U.S., China in Race to Develop Hypersonic Weapons
By Valerie Insinna
On the heels of reports that China had successfully completed a second ultra-high-speed missile flight test, the Defense Department announced on Aug. 25 that it had aborted a test of its own hypersonic weapon.
The military is investigating the “anomaly” responsible for the test failure, but analysts told National Defense that the incident was not a major setback for the program.
"It's a glitch. These are weapons that operate under fantastic stresses,” said Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center. “Failure is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if data can be gathered so that you learn from your mistake.”
“These weapons are traveling at such fantastic speeds and they are required to be capable of such accuracy that it is simply going to require an extensive development program to achieve a point where they can be considered ready for the field,” he added.
The Aug. 25 test of the advanced hypersonic weapon was aborted because of an unspecified flight anomaly, according to a Defense Department news release. “The test was terminated near the launch pad shortly after liftoff to ensure public safety. There were no injuries to any personnel,” the release read.
Testers made the decision to destroy the rocket within four seconds of its launch at the Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska, said Maureen Schumann, a Pentagon spokeswoman. She was not able to provide additional information on what the anomaly was or how it was detected.
The advanced hypersonic weapon is just one of the technologies under development in the conventional prompt global strike program, she said. The goal is to create a menu of precision strike options that would be able to hit anywhere in the world in under an hour.
U.S. program officials are conducting an investigation to determine the cause of this Monday’s test failure, said Schumann. The investigation will likely take “weeks or months” to finish and will inform future tests and scheduling.
The August test was the second flight of the advanced hypersonic weapon, Schumann said. “The objective of the test was to develop and demonstrate hypersonic boost glide enabling technologies and collect data on flight vehicle and test range performance for long-range atmospheric flights.”
The United States may not be the only country that has been testing high-speed weapons this month. China conducted the second test flight of its hypersonic glide vehicle — called the Wu-14 — on Aug. 7, unnamed U.S. officials told the Washington Free Beacon.
Schumann would not confirm whether the Chinese military had executed a second Wu-14 test in August. Earlier this year, the Pentagon confirmed the Wu-14’s first flight test in January.
Based on the available evidence, including Chinese reports circulating the internet, it seems probable that there was a second Wu-14 test recently, Fisher said.
"China and the United States are seeking to develop the same range of hypersonic weapons, both boost-glide or hypersonic glide vehicles, and future air-breathing hypersonic vehicles, such as scram jets,” Fisher said.
The U.S. program appears to have progressed further, “but the Chinese program may be better funded and have greater depth in terms of the commitment of intellectual and development resources,” he said.
Mark Gunzinger, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said he is skeptical that China’s development of hypersonic weapons has matured past that of the United States.
“We hear about the successes and not the failures” of the Chinese program, he said. “They could have had dozens of failures that we know nothing about, at least in public.”
Hypersonic weapons could be operational within a decade, Gunzinger said. The challenge, especially in a budget-conscious environment, will be figuring out how to drive down manufacturing costs.
“Can we find a sweet spot in hypersonic weapons where the price point is right and we can buy enough of them?” he asked.
One of the reasons why hypersonic weapons are so highly coveted is because they are difficult to shoot down, Fisher said. Directed energy weapons, such as a hypersonic capable rail gun or laser, could offer a way to counter hypersonic missiles.
"If you have two to four rail guns for example, [and] you get maybe a two-minute warning that a hypersonic warhead is coming at you, that's enough time to put into the sky clouds of hypersonic rail gun rounds that are designed like shotgun shells,” he said. “They'll release into the air 100 to 200 tungsten pellets. Even if the hypersonic warhead is maneuvering, you're likely to knick it with one of these pellets, and that alone will make the warhead tumble out of control."
The United States appears to be further along in its efforts to develop directed energy weapons, although China’s program is not particularly transparent, Fisher said.
The Navy in April unveiled a high-speed electromagnetic rail gun capable of launching projectiles at speeds up to 5,600 miles per hour. The service has also tested its laser weapons system at sea, proving that it could shoot down small unmanned aircraft.
That laser currently lacks the power and range necessary to destroy a hypersonic glide vehicle, but it could become powerful enough in the next decade to shoot down such weapons, Fisher said. A hypersonic speed capable rail gun is possible in the early 2020s, he added.
Gunzinger said it may be too difficult to intercept a hypersonic missile with a high-powered laser, but rail guns could be well suited for those missions.
The advanced hypersonic missile was developed by Sandia National Laboratory and the Army. Its first flight test took place in November 2011 and was successful, with the missile traveling from Hawaii and hitting a target at the Reagan Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands.
Photo Credit: The Advanced Hypersonic Weapon concept conducts its first flight in 2011 (Army photo)