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The Bunker: Hypersonic Hokum

The Bunker, delivered to our subscribers Wednesdays at 7 a.m., is a newsletter from the desk of National Security Analyst Mark Thompson. Sign up here to receive it first thing, or check back Wednesday afternoon for the online version.


This week in The Bunker: That Russian hypersonic-missile attack in Ukraine doesn’t appear quite as advertised; a Ukrainian battle tactic offers a warning for the U.S. Navy; new woes for the F-35 fighter and Zumwalt destroyers; and more.

HYPERSONIC HOKUM

Russia’s claim of new superweapon remains just a claim

Russia declared it attacked an ammo depot in western Ukraine on March 19 with a hypersonic missile capable of traveling 10 times the speed of sound. Despairing headlines and broadcasts circled the globe just as fast, warning of Moscow’s new game-changing weapon. When it comes to hypersonic weapons, Pentagon officials claim both Russia and Chinaare eclipsing the U.S. The Defense Department has launched 70 different efforts to catch up.

But this latest strike doesn’t seem to justify their push. The Russians call their Kh-47M2 hypersonic missile the Kinzhal, Russian for dagger. But old Pentagon hands know that NATO’s nickname for Russia’s Kamov Ka-50 attack helicopter is Hokum—and the alliance might just as well have slapped that label on Russia’s hypersonic boast. The Kinzhal “is actually little more than a conventional air-launched ballistic missile with a design that dates back to the 1980s,” Alex Hollings, a Marine veteran and defense-tech analyst, says. “It has benefited a great deal from both intentional and less-than-intentional misconceptions about this new class of weapons, often cited as a reason the United States is lagging behind Russia in a hypersonic arms race.”

The misconceptions are due to the fact that “hypersonic” is simply a measure of speed, not a weapon. ICBMs travel even faster, but on a predictable path. It is a hypersonic weapon’s maneuverability, along with its speed and accuracy, that make it a game changer. “I don't see this, in and of itself, a game changer,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said March 20. He added that he could neither “confirm or dispute” that Russia had used such a weapon.

Over at the War Zone website, Tyler Rogoway and Stetson Payne began poking holes in Russia’s tale even as the smoke cleared:

  • The video of the strike released by the Russian defense ministry doesn’t match commercial satellite imagery from the purported site of the attack.
  • There were no secondary explosions after the missile hit, a surprise given that Russia said it attacked “missiles and aviation ammunition” stored in that underground, um, bunker.
  • While the Russians claimed the missile destroyed “a large underground warehouse,” the video shows the target appeared to be an above-ground building.
  • Why did the Russians wait 23 days after they invaded to attack this target? Such weapons, assuming they work, would pack the biggest punch in the invasion’s opening hours, when they could, assuming they work, destroy Ukraine’s air-defense network.
  • Why did they use such an advanced weapon against a pretty basic target?
  • If Ukraine’s crackerjack air defenses required the use of such a speedy and rare weapon, how come the Ukrainians didn’t shoot down the slow-flying drone that videotaped the attack?

Bottom line: the hokum label seems to fit here. After all, Merriam’s defines it as “a device used (as by showmen) to evoke a desired audience response.”

DAVID VS. GOLIATH (CONT.)

A lesson for the Pentagon in Ukraine’s drone war?

In war, as elsewhere in life, timing is everything. Just before the Russians invaded, Ukrainian veterans of the fight against Russian separatists in the eastern part of their country registered a company to build their Punisher drone. It’s the Goldilocks of drones: smaller and cheaper than the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 that the Ukrainians are using to kill Russian tanks, but bigger than the flocks of unarmed commercial drones looking for the enemy. With its 7.5-foot wingspan and three-hour flight time, it can sneak up on Russian targets before unleashing its 4.4-pound explosive package on a single target, or split it among three. The drone has carried out scores of attacks on Russian troops and vehicles, playing a key role in severing Russia’s “umbilicals”—the supply lines for food, ammo, and fuel that an army must have to attack. A pair of Punishers, plus their ground-control station and a trainer, cost $196,000.

“We’ve seen footage, we can’t verify, but we’ve seen footage of Ukrainians using UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] to attack petrol train convoys, to go after logistical lines—we’ve seen lines blown up—all the things you and I think of when it comes to resistance,” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said. “When any army on the move takes longer to do things, your logistical supply chain is stretched. If you’re given enough rations for two days and it takes you six, you’ve suddenly got a problem. And I think what we’ve seen is a lot of those issues are coming to bear.”

While it’s unclear if the Ukrainians will prevail in the end, the Pentagon should be paying attention to their tactics, techniques, and technology. After all, the U.S. Navy continues to bet on the survivability of its precious few aircraft carriers, sailing the western Pacific, while China develops potentially punishing ship-killing missiles. The Navy likes to call these 11 behemoths “four-and-a-half acres of sovereign U.S. territory.” The Chinese like to call them “targets.”

HARDWARE HEARTBURN

Fewer F-35s, and more Zumwalt hype

The F-35 entered a stomach-churning dive last week—not against an enemy warplane, mind you, but in its increasingly vanishing goal of becoming an affordable warplane. Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg Newsreported March 16 that the Pentagon will request only 61 F-35s in its 2023 budget, a whopping 35% cut from the 94 originally planned. One Pentagon procurement rule that you can take to the bank is that the more you buy of something, the cheaper each one becomes. But even in a bulked-up Pentagon budget request expected to top $770 billion next year, expected to be the fattest in history, there won’t be room for those 94 F-35s. That will drive up the price of each of those 61 actually bought. But the bottom line is the cuts are still good news for the taxpayer’s bottom line.

The Air Force will seek 33 (down from 48); the Navy will request 13 (instead of 26); and the Marines will ask for 15 (down from 20). “The F-35 is already going down the well-worn path of shiny new weapon systems that don’t deliver as promised and sooner or later end up with cuts or outright cancellations from the services,” POGO’s Dan Grazier noted more than a year ago.

Meanwhile, the Navy’s forlorn Zumwalt class of three destroyers is going to make room for new hypersonic weapons by removing the two huge 155mm Advanced Gun Systems (AGS) from each $8 billion vessel. After the Navy cut the number of Zumwalt-class destroyers from 32 to three, the cost of each AGS round soared from $35,000 to nearly $1 million, in part because the Navy wouldn’t buy so many (sound familiar?). The Associated Press aptly calls this “a design failure that works to the Navy’s advantage.” Taxpayers, not so much.

Back in 2018, the Navy said the guns would remain on the destroyers until “a gun round that can affordably meet the desired capability is developed and fielded.” Well, the Navy has now scrapped that pledge. Nonetheless, here’s something else you can take to the bank: if any hypersonic weapons end up aboard these destroyers, they’re going to cost far more than $1 million each.

WHAT WE'RE READING

Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently

Personnel failing

Russia’s poor showing in Ukraine is due to the rot that has been growing in its ranks for years, a pair of Rand Corp. scholars argued in Breaking Defense March 21.

No thanks…

In contrast to the bravery of everyday Ukrainians, Lionel Shriver asked in The Spectator March 19 why so few Americans would be willing to pick up arms and defend their country if it were attacked, according to a recent poll.

Funding fight

The Air Force and Army continue their battle over who should get more money to get ready to fight China in and around the western Pacific, Jon Harper reported March 17 at FedScoop.

Spring fever

A $2.4 billion B-2 bomber skid off a Missouri runway, doing at least $10 million in damage, after a pair of worn-out springs led to the collapse of its landing gear, Air Force Times reported Match 17.

Deployable farms

The Air Force is investigating the possibility of growing food for troops at remote locations using NASA’s plant-growing technology, Space News said March 16.

Strange birds

Historynet posted a flock of the most bizarre military aircraft ever March 9.

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