must develop and deploy hypersonic glide vehicle and hypersonic cruise missile offensive capabilities in 2023. Second, it must also resolve to develop, test, and deploy HBTSS and glidepath interceptor systems by the end of 2024. U.S. adversaries are moving forward with their own hypersonic missile systems and the United States cannot afford to be left behind. At present, the homeland is not secure given its vulnerabilities to hypersonic weapons.
For 2023 the United States needs a little hypersonic tonic. The security of the U.S. homeland and that of U.S. allies and bases overseas may just depend upon it.
Gregory J. Moore is Professor of Global Studies and Politics at Colorado Christian University.