Hypersonic Weapons Race Gathers Speed

By Stew Magnuson
And they’re off! The race to field the first hypersonic weapon is officially on. And woe be to the losers.

The United States is joined by China, Russia — and perhaps even India. For what nation wouldn’t want a weapon that closes in on its target at Mach 10, or about 7,500 mph?

The hypersonic arms race is little talked about outside of military circles, but it should be. The winner would presumably have a huge strategic advantage over its rivals.

Hypersonic vehicles are generally defined as those traveling at speeds greater than Mach 5, roughly 3,840 mph. They are most often envisioned as cruise missiles, or gliders boosted by rockets. They could carry conventional weapons, nuclear warheads as well as sensors.

Any of these vehicles could use their speed to avoid interception and to penetrate deep into enemy territory. If successful, experts have said it is a game-changing technology that will disrupt warfare.

For example, the United States has spent northwards of $1 trillion since the 1950s to figure out how to basically “shoot a bullet with a bullet” and destroy an incoming inter-continental ballistic missile with another missile.

After about six decades, the Missile Defense Agency has managed, under highly controlled circumstances, to intercept an ICBM where the red team’s missile closes in on its target in a predictable trajectory.

The Chinese appear to be testing a hypersonic glider that could defeat that by maneuvering as it closes in on its target. Dubbed the WU-14 by the Pentagon, it is launched by an ICBM, then glides back to Earth at Mach 10. More importantly, while doing so, it could move from side to side. If hitting a bullet with a bullet wasn’t already hard enough, try hitting a bullet that changes course.

China has conducted four tests of the WU-14 so far in the last 18 months, according to a report in the Washington Times.

The United States has dabbled in hypersonic technology, but is moving at a deliberate pace. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Air Force conducted two tests in 2010 and 2011 of its Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle, a rocket-glider system similar to the WU-14. Neither flight lasted its intended duration. DARPA then declared that the program was finished.

The X-51 Waverider, a hypersonic cruise missile launched from an aircraft that uses a scramjet engine to reach its Mach speeds, had four tests from 2010 to 2013, the last setting a record at more than four minutes of flight time. That program has also come to an end.

The Army has conducted two Advanced Hypersonic Weapon tests as part of a prompt global strike initiative. The first test in 2011, also a rocket-glider configuration, was a success. The vehicle struck a target 2,300 miles away in less than 30 minutes. A second test in 2014 ended before it began when the booster rocket rather than the glide vehicle itself was destroyed shortly after liftoff. In this case, the hypersonic technology was never employed. This was a setback because even during short hypersonic flights that end prematurely, researchers are able to glean valuable data.

To keep up with this race, the United States has two technological challenges ahead of it, and both will be extremely expensive in an era of constrained defense budgets. One is to advance hypersonic technology itself and stay ahead of its rivals. The second is to develop counter-measures if and when an adversary employs such technology against it. 

There are potential defenses. The current House version of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act has language mandating that the Defense Department support the Missile Defense Agency in fielding a boost phase defense system. Such a system would presumably knock a rocket out before it deploys a hypersonic glider.

That should sound familiar to anyone who has followed missile defense in recent years. The airborne laser testbed, mounted in a Boeing 747, sought to knock missiles out before they made it too far off the ground and had some successful demonstrations, but it was canceled in 2011. Then Defense Secretary Robert Gates mocked the whole idea saying that there was no way a lumbering 747 could fly close enough to a missile site deep within enemy territory without being a target.

Lasers, of course, travel at the speed of light, and there are signs that the idea to employ them in missile defense might be coming back to counter hypersonic weapons. Language in the House bill calls for continued development of high-powered lasers and microwaves to “defend ships and theater bases against air and cruise missile strikes.”

The House also will ask the MDA one year after the act’s passage for concepts of a space-based missile intercept and defense layer “independent of adversary country size or threat trajectory.” And that may provide “additional defensive options against direct ascent anti-satellite weapons and hypersonic glide vehicles and maneuvering re-entry vehicles.”

Deploying such weapons in space would come with an astronomical price tag and may bump up against treaty concerns. Calling this concept “Star Wars Part II” — evoking President Reagan’s missile shield program — would be reasonable.   

Meanwhile, the Chinese tests grabbed the attention of congressional appropriators last year in the NDAA 2015 bill when the prompt global strike program, which was receiving about $70 million per year in research and development funds, had an extra $25 million tacked on specifically for hypersonic technologies.

Weapons traveling at Mach 5 speeds — and the means to defeat them — are tough technological challenges. This race may take years or decades. But it is on.

Topics: Armaments, International, Science and Engineering Technology

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