JUST IN: Department of Energy Not Studying Nuclear-Armed Hypersonic Weapons

By Connie Lee

Art: Turbosquid

Although hypersonic missiles are a top modernization priority for the Pentagon, there are no efforts underway to arm such weapons with nuclear warheads, according to a Department of Energy leader.

“We are currently not undertaking a nuclear hypersonic [project], unlike other nations,” Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, undersecretary of energy for nuclear security, told reporters Nov. 7 in Washington, D.C. Gordon-Hagerty also serves as the administrator for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is responsible for maintaining and overseeing the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.

To counter great power competitors such as Russia and China, the Defense Department has marked hypersonic weapons as its No. 1 research-and-development priority. The systems will be capable of traveling at speeds of Mach 5 or faster and be highly maneuverable, making them difficult for enemy air-and-missile defenses to defeat.

Beijing and Moscow have publicly stated their intentions to field these types of weapons and are ramping up their R&D efforts. But unlike the United States, both governments have acknowledged that they are pursuing hypersonic missiles that are nuclear-capable. For example, Russian state media such as Sputnik News has reported that Moscow’s Kinzhal air-launched missile system is able to carry both nuclear and conventional warheads. The Congressional Research Service has noted that Russia and China may field an operational hypersonic glide vehicle by 2020. 

Gordon-Hagerty said the National Nuclear Security Administration has no current studies underway to examine the possibility of adding nuclear payloads to U.S. hypersonics.

“We were studying it in the ‘80s and in the past,” she said. “There's not a current study.”

Because the United States is focusing on conventional payloads, its weapons will need to have “greater accuracy and will be more technically challenging to develop than nuclear-armed Chinese and Russian systems,” CRS stated in its September report, “Hypersonic Weapons: Background and Issues for Congress."

Multiple hypersonic weapons development efforts are underway, such as an Army experimental prototyping effort and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s tactical boost-glide system.

Meanwhile, the NNSA is modifying and reusing materials from its current nuclear weapons stockpile, which is aging, she noted.

“We are not building new nuclear weapons,” she said. “We're coming into the 21st century."

Nuclear warheads that were designed to be in the inventory for 15 to 20 years now will have life extensions to keep them viable for decades to come, she noted. The NNSA has completed the life extension of the Navy’s W76-1, which was originally introduced in the 1970s and designed to be integrated with a submarine-launched ballistic missile system.

The administration has also started the W76-2 life-extension program, she noted.

“We will now extend that for another 20 to 50 years in the stockpile,” Gordon-Hagerty said. “We undertook that program within a year of when the president directed us to do so.”

Topics: Advanced Weapons, Emerging Technologies

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