Legislation Seeks Defense Against Hypersonic Missiles

Pentagon working on enhanced THAAD system, lasers to counter threat

Vice Adm. James Syring (right), director of the Missile Defense Agency / AP

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Congress is pressing the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency to counter the growing threat of high-speed, maneuvering missiles.

An amendment to the current defense authorization bill passed by the House Armed Services Committee last week would require the agency to develop and fund a program to defeat hypersonic missiles.

The legislation calls for creating a dedicated program to counter "hypersonic boost-glide and maneuvering ballistic missiles" that can include co-development with other agencies or nations.

Adoption of the measure followed recent flight tests by China and Russia of revolutionary hypersonic glide vehicles.

The high-technology maneuvering gliders are launched on ballistic missiles and skim the upper atmosphere at speeds of 7,500 miles per hour or greater. They then glide and maneuver toward ground targets.

Vice Adm. James Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency, revealed during a recent hearing of the strategic forces subcommittee that the MDA does not have programs devoted to dealing with hypersonic missile threats.

Syring said the current defense budget request includes $23 million to develop a laser weapon that could be used against hypersonic missiles. A low-power laser weapon will not be tested until 2021, he said.

Russia carried out a flight test of its experimental Yu-71 hypersonic glider on an SS-19 intercontinental ballistic missile on April 19.

Three days later, China conducted the seventh successful flight test of its new DF-ZF hypersonic glider on a missile that flew from central China to the western part of the country.

The amendment is part of the House version of the fiscal 2017 defense authorization bill that is scheduled for debate before the full House on Wednesday. The bill would authorize $610.5 billion in defense spending for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, and includes more than a dozen other policy-oriented amendments.

Rep. Trent Franks (R., Ariz.), who sponsored the amendment, said he is worried by both Chinese and Russian hypersonic weapons development, which he said represent a "paradigm shift" in modern warfare.

"The hypersonic age is upon us," Franks said in an interview. "And it is imperative that America not only compete but excel in this area because our enemies are certainly taking the technology seriously and are developing it effectively."

Franks, an Armed Services Committee member and ardent supporter of missile defenses, said the amendment was needed to assist the Missile Defense Agency in dealing with difficult budget and policy challenges.

"The Chinese DF-ZF travels somewhere around nine times the speed of sound," he said.

The quickest way for the Pentagon to counter the Chinese glider is likely to develop an enhanced version of the Army’s Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, Franks said.

Later, lasers could be developed that will be capable of hitting hypersonic missiles, he said.

Franks said he is optimistic Congress will keep the amendment in the defense bill and that the Senate will support the measure. The Obama administration, however, has blocked efforts by the congressman to bolster missile defense programs, he said.

An MDA spokesman had no immediate comment.

Larry Wortzel, a former military intelligence officer who specializes in China issues, said both Beijing and Moscow are moving ahead with the high-speed missile programs.

"Hypersonics is one of the areas where the Chinese and the Russians appear to be ahead of the U.S.," Wortzel said. "This comes at a time when there is little progress on directed energy weapons for the U.S. If the Department of Defense is working on a ‘third offset,’ who knows where else the Chinese might excel?

"Congress and the American people need to focus on ballistic missile defense and on counters to this serious strategic threat," he added.

Another section of the bill would require the MDA to develop space-based missile defenses, including anti-missile interceptors deployed on orbiting satellites.

One of the more significant provisions of the defense bill is an amendment that would require women to register for the military draft.

One provision would limit funds for U.S. support to Russian flights over U.S. territory under the Open Skies Treaty amid concern Moscow will spy on critical U.S. infrastructure. U.S. military cooperation with Russia would continue to be blocked under the bill in response to Moscow’s military takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea.

Another section would block $10 million from the Pentagon budget slated for military support to the White House until the president provides Congress with a report required last year outlining the U.S. response to Russia’s violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Russia violated the accord by developing a new ground-launched cruise missile, and the Obama administration has not taken any steps in response.

The bill would require the administration to provide Congress with reports on the strategy to counter the Islamic State terrorist group and on the Pentagon’s freedom of navigation operations.

The House bill also would require the Pentagon to brief members on the Iranian detention of 10 Navy sailors in January, and on China’s controversial participation in the upcoming Rim of the Pacific international naval exercises.

Critics in Congress want the Pentagon to disinvite the Chinese military from the war games based on China’s attempts to take control of the South China Sea.

A Democratic amendment added to the bill seeks to prevent future development of a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile.

A road-mobile or rail-mobile version of a new strategic missile is being considered by the Pentagon as a replacement for aging, silo-based Minuteman ICBMs.

That amendment was sponsored by Rep. Rick Larsen (D., Wash.), leader of the House U.S.-China Working Group, a pro-Beijing caucus.

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