The Pentagon is being forced to set up a dedicated program targeting the growing threat of high-speed maneuvering missiles under development by China and Russia.
A section of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2017, passed by Congress last week, requires the Missile Defense Agency to create the program focused on countering the emerging hypersonic missile threat.
A blue-ribbon panel of Air Force experts concluded in a study made public last month that the Obama administration and the military have failed to adequately address the new hypersonic threat.
The study found that the Pentagon has no well-resourced program for either developing hypersonic missiles or countering them.
China has conducted seven tests of a new high-speed strike missile and Russia also is developing hypersonic weapons that are designed to defeat U.S. missile defenses.
The authorization bill is expected to be signed by President Obama in the next several days.
Once a public law, the Pentagon must create a program "to develop and field a defensive system to defeat hypersonic boost-glide and maneuvering ballistic missiles," the law states.
The initial amendment that was added to the legislation, drafted by missile defense advocate Rep. Trent Franks (R., Ariz.), would have placed restrictions on funding for the office of the secretary of defense until the hypersonic defense program is created. That part of the legislation was dropped during negotiations between the House and Senate on the bill.
The legislation requiring hypersonic missile defenses is a slap at the Obama administration, which despite spending billions of dollars on missile defense programs has not focused on the hypersonic missile danger.
Current U.S. missile defenses, including those designed to shoot down long-range and short-range missiles, currently are designed to strike ballistic missiles that travel in predictable flight paths.
Missiles traveling at speeds of between Mach 5 and Mach 10—3,836 miles per hour to 7,672 miles per hour—that change course cannot be tracked or struck by current missile defenses and sensors.
The study by Air Force experts stated that "the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation are already flight-testing high-speed maneuvering weapons (HSMWs) that may endanger both forward-deployed U.S. forces and even the continental United States itself."
"These weapons appear to operate in regimes of speed and altitude, with maneuverability that could frustrate existing missile defense constructs and weapon capabilities."
The report said the new threat is not overblown. "This is no mere tweaking of an existing threat," the report said. "Rather, [high-speed maneuvering weapons] can combine speed and maneuverability between the air and space regimes to produce significant new offensive capability that could pose a complex defensive challenge."
The panel of experts stated that it "could find no formal strategic operational concept or organizational sense of urgency" regarding the threat.
"Further, the committee believes there is a lack of leadership coordination to provide efficiency and direction for the development of possible countermeasures and defensive solutions across the Department of Defense."
A Missile Defense Agency spokesman declined to comment on the defense authorization bill's provision for a new hypersonic missile defense program.
However, MDA Director Vice Adm. James Syring disclosed during a congressional hearing earlier this year his agency has no programs focused on the threat of hypersonic missiles.
A laser weapon is being researched that may have capabilities against hypersonic missiles but will not be tested until 2021, he said.
China's multiple test launches of the DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle are an indication the weapon is a high-priority for Chinese arms developers.
Russia announced in August that its hypersonic missiles will be designed to penetrate U.S. missile defenses and the first systems could be deployed by 2020.
Russia flight-tested its experimental Yu-71 hypersonic glider in April atop a SS-19 missile.
Rep. Franks said earlier this year he introduced the legislation over worries about hypersonic arms developments in China and Russia.
“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.”
An enhanced version of the Army’s Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, is being considered as one system capable of countering hypersonic missiles.
Update 4:40 P.M.: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the report was published by the National Science Foundation.