Selva: China Could Deploy Hypersonic Weapons on a 'Large Scale' (UPDATED)

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva

Photo: Air Force

China has advanced its hypersonic weapons to the point where it could potentially deploy them on a large scale, a top U.S. military officer warned June 21.

Hypersonic missiles can travel at speeds of Mach 5 or faster and they pose a major challenge to existing missile defense systems, Pentagon officials have said.

To date, China has been developing high speed, long-range precision missiles on a “micro” scale, said Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“They haven’t mass deployed hypersonics or long-range [tactical] ballistic missiles” yet, he said during a panel discussion at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. However, “what they have done is proven the technologies, and so they are able now to deploy those capabilities at a large scale" if they decide to move in that direction, he added.

The United States is behind in the demonstration of those types of technologies, but in some ways it still maintains an advantage, he noted.

“We are way ahead in a lot of the sensor and sensor-integration technologies and we have to maintain that edge,” he said.

Beijing has stated that it wants to reach technological parity with the United States in the early 2020s, and technological superiority by the early 2030s. Russia, too, is making major investments in its military including developing hypersonic weapons.

“If we just sit back and don’t react we will lose our technological superiority” over China, Selva said.

In April, the Air Force announced that it had awarded Lockheed Martin an indefinite quantity, indefinite delivery contract worth up to $928 million to develop a hypersonic, air-launched standoff weapon.

"What we’re really trying to do there is prototype using ... [new rapid prototyping] authorities to see what we can advance, and what the art of the possible is to see how quickly we can get a capability out there," Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisitions, technology and logistics, told reporters during a June 21 meeting at the Pentagon.

The service is streamlining the development process as much as possible for the hypersonic conventional strike weapon, or HCSW program, he noted.

"We’re trying to pull it two to three or more years left of what we would do by being a traditional program and doing a bunch of the other activities" that are part of the traditional acquisition process, he added.

The 2018 national defense strategy — which identified China and Russia as the Pentagon's primary national security challenges — highlighted hypersonics as a key technology area in an era of great power competition. 

“It’s very clear from our national defense strategy ... that we intend to react" to what the Chinese are doing, Selva said. “If you accept that the Chinese are trying to offset our capability in the Western Pacific and that the Russians are trying to offset our capability in Europe, it’s incumbent upon us as strategists to react to that ambition.”

The Defense Department must "analyze what your opponent is trying to do to you, make this a competition ... and checkmate them or prevent them from getting so much of an advantage that they can prevent you from doing the things that are in your national interest,” he added.

The Pentagon is making substantial investments into research-and-development programs related to long-range precision strike and high-speed weapons, he noted. The United States is also trying to develop ways to counter those types of weapons.

The Defense Department’s budget is nearly $700 billion, he noted.

“Given the size of our budget, if we don’t have the money to do this then we’re not paying attention,” he said. “We have to put the money where it matters and that means allocating money to research and development in the technologies that are important to achieve asymmetric approaches to both China and Russia’s technology trends.”

Robert Work, a senior fellow for defense and national security at CNAS, and a former deputy secretary of defense, said the United States faces a new reality as China and Russia beef up their capabilities.

“Since the end of World War II, the United States has generally been the power that has been offsetting the quantitative superiority of our adversaries and we’ve done so from a consistent position of technological superiority,” he said. “But in China, and to a lesser degree Russia, we are dealing with competitors that are keenly focused on offsetting our technological superiority even as they strive for technological parity and eventually technological superiority.”

Work, during his time at the Pentagon, championed the “third offset strategy,” which sought to increase the U.S. military's technological overmatch over other nations. However, the Chinese also have their own version of such a strategy that they have been working on for decades, he noted.

“After reviewing what the Chinese military has been able to do in the last two decades and what they are planning to do in the next decade, any objective assessment in my view must conclude that the U.S. joint force is perilously close to being the victim of a very patient, exquisitely targeted and robustly resourced ... offset strategy.”

China is pursing this strategy on a number of fronts, including through industrial and technical espionage on a broad scale, and the development of artificial intelligence technology, he noted.

Updated: This story has been updated to include comments from Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch.


Topics: Air Force News, Emerging Technologies

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