Over the course of the Global War On Terror, when the Pentagon was focused on fighting low-intensity conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the other great powers — namely Russia and China — were concentrated on modernizing their forces for large-scale conflict.
In addition to fielding new and upgraded fighter planes, armor, and warships, both countries have put a great deal of time and money into the development of next-generation missile warfare: Hypersonics.
The U.S. is now playing catch-up with this technology, and though the Trump administration has poured new funding into hypersonic research, America is still a distant third in the great power race to field these game-changing weapons.
Forbes notes that some in the Pentagon consider hypersonic development to be the priority for the foreseeable future:
The impending promise of hypersonic weapons is so great that Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Dr. Michael Griffin recently explained: “I’m sorry for everybody out there who champions some other high priority, some technical thing; it’s not that I disagree with those. But there has to be a first [priority], and hypersonics is my first.”
This sense of urgency is driven by two key variables: burgeoning capability gaps the American military seeks to close and the very real risk that China and Russia may field this technology in advance of the United States.
Analysis: Notes Griffin further, in terms of hypersonic missile development, “The rest of the world is not stupid, and they are catching up to us. And, in some areas, have caught up.”
Hypersonic vehicles can travel at speeds up to 5,500 miles per hour (hypersonic is considered five times the speed of sound or Mach 5). Currently, there are no missile defense systems that are agile enough to successfully target a hypersonic missile; in fact, current missile defense systems are vulnerable to spoofing by decoys and could also be rendered ineffective with electronic warfare.
If you add the element of super-speed, then the military advantages gained by fielding credible, workable hypersonic weapons become obvious.
China has been testing hypersonics for at least five years; Russia since at least 2016. President Putin announced earlier this year that Russia would field a new hypersonic system by 2019, the Avangard HGV. “I can tell you that we have all this already and it works well. Moreover, Russia’s industry has begun to batch-produce this system. It is yet another type of strategic weapon at Russia’s disposal,” Putin said 1 March. Russia has had mixed success in testing, however.
In August, reports noted that China had tested its Xingkong-2 or Starry Sky-2 hypersonic missile which reached a speed of about 4,600 miles per hour, or around Mach 6.
The U.S. hasn’t yet lost the hypersonic fight, so to speak, but we’re behind. In April, the Air Force awarded a nearly $1 billion contract for expedited hypersonic research, so the effort is underway. But land-based systems, as well as multi-billion dollar aircraft carriers, could be sitting ducks for hypersonic weapons if the targeting technology can be developed.
Also, nuclear-tipped hypersonic weapons would certainly give any country that possessed them a legitimate first-strike capability.
But developing hypersonic missiles is just the first step. The next step will be to figure out how to defend against them. And the only thing that comes to mind in terms of speed and capacity are laser systems, where we do hold an advantage.