It is a non-nuclear weapon that theoretically can hit any target around the world in one hour — while evading the most modern of missile defense systems. The Russians on Wednesday paraded one in Red Square, and China is aggressively pursuing a development program for its own variant.
In the race to develop hypersonic weapons, the Pentagon finds itself in an unfamiliar place: trailing its two main military rivals in a cutting-edge military technology and scrambling to catch up.
Despite spending almost the past decade at the forefront of development for hypersonic weapons technology, the U.S. is potentially behind China and Russia in an emerging arms race.
Top U.S. military brass, past and present, have touted the weapon’s speed and versatility as a viable alternative to the nuclear bomb — the only other weapon in the American arsenal that can travel as far and fast as a hypersonic missile.
Theoretically, U.S. forces would need only a handful of the missiles to take out high-value targets at hypersonic speeds, which could easily evade the most advanced air defense systems.
“I wish to hell we had one when [Osama] bin Laden was in Tora Bora,” a U.S. military source said in 2012 at the peak of U.S. hypersonics development.
But after numerous test and design failures, Pentagon support faded for hypersonics and development of a Prompt Global Strike missile, and resources were shifted toward other efforts such as long-range missile defense systems and next-generation intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The last concerted efforts by the U.S. to develop a hypersonic weapon was the 2011 HTV-2 Falcon, a missile-based system created by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the 2010 Air Force X-51 Waverider scramjet hypersonic weapon. Neither made it out of the early development phase.
“Hypersonic weapons systems could dramatically alter the existing balance of conventional military power forces between the United States and its major competitors,” Daniel Goure, vice president of the public policy research think tank Lexington Institute, wrote recently in the foreign policy journal National Interest. “They could strike key military targets such as airfields, command and control centers, depots and force concentrations almost without warning.”
The weapons are seen as particularly useful against such targets as aircraft carriers, amphibious warfare ships and critical military supply transports, Mr. Goure said.
Russia and China rushed to fill the gap in the field of hypersonic weaponry. Moscow, first to claim it, developed the first combat-ready hypersonic missile this month.
Russian military officials announced the first deployment of the Kinzhal, or “Dagger,” hypersonic missile aboard 10 MiG-31 fighter jets on test combat duty, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov said during an interview Saturday with Russian news outlet Zvezda TV.
With Russian President Vladimir Putin in the reviewing stand, the Dagger was one of the prime attractions at Wednesday’s annual parade marking the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany.
“It is a cutting-edge weapon capable of overcoming air and missile defenses. It is invincible, having serious combat might and potential,” said Mr. Borisov, confirming the weapon’s deployment.
Mr. Putin touted the weapon’s game-changing ability during a speech to the Federal Assembly on March 1.
“I want to tell all those who have fueled the arms race over the last 15 years, sought to win unilateral advantages over Russia, introduced unlawful sanctions aimed to contain our country’s development … you have failed to contain Russia,” he said at the time.
Russia is not alone in the race to be the next hypersonics power.
Regional news reports say China last year successfully tested a hypersonics missile dubbed the DF-17. The test was confirmed by sources within the U.S. intelligence community, who declined to comment on how close Beijing was in getting the weapon fully operational. Recent reports say the DF-17 could possess a kill range of up to 1,200 miles and could be fielded as soon as 2020.
The Russian and Chinese claims have caught the attention of senior U.S. military brass, who are once again sounding the alarm at the Pentagon’s lack of parity in the hypersonics domain.
“You should believe Vladimir Putin about everything he said he’s working on,” Air Force Gen. John Hyten, chief of U.S. Strategic Command, told reporters last month at a space symposium in Colorado Springs.
“There are certain areas where I think we have advantages on Russia and China in hypersonics. But what they’ve done, what is significant, is they’ve done full-up integrated testing of those capabilities,” Gen. Hyten said in remarks covered by Defense News.
Navy Adm. Philip Davidson, who will replace Adm. Harry Harris as head of U.S. Pacific Command, also expressed concern about China’s pursuit of hypersonic weapons.
“It’s clear to me that some of our potential adversaries are innovating with weapons systems that we need to catch up on, in some cases, or advance the gap that we currently might hold over them,” he told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing last month.
“I am highly concerned about China’s pursuit of hypersonics, and that is one area in which we need to get after quickly [and] allow us to innovate more quickly” to address the threat.
The military blog We Are The Mighty reported this week that the Air Force is developing an aggressive timetable to design, test and deploy hypersonic weapons, including air-launched weapons and a conventional strike missile.
Air Force. Lt. Gen. Samuel A. Greaves, director of the Missile Defense Agency, told Congress last month that China and Russia are building missiles designed to defeat missile defenses, including hypersonic cruise missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles launched atop ballistic missiles.
“The combination of high speed, maneuverability and relatively low altitude makes them challenging targets for missile defense systems,” he said.
Advances by potential adversaries in the field is one of the greatest threats to U.S. security, the general said.
“We are executing the planning, and I expect to see a significant increase in the amount of time and resources that we will spend in that area,” he told a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing last month.
The concern about a hypersonic missile gap is reflected in the Pentagon’s defense spending request for the coming fiscal year, which called for $256 million for hypersonics work at DARPA.
On Friday, members of the House Armed Services Committee added $20 million to that figure in their version of the Pentagon spending blueprint for fiscal year 2019. It remains to be seen whether their Senate counterparts will follow suit when they mark up their defense spending bill later this month.