More signs are emerging across the U.S. Department of Defense that it is taking the military threat of Chinese hypersonic weapons seriously, and redoubling efforts to field similar weapons of its own.
Hypersonic weapons, which are considered High-Speed Maneuvering Weapons, travel at speeds greater than Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound. Even the fastest aircraft and conventional missiles are thought to fly in the low supersonic range. Some nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles travel at hypersonic speeds, but follow ballistic arcs and cannot execute radical maneuvering over long distances. Their extraordinary speed and precision means that a hypersonic weapon could potentially hit any target, anywhere in the world, in less than an hour.
A 2016 Air Force Studies Board report warned about the United States’ inability to defend against maneuverable high-supersonic and hypersonic conventional weapons. The report’s unclassified summary explained that the speeds, flight profiles, and maneuverability of hypersonic weapons make them largely immune to the defensive systems and networks that the United States developed to defend against either nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles or comparatively slow-flying cruise missiles. As a result, hypersonic weapons could constrain the U.S. military’s global presence and impede its ability to project force in key regions.
China’s “carrier killer” missiles are one of the more public examples of maneuvering hypersonic weapons and are a crucial component of its anti-access/area denial strategy to counter combat operations by the United States in the western Pacific. If effective, such weapons could hobble U.S. fleets quickly, and before they were within range to attack the Chinese mainland.
When he appeared before the U.S. Senate last week, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, highlighted the role that China’s advances in hypersonic weapons were poised to play in the region, and the military need for the United States to keep pace.
In his written testimony, Harris said he was deeply concerned about China’s investment in a range of advanced technology such as hypersonic missiles and warned that if the United States did not keep pace, the forces in Pacific Command “will struggle to compete with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on future battlefields.” He explained that the hypersonic weapons being developed by China and Russia, which he described as “counter-intervention technologies,” will “challenge the United States’ strategic, operational, and tactical freedom of movement and maneuver” and that China’s efforts portended even greater challenges in the next few years.
In response, he said that fielding new long-range offensive weapons was “an imperative,” and that Pacific Command needed new tools to defend U.S. bases in the western Pacific from emerging threats like Chinese and Russian hypersonic weapons. He also argued that the United States should develop theater strike capabilities to counter adversary’s anti-access/area denial capabilities.
The United States has pursued a family of hypersonic weapons under the umbrella of the Conventional Prompt Global Strike program for years, but received inconsistent funding and support, something the 2016 Air Force Studies Board report also criticized, warning that the Department of Defense’s disjointed and underfunded hypersonic research program at the time was inadequate to develop an effective defensive response. But it also warned that the United States’ best defense, and perhaps the only effective defense against an adversary’s hypersonic weapons, is to strike with hypersonic weapons of its own, before the enemy’s can be utilized. A request for increased funding for the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s research on hypersonic weapons starting in 2019 suggests both the strategic warnings and institutional critiques in the report are gaining traction within the Department of Defense.
The Pentagon’s 2019 budget request more than doubles the agency’s funding for hypersonic weapons. These include two Air Force projects, the Tactical Boost Glide system, which is lofted to high altitude by a rocket and then glides unpowered to its target at hypersonic speed, and the Hypersonic Air Breathing Weapon Concept, which operates more like a cruise missile using an advanced jet-type engine. Other projects include a ground-based hypersonic weapon system for the Army called Operational Fires, and a reusable hypersonic engine to power vehicles called the Advanced Full Range Engine.
With the U.S. Navy’s successful flight test of a hypersonic boost-glide weapon that could be fired from the missile tubes of expanded Virginia-class submarines last November, and the U.S. Army calling the development of precision, long-range artillery and fires capabilities, to include ground-based hypersonic weapons, its top modernization priority, every branch of the U.S. military except the Marine Corps is pursuing a range of hypersonic weapons intended to ensure superiority over China’s growing hypersonic arsenal.