Hypersonic Arms Race Heats Up as U.S. Builds High-Speed Missiles

New hypersonic platforms to counter Chinese, Russian efforts

X-51A Waverider
The X-51A Waverider scramjet aircraft / U.S. Air Force graphic
March 8, 2016

Defense Secretary Ash Carter disclosed last week that the Pentagon’s new high-technology weapons to deal with threats from China and Russia will include ultra-high speed missiles.

Carter revealed during a speech in California that part of the $71.8 billion for weapons research and development this year will fund "new hypersonic missiles that can fly over five times the speed of sound."

Days earlier, the general in charge of Air Force weapons research, Maj. Gen. Thomas Masiello, revealed that two technology prototypes of hypersonic strike weapons, a scramjet powered cruise missile and a hypersonic glider, could be ready in four years.

"We’re looking for more singles, base hits, versus trying to go for a home run," Masiello said of hypersonic missile development during a conference Feb. 26. The effort will build on several tests in recent years of a Boeing X-51 scramjet hypersonic missile.

The X-51 had one successful flight out of three tests and reached speeds of over Mach 5, or 3,836 miles per hour.

An Army hypersonic missile test designed to glide to its target after launch on a booster rocket blew up shortly after launch in August 2014. That missile concept is part of the Pentagon’s "prompt global strike" program that will receive $181 million this year.

Masiello said past X-51 tests should not prompt an end to hypersonic arms development. "You have to build an environment that allows failure because if you don’t you’re not going to be pushing the boundaries of technology," he said.

One problem with the X-51 missile was trouble igniting its engine at very high speed. A second test failure was caused by a broken fin.

Carter’s comments last week were the first by the defense secretary on hypersonic missiles under development by the Defense Advanced Research Agency, the Air Force, and the Army.

Hypersonic weapons represent cutting edge of technology, and the missiles are designed to travel in the border between air and space at speeds of between Mach 5 and Mach 10, or between 3,836 miles per hour and 7,672 miles per hour.

The weapons present difficult engineering challenges because of problems associated with flight at ultra high speeds, including controlling maneuverability and overcoming high heat caused by friction.

The commander of the U.S. Strategic Command said in January that China’s six successful flight tests of a hypersonic glide vehicle that can deliver nuclear or conventional warheads were part of a worrying arms buildup by Beijing.

China’s DF-ZF hypersonic glider is a high priority arms program and China’s answer to defeating advanced air and missile defenses that are increasingly being deployed around the world.

Russia also is developing hypersonic missiles that are a high priority element of Moscow’s large-scale buildup of nuclear and conventional forces.

Russian officials have said hypersonic missiles will be used to defeat U.S. missile defenses. Last month, state-run Russian press reports revealed that Moscow plans to deploy hypersonic anti-ship cruise missiles on new warships.

The Pentagon budget request for what DARPA and the Air Force call the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept is $49.5 million, up from $13.5 million last year.

The program will "develop and demonstrate technologies to enable transformational changes in responsive, long-range strike against time-critical or heavily defended targets," the budget report says, adding that the goal is to develop a scramjet-powered air launched hypersonic cruise missile based on the X-51.

Another $22.8 million is being spent on a short-range "tactical boost glide" hypersonic missile, launched from aircraft and ships. The funding for the boost glider this year was doubled from last year’s budget.

A report made public last week by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies urged the Pentagon to rapidly build hypersonic weapons.

"Hypersonics — flight at five times the speed of sound (3,600 mph and above) — promises to revolutionize military affairs in the same fashion that stealth did a generation ago, and the turbojet engine did a generation before," the report says. "By fundamentally redefining the technical means of power projection, the US can circumvent challenges facing the present force."

The advanced ultra high-speed missiles can be launched from aircraft, ground-launchers, ships, and submarines.

"Hypersonic weapons offer advantage in four broad areas for U.S. combat forces," the report states. "They can project striking power at range without falling victim to increasingly sophisticated defenses; they compress the shooter-to-target window, and open new engagement opportunities; they rise to the challenge of addressing numerous types of strikes; and they enhance future joint and combined operations."

The report urged rapid development and fielding of the missiles, along with creating a cadre of professional hypersonic technicians and a support infrastructure, including test facilities.

On Chinese and Russian hypersonic threats, the report said: "The U.S. cannot afford to lose this emerging competition. An opponent who could field modern hypersonic weapons could hold any attacking force at great risk, on land, at sea, and in the air. There are few effective defenses to this capability."

Masiello, the Air Force research director, said hypersonic weapons deployed by 2030 could include intelligence-gathering or even manned systems, although he noted that current designs are "extremely technically hard to develop."

Among the concepts for hypersonic missiles are a cruise missile carried on a B-52 and future variants that could be used for high-speed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and one for conducting electronic attacks, Masiello said.

A reusable hypersonic missile also is being studied and future versions could include manned systems. "We don’t have a huge investment in this as the first priority is the weapon," Masiello said.

Mark Lewis, director of the federally funded Institute for Defense Analysis’ Science and Technology Policy Institute, and a former chief scientist for the Air Force, said China’s hypersonic arms have received "a lot of publicity."

The Chinese "haven’t been bashful about some of the things they have been doing," Lewis said during same Air Force Association conference last month with Masiello. "At the classified level the work they are doing is far more extensive," Lewis noted, without providing details.

China’s six hypersonic glide vehicle tests were first reported by the Washington Free Beacon.

Lewis said Russia also is working on hypersonic missiles. "They’re cash strapped but they still have tremendous expertise and a strong commitment," he said.

Others states working on the high-speed missiles include India and France.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute, said hypersonic weapons are needed to fill gaps in U.S. weapons shortfalls. Foreign hypersonic weapons also threaten all elements of military’s "kill chain" used in war fighting, he said.

He added that hypersonic weapons are needed against hardened nuclear facilities, mobile missiles or other targets defended by high-technology air and missile defenses.

"It’s well past time for the U.S. military to get serious about developing hypersonic munitions," Deptula said.

Deptula said few people know China has carried out six tests of its hypersonic glider in the last two years. "Why do you think they’re dong that?" he asked. "It’s because hypersonic weapons can attack every element of the kill chain — and they can do it with relative impunity."

The kill chain is a military term for the process of finding, tracking, targeting, and engaging targets involving a complex network of sensors, radar, and other high-technology systems.

Deptula said the Soviet’s launch of the first Sputnik satellite was embarrassing but did not pose a threat to U.S. security. "Potential adversaries with a hypersonic advantage will create a loss of U.S. advantage," he said. "And that’s why we can’t afford to continue treating hypersonics as a science fair project. It’s time to stop being a follower in hypersonics, and start being a leader."

According to the Mitchell Institute report, in addition to countering air and missile defenses, ultra high-speed missiles offer "unprecedented rapid reach."

"At over a mile per second or even faster, a hypersonic missile is, at a minimum, six times swifter than a conventional cruise missile," the report said. "This enables a more effective intelligence and targeting cycle when dealing with targets that previously could not be held at risk for long, due to weapons constraints."

A hypersonic missile also could reach a target 1,000 miles away in 17 minutes or less.
"Hypersonic warfare is, in effect, time warfare," the report said. "A hypersonic weapon compresses a foe’s decision-making window, effectively enabling the hypersonic attacker to get inside an adversary’s command, control, and battle management cycle."