Congress approved funding last week for the Pentagon’s advanced hypersonic missile program and expressed concerns over China’s recent test of an ultra high-speed strike vehicle designed to deliver nuclear warheads through U.S. missile defenses.
The House fiscal year 2015 defense authorization bill approved $70.7 million for the Army’s hypersonic missile as part of the Pentagon’s conventional prompt strike program.
The Senate, in its version of the fiscal year 2015 defense bill, also authorized $70.7 million for hypersonic weapons.
The prompt strike program is a strategic weapons program aimed at building high-speed arms capable of attacking targets any place on earth within 30 minutes.
A House report on the defense bill provided new details on U.S. hypersonic weapons programs and also stated that the Pentagon appears to be spending too little on U.S. hypersonic weapons programs in light of China’s first hypersonic missile test Jan. 9.
The Chinese hypersonic strike vehicle test, which was first reported by the Washington Free Beacon and later confirmed by the Chinese Defense Ministry, marked a major leap in Beijing’s advanced arms program. U.S. officials said the strike vehicle test involved a maneuvering weapon that traveled at up to 10 times the speed of sound.
"The committee is concerned that the People’s Republic of China and other competitor nations pose an increasing challenge to the United States’ technology edge in such emerging areas as hypersonic weapons," the report said. "On Jan. 9, China successfully conducted the first flight test of a hypersonic glide vehicle." It also noted that Russia is working on hypersonic weapons, but that its program is said to be less advanced.
The January hypersonic test of what the Pentagon calls China’s WU-14 strike vehicle appears to have set off a hypersonic arms race, at least for Russia and China. The Pentagon’s severe budget crisis appears to be restricting investment in hypersonic weapons technology.
A Russian arms industry official, Boris Obnosov, told reporters at an arms show in Astana, Kazakhstan on Friday that "dozens" of Russian institutes and factories are involved in building a hypersonic weapon. "Hopefully, this will happen by 2020," Obnosov said when asked when the first hypersonic missile prototype would be built.
Obnosov warned that other states are racing to build hypersonic weapons. "If we slacken and lag behind, we will not be able to catch up later," he said, according to the state-run Interfax news agency.
The Chinese hypersonic vehicle test, first disclosed by the Free Beacon in January, was a major high-tech arms breakthrough that caused concern within the Pentagon as the latest example of what the Pentagon calls anti-access, area denial capabilities designed to drive the United States out of Asia and prevent U.S. military forces from aiding regional allies.
Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, told Congress in January that hypersonic arms are a major worry.
"On hypersonics, this is a good example of an area of technology that is going to move forward whether we invest in it or not," Kendall said, adding, "China is doing work in this area."
Kendall said hypersonic strike vehicles are difficult to counter with current missile defenses.
Earlier, Lee Fuell, a technical intelligence specialist with the Air Force National Air and Space Intelligence Center, told a congressional China commission that the Chinese hypersonic glide vehicle is a ballistic missile-launched system that glides and maneuvers to its target at speeds up to Mach 10, around 7,611 mph.
"At this point, we think that’s associated with their nuclear deterrent forces," he said, adding that there are concerns the Chinese could arm the systems with conventional warheads for long-range precision strikes.
Navy officials told Aviation Week that they believe the hypersonic strike weapon is part of China’s anti-ship ballistic missile program.
The current House bill funding is focused on an Army program called the Advanced Hypersonic Missile that was first tested in 2011. The Army said the missile is capable of traveling at Mach 5, or 3,600 miles per hour or greater. In the 2011 test, the missile flew 2,500 miles from Hawaii to the Kwajalein Atoll of the Marshall Islands in 30 minutes.
If the second Army missile test goes well, the Pentagon will begin studying whether the weapon can be deployed on a submarine, the House report said, recommending a third test for the missile.
Another U.S. system is the Hypersonic Technology Vehicle, a glider that failed two tests and is facing opposition from some congressional defense authorizers.
Rick Fisher, a specialist on China’s military programs, said the funding for the hypersonic missile is overdue.
"Both Russia and China are developing new hypersonic speed maneuverable warheads for their ballistic missiles and are likely developing new hypersonic speed strategic attack missiles that could succeed long range cruise missiles," said Fisher, with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
"The United States has an urgent need for new hypersonic speed weapons to equip aircraft, ships, submarines as well as long range ballistic missiles."
In March, Alan R. Shaffer, principal deputy assistant defense secretary for research and engineering, told a defense industry conference that the Pentagon’s experimental X-51 scramjet hypersonic missile is a favored design.
"We, the U.S., do not want to be the second country to understand how to have controlled scramjet hypersonics," Shaffer said March 18.
The House report also expressed concerns about the lack of defenses against hypersonic weapons.
As a result, the bill contains a provision requiring the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to produce a report to Congress on emerging hypersonic threats. The report will be due before the end of the year.
The report must evaluate "emerging hypersonic threats to the United States, its allies, and its deployed forces, and explain how the Department of Defense intends to develop and deploy a defensive capability to counter this emerging threat."
Currently, U.S. missile defenses are designed to counter primarily ballistic missiles—weapons with a predictable flight path.
The limited systems of satellite and other sensors and ground and sea-based interceptors are said to be unable to track and defeat hypersonic vehicles.
A hypersonic strike vehicle is a missile or aircraft launched vehicle that travels at five times the speed of sound or greater, or above 3,840 miles per hour.
Current designs include vehicles that are launched from a missile last stage and glide and maneuver to their targets at the edge of space. A second design is a scramjet-powered vehicle launched from a bomber. A scramjet is a high-efficiency engine that operates by burning a supersonic airflow.