More Money Anticipated for Hypersonics

By Jon Harper

Art: Turbosquid

Worried about falling behind in hypersonic weapons technology, the Pentagon is planning to pump more money into developing its offensive and defense capabilities.

In his recent state-of-the-nation speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his country had developed new hypersonic weapons that can fly at speeds of Mach 10 or faster.

The Chinese have conducted 20 times as many hypersonic weapons tests as the United States over the last decade, Michael Griffin, the new undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said at a recent conference.

Hypersonic missiles offer several operational advantages in addition to their extraordinarily high speed, officials have noted. They have long ranges and their flight paths pose a challenge for missile defense systems.

“The architecture that you need to respond to a ballistic missile threat is very different than one that you need to respond to a hypersonic threat,” said Missile Defense Agency Director Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves. The threat “is very troubling in that it comes back into the atmosphere at a lower altitude and maneuvers around,” he noted.

If the Chinese are able to deploy tactical or regional hypersonic systems and the United States is unable to counter them, that would upend the balance of power, Griffin said.

“Without our ability to defend and without at least an equal response capability on the offensive side, then what we’ve done is we have allowed a situation to exist where our deployed forces are held at risk [and] we cannot do the same to them,” he said.

Griffin said his highest technical priority is enhancing the nation’s offensive and defensive hypersonic capabilities.

The president’s fiscal year 2019 budget request calls for $257 million in spending for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s hypersonic weapons efforts, a 136 percent increase over the 2018 request, according to a DARPA spokesman. The money would fund: a hypersonic air-breathing weapon concept, $14 million; a tactical boost glide system, $139 million; an advanced full range engine, $53 million; and an operational fires project to demonstrate a ground-launched hypersonic system integrating tactical boost glide technologies, $50 million.

“I don’t think we got everything we wanted but it was a good first step,” DARPA Director Steven Walker told reporters.

The extra dollars would go toward adding more flight tests and “getting some of our offensive capability further down the line into operational prototypes,” he said.

On the defensive side, the Missile Defense Agency requested $120 million for projects aimed at developing ways to counter enemy hypersonic weapons.

“Most of the funding, if approved, will be looking at the systems engineering processes we need to develop … as well as the architectures,” Greaves said. “There is some funding as part of the request to look at a potential interceptor that we may need,” he added.

Griffin said he plans to create new budget lines for hypersonics development which could appear in the 2020 budget request.

“Let me be clear,” he said. “I didn’t take this job so that we could regain parity with our adversaries. … I want to make them worried about catching up with us again.”

Topics: Advanced Weapons, Budget, Emerging Technologies

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