WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The U.S. isn’t used to losing arms races, but defense insiders here warn that the Pentagon is dangerously behind some of its top rivals in the race to build a new generation of game-changing weapons.
The rapid advance of hypersonic technology has eroded the once-insurmountable U.S. edge over its adversaries, analysts say, as Russia pours billions of dollars into lightning-fast missiles while China takes the West’s best research and uses it to negate U.S. military might. The result: a dangerous new global paradigm that represents a wake-up call for the Pentagon and its private-sector partners.
The sprint to regain an advantage in the realm of hypersonics — missiles and aircraft that can travel at least five times the speed of sound — dominated the discussion among military, academic and industrial leaders gathered for a high-level conference this week at Purdue University. The speed, precision and lethality of the new weaponry threaten to render traditional military assets — tanks, aircraft carriers, amphibious assault vessels — obsolete virtually overnight.
Across the board, stakeholders agree that Washington has allowed Beijing and Moscow to make massive strides while failing to keep pace or to develop a comprehensive strategy to counter enemy first strikes.
Russian President Vladimir Putin boasts that his country possesses a hypersonic nuclear-capable missile that can evade virtually any defense system on earth, including those protecting American cities.
Although Russia’s capabilities are worrisome, analysts say, China is an even greater threat. China’s military planners, more discreet than Mr. Putin, have employed a more covert, decadeslong strategy to study American research, copy what works and use their nation’s ingrained symbiotic partnership between business and government to lap the U.S.
“We did their homework for them. They built on our efforts, they read all of our papers,” said Mark Lewis, director of the Science and Technology Policy Institute at the Institute for Defense Analyses and a global leader in hypersonic research.
“If you’re China and you want to defend your part of the world and you’re concerned about the United States Navy and the United States Air Force, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better technology than hypersonics,” Mr. Lewis said during a speech at the convention, which was sponsored by the National Defense Industrial Association.
Defense contractors are lining up to develop hypersonic weapons and — equally important — improved missile defenses to deal with the challenge of an adversary’s incoming hypersonic arsenal. Lockheed Martin reportedly signed contracts worth some $2.5 billion for hypersonic weapons in 2018 alone, and rival Raytheon told investors on a conference call earlier this year that every division of the company was working on counterhypersonic research.
Next great threat
As Mr. Lewis sounded the alarm in the Midwest, military officials in Washington struck a similar note Tuesday. Taken together, their comments underscore deep concern that the U.S. isn’t fully prepared for the realities of 21st-century conflict.
“We have adversaries growing extremely rapidly in this area. We have had fits and starts over the years in that hypersonic technology, which I believe is a mistake,” said Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command.
“We should have been going after that technology consistently and rapidly over the years, and we have not,” Gen. Hyten told a Senate panel during a confirmation hearing to become the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
If confirmed, Gen. Hyten and his fellow service chiefs will confront a stark reality: Hypersonic weapons could render the traditional power of American planes, ships and tanks virtually useless.
Hypersonic missiles, in particular, present unique challenges. Designed to move at mind-blowing speeds with stunningly high levels of maneuverability, the weapons represent far more than another step in the evolution of war fighting.
“You no longer need a first-rate air force to confront our first-rate Air Force,” Mr. Lewis said. “If you use hypersonic weapons to destroy an air base, the U.S. Air Force can never become airborne. You have effectively defeated our capabilities. If you can use hypersonics to sink an aircraft carrier off your shores, then you have effectively negated the advantages the U.S. has.”
The sheer gravity of the hypersonic weapons revolution — particularly if the weapons are outfitted with nuclear warheads, as Mr. Putin boasts about his nation’s Avangard system — should persuade the nation’s leading powers to reach an agreement limiting their use, analysts say. In a sweeping hypersonics study released last year, the Rand Corp., a nonprofit think tank, said that even as the U.S. ramps up its research it must take the lead in a global missile pact with Russia and China.
“The unavoidable requirement is for the United States, Russia, and China to agree on a nonproliferation policy,” the Rand study says.
But some analysts fear that Moscow and Beijing will have little appetite to adopt such an agreement. With their countries already at the forefront of hypersonic weapons development, and with little indication that the U.S. has implemented the systems needed to counter them, there is a growing fear that the Cold War-era philosophy of mutually assured destruction may no longer be applicable.
“Regimes that brutally suppress its own citizens … and dictators that shoot bullets into peaceful protesters on the street will not blink at deploying hypersonic weapons across the ocean,” said Mung Chiang, dean of the College of Engineering at Purdue, a campus that has become a national leader in hypersonic research.
Breaking down barriers
Analysts say a multitude of factors led the U.S. to lose its edge, including inherent difficulties in the American system. China’s top-down approach to military research makes it relatively easy, observers say, for all parties involved to work together toward a common goal and to share all relevant information along the way.
In the U.S., however, scientific researchers, industry leaders and the Defense Department have had much less direct cooperation.
The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency has acknowledged a major shortfall in its budget for anti-hypersonic research. It said the funding for 2020 of $157 million for defeating hypersonic weapons should be quadrupled given the surging threat level.
As one step toward building a more united front, the Democratic House majority included in its version of the National Defense Authorization Act this month a provision to create a national “Joint Hypersonics Transition Office” inside the Pentagon to coordinate hypersonic activities across each branch of the military. Defense industry leaders say such an approach is desperately needed.
“It’s hard to understand why it doesn’t exist,” said Richard McConn, CEO of M International, a leading defense distribution company in McLean, Virginia, and chairman of the board at the National Defense Industrial Association.
The Senate version of the defense policy and spending bill does not call for the creation of such an office.
Leaders in the House say there is agreement across the board that greater cooperation is vital, but making it a reality will prove challenging.
“I also do believe there is an effort within the Pentagon to avoid the stovepiping and that there is a need to drive interservice and interagency collaboration,” said Rep. Peter J. Visclosky, Indiana Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense. “Adhering to the plan will be the difficult part.”
The problems extend far beyond the Pentagon, analysts say. While the National Defense Industrial Association and other organizations have launched efforts to invigorate relationships between defense contractors and research universities such as Purdue, academic leaders say there is still a disturbing gap between the two.
University-level research, they say, is often not directly aligned with products that defense companies have in their pipelines. Subsequently, it’s not always clear whether research projects at Purdue and elsewhere are focused on areas that will directly aid the Pentagon in its mission to protect the nation.
“It’s really important that … we get feedback on the effectiveness of the research we’re doing,” said Iain Boyd, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan. “If we’re not able to apply some of the technologies we’re developing, we don’t get that feedback. Are we really just going to throw it over the fence to industry and let them come back to us?”
Finding a way to close the divide, scholars say, will be vital if the U.S. is to achieve its broader goals in the hypersonics race.
“There’s two groups of people who are very good and know what they’re doing, and they know the other group exists but they have a real hard time understanding what the other group is doing,” said Russ Cummings, director of the Hypersonic Vehicle Simulation Institute at the U.S. Air Force Academy. “So how are we going to bridge that chasm? I think we need to spend some time thinking about that.”
• Lauren Meier contributed to this report.