Hypersonic Weapons Latest Escalation in New East-West Arms Race

The Falcon Hypersonic Test Vehicle is depicted as it emerges from its rocket nose cone and prepares to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. (Photo DOD)

The Falcon Hypersonic Test Vehicle is depicted as it emerges from its rocket nose cone and prepares to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. (Photo DOD)

Hypersonic weapons that travel 20-times faster than the speed of sound–or faster– have become the latest escalation in a new arms race between the United States and Russia, raising a major new threat to world peace.

Russia announced its “Avangard” hypersonic glide vehicle last December with much fanfare. The Kremlin labeled it a “landmark event.”

The United States followed suit this month. The Pentagon announced it is making a major investment in hypersonic missiles and counter-hypersonic defensive weapons.

“Hypersonics and counter-hypersonics remain one of the Defense Department’s highest technical modernization priorities,” Ellen M. Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment said in a Defense Department article.

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“We are continuing on an accelerated path to develop and field land-, sea- and air-launched hypersonic weapons, as well as developing options for defense against adversary hypersonic missile capabilities.”

The goal is “to ensure our continued ability to dominate the battlefield for decades to come,” Lord said at the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement’s Defense Logistics Summit.

The hypersonic program would be accompanied by improvement in the Pentagon’s “acquisition and program expertise” to prevent “business execution issues” from hindering weapons development.

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Hypersonic weapons have the potential to alter the future of strike, air combat and air defense, Lord said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted that the nuclear-capable missiles can travel more than 20 times the speed of sound and put Russia ahead of other nations.

Putin said the Avangard system could penetrate current and future missile defense systems. “Not a single country possesses hypersonic weapons, let alone continental-range hypersonic weapons,” according to BBC News.

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China also is reportedly pursuing hypersonic weapons.

Lord, however, said the United States, historically, has been the world leader in hypersonic research.

“We have consistently made the decision not to weaponize this technology in the past — in large part due to our recent focus on countering violent extremist organizations,” she said.

Russia’s dramatically increased emphasis on weaponized hypersonic technologies could be creating an unacceptable capability gap, she added.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s it was widely held believed the United States had fallen behind the Soviet Union in ballistic missile technology, leading to a so-called “missile gap.”

Then President Dwight D. Eisenhower and military officials feared that the United States might not be able to deter a Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) attack.

The nation significantly increased its spending on nuclear weapons touching off an international arms race.

Later, intelligence assessments showed the United States actually held a significant lead in nuclear missiles. But the myth of the missile gap persisted and both nations radically increased the number of ICBMs.

Some defense experts have questioned whether Russia really has the technical capability to launch a hypersonic weapon.

“Just how far the two rivals have come in their own programs and whether they can penetrate the United States’ missile defenses is a matter of debate,” wrote Connie Lee in National Defense magazine.

“China is already close to fielding hypersonic systems that can go thousands of miles beyond its shores to hit U.S. carriers and forward-deployed forces,” said Michael Griffin, the Pentagon’s undersecretary of defense for research and engineering.

He noted the United States does not have systems to counter these weapons.

Russia’s claims about its hypersonic weapons development should be taken with a “grain of salt,” Paul Schwartz, an industry analyst told National Defense.

“They’ve touted these weapons and — from open sources — they seem to be actively pursuing them,” he said.

“However, the Russians “are notorious about advertising one particular date and then having that date slip and then slip again and then slip again.”

Hypersonic glide vehicles are mounted on rockets and shot high in the air. They reach high speeds while returning to Earth.

Between 2014 and 2018, all known tests of Beijing’s DF-ZF glide vehicles have been successful except for one, according to a private industry report.

“It is from the analysis baseline that we determine areas that may require innovation or increased capacity to keep pace with the advancing threat,” Lord said.

“Hypersonic defense broadly aligns with more traditional air and missile defense,” she added.

“It also requires significant innovations across the entire kill chain, spanning indications and warning, sensing, command and control, and advanced intercept capabilities.”

“Our offensive capability is maturing, with a number of systems being accelerated. On the defensive side, there is a wide range of efforts underway to assess alternatives.”

Lord said she has set up a Hypersonics War Room to analyze and assess the status of the industrial base.

The United States anticipates having hypersonic weapons sometime in the 2020s, Air Force chief scientist Dr. Greg Zacharias told Army News Service last October.

Drones are expected to follow in the 2030s and recoverable drone aircraft by the 2040s.

The United States is focusing on air-breathing boost-glide systems, according to the Defense Department.

Countering weapons during their cruise phase will require radar with longer range, as well as space-based sensors and systems for tracking and fire control.

The Rand Corporation estimates there is less than a decade to prevent hypersonic missile proliferation.

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