NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
A new ultra-high-speed missile successfully completed a flight test recently, flying at speeds greater than five times the speed of sound and as high as 60,000 feet, the Pentagon announced this week.
It was the final flight test for the hypersonic “air-breathing” weapon concept, known as HAWC, a joint project of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Air Force.
The HAWC is a short-range missile that can travel an estimated 5,370 miles per hour, or seven times the speed of sound. It is being developed by Lockheed Martin and is powered by a scramjet engine designed for high-speed maneuvering flight.
Data from the last test will be used in building a newer Air Force scramjet-powered hypersonic weapon called the hypersonic attack cruise missile, or HACM. DARPA officials said in a statement that the test of the HAWC “accomplished all of its initial objectives.”
“This month’s flight added an exclamation point to the most successful hypersonic air-breathing flight test program in U.S. history,” said Walter Price, an official in the Air Force HAWC program. “The things we’ve learned from HAWC will certainly enhance future U.S. Air Force capabilities.”
In addition to the speed and altitude, the missile flew farther than 300 nautical miles and demonstrated improved capabilities and performance compared with earlier flight tests.
Years after watching both China and Russia develop and field hypersonic missiles, the Pentagon is engaged in a crash program to build its own version of the maneuvering high-speed missiles.
Russia claimed to have used one of its Kinzhal hypersonic missiles in striking an underground Ukrainian weapons depot last March. If confirmed, it would be the first use of hypersonic missiles in combat. China also has deployed a hypersonic missile called the DF-17.
In addition to the scramjet hypersonic missiles, the Air Force, Navy and Army all have development programs for hypersonic glide vehicles, which are launched atop ballistic missiles and can maneuver and strike targets at distances from 310 miles to as far as 1,860 miles.
The Congressional Budget Office stated in a recent report that hypersonic missiles will cost more than traditional intermediate-range ballistic missiles. For example, buying 300 ground- or sea-launched, intermediate-range ballistic missiles with maneuverable warheads and support would cost $13.4 billion over 20 years. Building 300 hypersonic missiles would cost around $17.9 billion, according to CBO.
The CBO analysts said that the military could use hypersonic missiles in the South China Sea in a potential conflict with China, or in a defense of the Baltic states in defending against Russian aggression. The missiles can strike heavily defended targets such as coastal air defense systems, long-range strike systems and over-the-horizon radar, the report said
“There would probably be a number of time-sensitive, high-value targets for which rapid strikes from longer distances could be useful,” the report said. “By degrading an adversary’s long-range strike systems and defenses, the United States could limit the effects of [anti-access/area defense] systems early in a conflict, allowing it to use a broader arsenal of shorter-range and less survivable weapons thereafter.”
Technological challenges include shielding the new missiles’ electronics from the extreme heat — up to 3,000 degrees — generated by hypersonic travel.
“Tests are ongoing but failures in recent years have delayed progress,” the CBO said.
Two tests of the Navy’s version of the hypersonic missile failed in October 2021 and June 2022. The three services’ glide missiles are all based on a common body type.
The Air Force weapon is called the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW). The Navy calls its glider the Intermediate-Range Conventional Prompt Strike (IR-CPS), and the Army version is the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW).
The Army and Navy gliders will fly at 7,670 miles per hour or Mach 10 with a range of up to 1,860 miles and can be launched from land or ships. The Air Force weapon will travel at 5,370 miles per hour or Mach 7 and will be fired from B-52 or other bombers and reach targets up to 620 miles away.
Air Force nixes Chinese North Dakota corn mill
A Chinese company that planned to build a corn mill in North Dakota was shot down by the Air Force over concerns about the possibility it could be used to spy on sensitive military facilities. Air Force Assistant Secretary Andrew P. Hunter said in a letter to Sen. John Hoeven, North Dakota Republican, that the Chinese mill would be too close to the Grand Forks Air Force Base, which is home to the 319th Reconnaissance Wing that operates Global Hawk high-altitude drones.
China’s intelligence services are directed under Chinese law to use all commercial entities for help in the gathering of intelligence. U.S. officials were said to be concerned that the corn milling plant could double as an electronic eavesdropping or electronic warfare base for the Chinese military.
Global Hawks are known to conduct long-range reconnaissance of China. However, most engaged in spying on China are based in Japan.
Mr. Hunter stated in a Jan. 27 letter that plans by the Fufeng Group to build a large corn milling processing plant about 12 miles from the Grand Forks base posed a threat to U.S. security.
The Treasury Department-led Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States rejected a proposal by Fufeng to buy land near the base that Mr. Hunter said, “is the center of military activities related to both air and space operations.”
“While CFIUS concluded that it did not have jurisdiction, the department’s view is unambiguous: the proposed project presents a significant threat to national security with both near- and long-term risks of significant impacts to our operations in the area,” Mr. Hunter stated.
North Dakota Republican Gov. Doug Burgum said in a statement Monday that he supports the Air Force official’s assessment.
“Given these concerns, we support the decision by the city of Grand Forks to initiate steps to stop the project with Fufeng Group and will support the city in finding another partner for a corn milling operation,” he said.
In March, Eric Chutorash, chief operating officer of Fufeng USA, confirmed that the company’s parent company is Chinese but insisted the company is separate from the government in Beijing.
“We don’t have a direct relationship with the Chinese government. … I think they’re alluding toward operating under the guidance of or direction of the China government, which we won’t be doing,” Mr. Chutorash told the Grand Forks Herald.
Defense secretary seeks to bolster Philippines ties
Amid growing threats from China in the South China Sea, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is in the Philippines this week to strengthen defense ties.
The U.S. military operated two strategic bases in the Philippines, Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base until they were closed in 1992. The United States also has maintained a defense treaty with the Philippines since 1951.
China and the Philippines have been in a tense standoff over control of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea since 2012 when China began claiming the reefs and islets as its territory.
In 2019, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured the Manila government that any Chinese attack on the Spratlys would be covered under the U.S.-Philippines defense treaty.
“Any armed attack on any Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our Mutual Defense Treaty,” Mr. Pompeo said in a landmark show of support for its ally.
A U.S. defense official who briefed reporters prior to Mr. Austin’s visit said the secretary’s meetings with Philippine leaders sought to strengthen the alliance.
“What we’re doing with the Philippines is working with them,” the official said, “so that together as an alliance, we can help ensure their future, and so they have the capability to defend their own sovereignty and prevent the kind of coercion that they’re facing on a day-to-day basis.”
Chinese claims to sovereignty over some 90% of the South China Sea were undermined by an international tribunal ruling in 2016 that sided with the Philippines in the territorial dispute.
“What the Philippines is trying to do is uphold its rights,” the official said. “And we’re trying to help them do that in the same way we are with other partners around the region. That’s what this is really about, not about simply countering China.”
China also has stepped up dangerous military activities in the region, including provocative aerial intercepts of U.S. aircraft and large numbers of maritime militia vessels operating in the South China Sea.
Chinese state media criticized the Austin visit on Wednesday, asserting the plan for more U.S. military access in the Philippines is meant to “target” China.
“Now senior officials in Washington are becoming keener to talk about the ‘Taiwan Straits crisis’ with the Philippines,” the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times reported, noting that the Philippines might support the U.S. in a future defense of Taiwan.
“However, the Taiwan question has nothing to do with the Philippines,” the report said.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter @BillGertz.