As the U.S. armed forces plow forward with their multifaceted campaign to develop hypersonic weapons, national security analysts are raising questions about how the new capabilities will impact great power competition.
By Meredith Roaten
Hypersonics are a top research-and-development priority for the Pentagon. The weapons are being pursued by the Air Force, Army and Navy.
The Defense Department is pumping billions of dollars into the technology.
Military officials hope to begin fielding the new capabilities in fiscal year 2023.
Proponents say the weapons’ ability to travel at speeds greater than Mach 5 combined with high maneuverability will make it difficult for adversaries to defeat them. Officials have also expressed enthusiasm for their depressed flight paths, which could delay detection from enemy defenses. They have been touted as game-changing capabilities and the Defense Department officially announced a strategy for accelerating their development and fielding earlier this year.
However, some analysts say the weapons are being overhyped.
Based on findings from the use of computational modeling, a recent study published in the Science and Global Security Journal said hypersonic missiles do not outperform other types of missiles in speed or in evading defense systems.
“Misperceptions of hypersonic weapon performance have arisen from social processes by which the organizations developing these weapons construct erroneous technical facts favoring continued investment,” said the report, “Modeling the Performance of Hypersonic Boost-Glide Missiles,” by Cameron Tracy, a fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ global security program and David Wright, the former co-director of the program.
There are faster ballistic missiles that already exist that could be used in a regional conflict instead of hypersonic weapons, said Tracy during a recent event hosted by the Aerospace Corp.
“When we are thinking about deploying a new weapon technology, it’s useful to compare that not just to what you’re already using, but any other new technology you could deploy in that same space,” he said.
Tests of a maneuverable reentry vehicle mounted on a Trident missile in the mid-2000s showed that ballistic missiles have already achieved high levels of accuracy, he said. Ballistic missiles also do not face the challenges of degradation to the external shell of the weapon that hypersonics systems have to contend with, he added.
“Even in the theater use [case], I think there is not yet a strong evidence-supported, data-supported argument that hypersonic weapons do a ton that a ballistic missile couldn’t — particularly a ballistic missile armed with a maneuverable reentry vehicle,” Tracy said.
Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said while the great speeds of hypersonics enable them to outrun missile defenses, ballistic weapons can achieve similar outcomes. Additionally, there are some cruise missiles which can outmatch missile defense systems without solely relying on speed.
Even though weapons developers and other advocates have touted hypersonics as revolutionary, “it’s unclear to me [that] this will ever be more than a niche capability, in part because there are other ways to defeat defenses,” he said.
Another concern raised by some analysts is that hypersonic weapons development could fuel an escalating arms race between adversaries.
In addition to the United States, China and Russia — which the Pentagon views as great power competitors — are also pursuing hypersonics.
Jill Hruby, former director of Sandia National Laboratories, noted that the rapid progression of other technologies such as inexpensive satellites and artificial intelligence combined with hypersonics technology could encourage competitors to try to outproduce one another.
“We have to think about … what arms races are you creating, versus just are our hypersonics better than your hypersonics,” she said.
However, analysts who see great military advantages in deploying such weapons say adversaries’ hypersonic systems pose a threat to the United States, and developing them domestically would add a layer of deterrence against would-be aggressors.
Their speed and maneuverability would pose a challenge for U.S. missile defense systems to counter threats from Russia and China, analysts have noted.
During a military parade in 2019, China showcased a hypersonic missile known as the DF-17. Russian President Vladimir Putin reported that same year that his country’s military had deployed the Avangard hypersonic weapon.
Rebeccah Heinrichs, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said speed, maneuverability and precision make hypersonics a particularly powerful threat. Those capabilities would make them difficult to track.
“We might know when the launch is. We might know right before it hits what it’s about to target,” she said. “But if we lose track … it makes it very challenging to close the fire control and have an interceptor or defend any other kind of active defense against this weapon system that is headed towards” the homeland or U.S. allies.
Additionally, China — which wants to push the U.S. military out of the Indo-Pacific region — could use hypersonic weapons to try and achieve its objectives, and U.S. forces must be able to defend their positions there, Heinrichs said.
“Clearly, they believe it’s important, which is why they’re investing in it so much,” she said. “The United States has to have a response to that.”
The Pentagon has grown increasingly concerned about the balance of power in the region. Indo-Pacific Command officials have requested a major boost in funding for capabilities to counter China.
Dean Wilkening, a fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, said U.S. forces would be vulnerable if they can’t match Chinese capabilities in the region. A U.S. hypersonics arsenal could create doubt that a Chinese high-speed attack strategy would work, he said.
“The Chinese are thinking in terms of rapid strikes to defang our power projection capability,” he said. “Currently, we don’t have much of a response to that.”
Hruby said U.S. hypersonics could also be deployed against other adversaries. Surgical strikes — attacks intended to damage a target with minimal damage to the target’s surroundings — could benefit from the extreme accuracy offered by the weapons, which could be used to attack terrorist groups while potentially minimizing civilian casualties.
Terrorist threats are not going anywhere, she said, despite the Pentagon’s renewed focus on great power competition.
“We have this tendency in the United States to forget the last war … [which is] a war we’re still fighting,” she said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. hypersonics enterprise faces supply chain and manufacturing challenges as the Defense Department gets ready to move into the next phase of weapons development, experts say.
Michael White, assistant director for hypersonics in the office of the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said the hypersonics community has spent many years working on research-and-development programs in support of the weapons. However, it is not as accustomed to building such weapons at scale and implementing rigorous systems engineering.
“We’re talking about developing and flying missiles and weapon systems in a way that requires us to be very, very strong from a systems engineering perspective, as well as fully understand the implications of hypersonics,” he said at an Air Force Association event in February.
“Frankly, we’ve got a ways to go.”
“I’m not going to be satisfied with the health of the industrial base until we are routinely successfully flying hypersonic weapons in our prototype development program,” he added.
Meanwhile, improvement and growth are needed in areas such as ground testing infrastructure, he added.
Because hypersonic weapons fly extremely fast, engineers must utilize large facilities equipped to generate high energy levels to ensure the air vehicles’ thermal protection systems hold up, explained James Weber, hypersonics senior technical lead at the Air Force Research Laboratory.
“We still have a ways to go, especially in terms of capability and capacity,” he said.
The hypersonics field also needs to grow its intellectual capital. Thomas Mahnken, president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, emphasized that the pool of engineers and experts is finite and the Pentagon has been outpaced in this area by Russia and China.
“We let it slide, and we’ve been paying the cost for letting that slide,” he said.
Maj. Gen. Andrew Gebara, director of strategic plans, programs and requirements, said it is a “revolutionary” time to be in Air Force Global Strike Command — which manages the nation’s bomber fleet — because of the progress in hypersonic weapons technology. Systems that are in the works such as the AGM-183 Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon, or ARRW, and the capability to put such systems on long-range bombers, are promising, he said.
The Air Force is focused on diversifying its hypersonics portfolio in coming years, he said. “It would be a shame if we got to an Air Force where we were just content with one thing and that’s all we did,” Gebara said. “Those days are behind us.”
Meanwhile, officials are working to collect more data about hypersonics technology through testing. Collecting such information early on to inform programs will allow industry to start the development phase sooner and keep prices down, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Heath Collins, program executive officer for weapons and director of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s armament directorate.
“By being able to start faster, you get done faster, and that is always a recipe for success,” he said.