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Putting the Hype in Hypersonic Weapons

President Trump’s new call to defend against missiles “anywhere, anytime, anyplace” is a recipe for military futility and fiscal insanity
The U.S. Air Force’s hypersonic X-51A Waverider, capable of traveling up to six times the speed of sound. (Illustration: USAF)

The Pentagon let up on the gas on its effort to build a nationwide missile shield following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. What had begun as President Ronald Reagan’s push to render Moscow’s nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete” shrank to a more modest defense designed to shoot down one or two missiles bearing down on the United States from a rogue state. But the Defense Department has just resumed pursuing Reagan’s dream following President Trump’s January 17 visit to the Pentagon, where he vowed to “ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States—anywhere, anytime, anyplace.”

Once again, the United States. is on the hunt for the elusive silver bullet. It would be almost quaint, if it weren’t so costly—and impossible.

For those not old enough to remember, missile defense sounds a lot like the Cold War’s missile and bomber gaps, used by the U.S. national-security establishment to cow the public and crowbar more money into the Pentagon.

Of course, the United States never abandoned missile defenses. The Soviet Union’s disintegration simply offered a convenient excuse to scale back the program critics had quickly dubbed “Star Wars,” for its goal of deploying missile-killing lasers and other high-tech heavenly arms. Instead, it became a much thinner screen designed to handle the minor-league threats posed by North Korea and Iran. Nonetheless, the United States has spent nearly $300 billion on missile defense since Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative 36 years ago.

Those Iranian and North Korean missiles were yesterday’s threats. They’re launched from known sites and follow predictable arcs to their targets. Even so, no nation—including the United States—has ever been able to develop a reliable nationwide missile defense. Having failed the first time around, the government is launching a new effort against an even tougher threat. “Russia and China are developing advanced cruise missiles and hypersonic missile capabilities that can travel at exceptional speeds with unpredictable flight paths that challenge existing defensive systems,” the Defense Department said in its Missile Defense Review, released the same day President Trump visited the Pentagon. “These are challenging realities of the emerging missile threat environment that U.S. missile defense policy, strategy, and capabilities must address.”

Translation: Hold on to your wallet.

There are two basic kinds of hypersonic weapons, which travel between 5 and 25 times the speed of sound. One is a boost-glide version that is lobbed into space aboard a rocket. Then it separates from the rocket and glides to its target, maneuvering to thwart defenses. It can “bounce” off the denser air at lower altitude, extending its range and make it even tougher to destroy. The second type is basically a low-flying scramjet cruise missile (utilizing supersonic air flow throughout the engine) launched from an aircraft and capable of flying beneath or around existing missile defenses.

The Pentagon’s Falcon Hypersonic Test Vehicle, which traveled 20 times the speed of sound in 2011, emerges from its rocket nose cone in this artist’s rendering.

The deviltry of hypersonic weapons is their marriage of speed and unpredictability. A hypersonic weapon can dodge and weave en route to its target, threatening huge swaths of territory and giving its target only a few minutes to react. Shorter-range variants could threaten U.S. troops anywhere in the world—and Navy aircraft carriers.

These are weapons potential U.S. foes might be interested in brandishing. Last March, Russian President Vladimir Putin bragged about a Russian hypersonic weapon—dubbed the Kinzhal, Russian for “Dagger”—that he said was capable of traveling 2,000 miles at 10 times the speed of sound. Several months later, China said it had successfully tested its Starry Sky 2, a hypersonic missile that flew more than 4,000 miles an hour. Then, in December, the Russians said they had successfully tested the Avangard, a hypersonic glider capable of carrying a nuclear warhead that attacks “like a meteorite,” according to Putin.

While all such claims need to be taken with a grain of salt—and performance can vary due to weather, altitude and air density—such missiles could fly from New York to Los Angeles in about 12 minutes.

Beijing is “close to fielding hypersonic delivery systems for conventional prompt strike that can reach out thousands of kilometers from the Chinese shore and hold our carrier battle groups, or our forward-deployed forces on land…at risk,” Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin has warned. “We, today, do not…have defenses against those systems,” he noted. “It is among my very highest priorities to erase that disadvantage.”

“You’re shooting a bullet with a bullet,” Air Force General Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said. “And it gets worse when a bullet is going 13 times the speed of sound, and can maneuver.”

“There are no existing countermeasures,” the Government Accountability Office warned in December.

Like many new weapons technologies, there are concerns that hypersonics will lead to real war.

The Defense Department is exploring putting sensors and weapons in space to counter hypersonic threats from Russia and China. Griffin estimates such a 1,000-interceptor system could cost as little as $20 billion, supposedly a bargain. “We’ve paid a lot more and gotten a lot less in the Defense Department over the years,” Griffin said. The Pentagon is also exploring piggy-backing sensors designed to detect hypersonic threats on as many as 300 commercial satellites.

“The United States is not yet doing all that we need to do to respond to hypersonic missile threats,” Griffin told a defense-industry confab last March. “Any American, any ally or partner that we have who doesn’t see it that way, I don’t have time for you.” That’s because he sees a stark fork in the road ahead when he fears China could threaten—and sink—U.S. aircraft carriers. “Our only response,” he warns, “is to let them have their way or go nuclear.”

Griffin speaks with the fervor of a true believer, echoing the certainties of Reagan and his defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, during the Star Wars era. That’s because Griffin was with them. He served as the chief technology whiz inside the Pentagon’s Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, which was dedicated to getting Star Wars off the ground.

Inside the Pentagon, the sky is the limit. “We would like all the resources we can build into the kill chain to hit any target or hold it at risk with hypersonic weapons,” Air Force General Timothy Ray said in September.

Hypersonics should make the U.S. military recalibrate the multi-billion-dollar targets it is building. If war comes, the Navy’s aircraft carriers will be fat and tempting targets (both soldiers and warplanes can scatter to complicate enemy aim). Future carriers need to be much smaller—crammed with unmanned drones and missiles instead of piloted aircraft—or replaced with submarines carrying similar weapons.

Even if the weapon could arrive within a relatively short amount of time, the United States might not have the intelligence needed to pinpoint the target.

Congressional Research Service report, "Conventional Prompt Global Strike and Long-Range Ballistic Missiles: Background and Issues," January 8, 2019

For those not old enough to remember, this push for a new class of defense systems sounds a lot like the Cold War’s missile and bomber gaps, used by the U.S. national-security establishment to cow the public and crowbar more money into the Pentagon. Younger readers may recall the U.S. rush to invade Iraq in 2003 to hunt down and destroy weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist, part of the nation’s overreaction to the 9/11 terror attacks.

But, as predictable as the tides, the terror threat has steadily waned since September 11, 2001. Nature, and the U.S. military and its suppliers, abhors a vacuum. And the Missile Defense Review is like an engraved invitation to fill it. So now it’s time for the resumption of the so-called Great Power competition that divided the world during the Cold War and is doing so again, although this time China has pushed itself to the table as well.

The rhetoric carries echoes of the Cold War in its simple-minded merger of military-industrial-complex mettle and miracles. “Countering this threat will require U.S. investment in an extensive defensive architecture that provides diversified, redundant, globally persistent space layers to detect an initial HGV [hypersonic glide vehicle] launch, track it from launch to hypersonic flight and then through its profile, until cueing-capable ‘destroy’ systems can defeat it,” Howard “Dallas” Thompson, a retired Air Force major general, wrote in an opinion column in The Hill on January 9. “Across and through this enterprise must be robust, secure, very high speed and very high-quality data transfer capabilities that immediately share with all nodes and components everything that is known and learned about the HGV, from detection to destruction.”

Hypersonics are a double-edged sword for the United States: to the military, every threat must be countered, which has sent the Pentagon scurrying to weaponize the hypersonic technology it has explored, but never deployed, for decades. Last April, Lockheed landed a $928 million contract to begin work on an air-launched Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon. Last August, the Air Force awarded Lockheed a second contract of up to $480 million for a second hypersonic weapon program. “We are going to go fast and leverage the best technology available to get hypersonic capability to the warfighter as soon as possible,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said when the second contract award was announced.

The Pentagon’s justification for awarding a pair of hypersonic contracts to Lockheed, the nation’s biggest defense contractor, shows the increasing concentration of knowhow in the U.S. defense industry. The company has “already overcome industrywide staffing challenges,” the Defense Department said, adding that “no other contractor has this level of design maturity.” (Sounds a little like Dad explaining to Mom why he wanted to buy that hot new Chevrolet circa 1965.) As the number of companies capable of building modern weapons continues to shrink, the hunger and innovation wrought by competition invariably ebbs.

Last year, the three service secretaries joined forces to begin work on hypersonic weapons. Predictably, the Air Force wants a hypersonic weapon it can launch from an aircraft, while the Navy wants one it can launch from a ship. (The Navy declared on January 22 that it is firing up a hypersonic test facility at its longtime weapons lab at China Lake, California. It plans to explore underwater hypersonic weapons at the base, deep in the Mojave Desert.) The Army, of course, wants one it can launch from land. Yep, even the Army wants a slice of this pie. “You can imagine a scenario where the Navy feels that it cannot get into the South China Sea because of Chinese naval vessels, or whatever,” Army Secretary Mark Esper said on January 23. “We can—from a fixed location, on an island or some other place—engage enemy targets, naval targets, at great distances and maintain our standoff and yet open the door, if you will, for naval assets or Marine assets.” That could lead to what Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., a veteran observer of military procurement at the Breaking Defense website, has called “sort of a new non-nuclear triad.”

This quest for hypersonic weapons is the latest iteration of the myth that more—more speed, more firepower, more maneuverability, more money—leads to more victories on the battlefield. But, with the world’s most powerful and expensive military, the United States proves that armed might doesn’t always pan out, as our long-running wars in Vietnam (we lost) and Afghanistan and Iraq (we’ll be lucky to tie) make clear.

Of course, there are other options. First, the United States could admit that speed doesn’t win wars (cf. Afghanistan). “Even if the weapon could arrive within a relatively short amount of time,” the Congressional Research Service noted drily in a report last month, “the United States might not have the intelligence needed to pinpoint the target.” Besides, existing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) already travel at hypersonic speeds (the lone land-based U.S. ICBM, the Minuteman III, travels at Mach 23 as it closes on its target). So adding “power steering” to such weapons isn’t going to change their destructive potential, except to Strangelovian buffs. Truth is, all they’re likely to do is make trigger fingers more itchy because speedy weapons shrink the target’s reaction time.

Like many new weapons technologies, there are concerns that hypersonics could lead to real war. The Rand Corporation recently warned that their speed and stealth warrant a pact among China, Russia, and the United States to restrain their spread (it may already be too late: Australia, France, India, and Japan are known to be working on homegrown hypersonics). But any such diplomatic efforts were MIA as President Trump and the U.S. military rolled out Star Wars 2.0.

President Reagan’s push to render nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete” might have worked if the potential foes didn’t get a vote. But, as the Pentagon never tires of telling us, they always do. That’s why Russia has been seeking hypersonic weapons for more than a decade. “We aren’t involved in saber-rattling,” Sergei Ivanov, a former Russian defense minister, said last month. “We simply ensured our security for decades to come.”

Well, that shows how much he knows. The Pentagon has just begun its search for a next-generation missile-defense system. “Glide Breaker will develop an enabling technology critical for an advanced interceptor capable of destroying hypersonic vehicles,” Pentagon scientists said in their contract solicitation. “Key aspects of the Glide Breaker program are classified,” it added. Secret or not, the Defense Department has, once again, embarked on its gold-plated quest for the latest silver bullet to render prior silver bullets impotent and obsolete.