EMERGING TECHNOLOGY HORIZONS EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES
Yet Another Hypersonics Wake-Up Call
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Russian claims of using hypersonic missiles to strike targets in Ukraine should be a wake-up call.
Though purists might argue that hypersonic weapons have been used before — any missile exceeding Mach 5 in the atmosphere is technically hypersonic — this appears to be the first combat use of a hypersonic maneuvering missile, a weapon combining the attributes of speed, unpredictability and altitude for increased survivability.
How concerned should we really be, and will this finally solidify U.S. resolve to field its own systems?
I can’t help but think of a scene in Ridley Scott’s 2005 movie Kingdom of Heaven. In that film a knight asks Saladin about the significance of his army capturing Jerusalem. Saladin replies quickly, “Nothing.” Then adds dramatically, “Everything.” So what does it mean that the Russians appear to have used hypersonic weapons in Ukraine? Nothing. And Everything.
This first use should not be a surprise. The intelligence community has been warning us for many years of the threat posed by Russian and Chinese hypersonics programs. Based on this, an influential 2016 Air Force Studies Board report recommended a response to include both offensive and defensive programs, coordinated across the Defense Department. An outstanding report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently reached much the same conclusion.
In fact, myriad studies have shown the value of hypersonics to the military in future combat, and even worse, the dire consequences of facing an adversary who is so armed. With the Russian use, those warnings carry even greater urgency.
To be fair, it is not entirely clear why the Russians used their new weapons instead of more conventional missiles. A hypersonic attack was likely not a cost-effective option, nor did the Russian forces face the sort of air defenses that hypersonics are especially adept at penetrating.
The targets that they hit do not appear to have been time-sensitive, eliminating yet another possible justification. So the answer to the question of what does it mean that the Russians used hypersonics is, well, “nothing.”
Except, the Russian military has made no secret of the fact that their hypersonic missiles can be used with both conventional and nuclear warheads. Russia has also bragged of their intent to deploy large numbers of different types of hypersonic weapons, with President Vladimir Putin himself extolling his country’s hypersonic capabilities and early adoption. This first battlefield use was, if nothing else, a sobering message: “We have beaten you to deployment; you won’t know if it’s conventional or nuclear; and we have no reluctance to use it.” In other words, it means “everything.”
The Russians are not alone in using hypersonic weapons for strategic messaging. Reports emerged in late summer of a Chinese test of a fractional orbital bombardment vehicle, a maneuvering projectile that was launched into orbit and then brought back to Earth on a hypersonic glide path.
Such a deployed capability would allow the Chinese to evade missile defenses and attack from an unexpected direction with little advanced notice; but the operational value to China is debatable, given that U.S. missile defenses are not currently designed to stop a massed attack from a peer adversary, either hypersonic or ballistic.
More significantly, this test looked very much like a first strike weapon, one that demonstrates a desire to hit any point on the globe with minimal warning. In other words, this seems to be China messaging that they view themselves as a global power with a first-strike capability.
Nothing, and yet everything.
Meanwhile back in the United States, we are still playing hypersonic catch-up, delayed by calls for ever more studies with often-flawed metrics. We are flight testing at a snail’s pace — and mostly failing — while competitors develop, test and deploy operational systems at an alarming rate.
Adding to our slow progress is a relentless chorus of hand-wringing naysayers. To wit, the Union of Concerned Scientists produced a report that is so incredibly confused and fundamentally flawed that its mistakes would be laughable had not the work been referenced so extensively. Similarly, a study on weapons costs that reached mistaken conclusions based on erroneous assumptions is still cited by some on both sides of the Potomac as a reason to limit hypersonic investments.
Even worse, we are hearing from those who should know better that key missions that would be assigned to hypersonic missiles can be done better by existing approaches. No, they can’t.
Or that hypersonics will be unaffordable — debatable, and clearly not when purchased in rubles or yuans. Or that our work in hypersonics is escalatory — despite adversaries developing and deploying regardless of what we do.
Or that hypersonics still isn’t sufficiently mature and thus not ready for deployment (see paragraph one above).
Or that we can magically negotiate mutual hypersonic disarmament when even the best poker player must have some good cards to play.
The good news is that the 2022 defense budget and 2023 budget requests show leaders in the executive branch and Congress are taking hypersonics seriously and allocating significant resources. Programs are under way in the Army, Navy and Air Force as well as the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the recently established Defense Department joint hypersonics transition office is flourishing, including a vibrant university consortium.
But we still face challenges in ground test and flight test infrastructure, and in creating an industrial supply chain to deliver hypersonics at the required scale. A coherent whole-of-department investment strategy is still elusive. All of which is to say, there is cause for cautious optimism, but we are not yet on a path to success.
If the Russian use was a wake-up call — as was the Chinese test before it — one must wonder how many wake-up calls are required before we stop hitting the snooze button?
Dr. Mark J. Lewis is executive director of the Emerging Technologies Institute.
Topics: Emerging Technologies