Fear Flying Faster Than Hypersonic Missiles

October 25, 2021 Updated: October 25, 2021


Americans should be reasonably concerned but not panicked over hypersonic weapons. Realistic upgrades to proven and existing technology will prove more than adequate in countering the new threat.

The Chinese regime recently launched a hypersonic missile and it has led to a great deal of hand wringing among the general public. Analysts have claimed this surprised them, and that America has no counter to the technology. But this is fearmongering for a variety of reasons that doesn’t reflect a sober assessment of American missile defense and the upgrades soon available to them.

The technical aspect of the missile boils down to the missile is faster, launches in a different way, and both of those make it harder to track and more dangerous. But fear is not always the best response. Politicians have a way of inspiring the panic by downplaying existing technology. They do this to harm their political opponents. John F. Kennedy famously did this during his election in the so-called missile gap between the United States and Russia that didn’t exist. Establishment politicians and military elites constantly want more funding, and have to compete with other services and domestic spending, so they can use fearful language that makes it sound like America is in danger.

But Americans shouldn’t be so afraid. They should have a healthy respect for the weapons that adversaries might employ, and take appropriate measures. But there is a great deal of reason to be confident that America can meet this threat. Currently, America has no existing capabilities against hypersonic weapons. But many theoretical counters already exist and are in comparable stages of development to hypersonic missiles. These include technologies such as directed energy weapons and particle beams, and other non-kinetic weapons will be likely candidates for an effective defense against hypersonic missiles.

The hypersonic missiles, while obtaining speeds as fast as Mach 5 in their early and middle phases, are much slower in its terminal phase. This means there is a window in which they can be countered by existing weapons like the SM 3 or SM 6 rockets. These are surface-to-air missiles already used by AEGIS ships to counter ballistic missiles.

Because of their unconventional launch, they operate outside of AEGIS radar. But sensors are being updated to track missiles from launch to impact. These new sensors can network to a variety of existing platforms, including the AEGIS ships like the Arleigh Burke class (that just performed a Freedom of Navigation operation between Taiwan and communist China). They can point the sensors toward the hypersonic missile even when that missile is outside of its normal radar cone. This gives the ship faster response times when the missiles do enter their radar. Then the ship can launch new anti-hypersonic missiles or existing missiles with the capability to destroy them.

Epoch Times Photo
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) sails in formation with ships from the Indian Navy, Royal Australian Navy, and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force while conducting replenishment-at-seas approaches (RASAPs) as part of Malabar 2020. (U.S. INDOPACOM)

This supports the theoretical confidence that none of these weapons are game changers. Game changer is an overused buzz word. Missiles have been around for 70 years since the V rockets of World War II. There are complex, interlocking weapon systems designed to combat these threats. The counters to hypersonic missiles are often simply better versions of what we have. The theoretical stops consisted of direct energy and kinetic weapons. Breakthroughs in laser technology, smaller batteries, and shorter cool down times have made them miniaturized and put on planes, vehicles, and ships. This has the advantage of using essentially free electricity (compared to the cost of running massive ships), instead of expensive missiles to shoot down missiles. Some of the new ships, such as the new Gerald Ford class carriers, are built with extra power and space to place new weapon systems like this. Cost is an important factor, as some enemies like to use low-cost drones and weapon systems to inspire expensive counter responses. The United States could end up having to spend $1 million on a missile to destroy a drone worth $1,000.

Ships also have close-in weapon systems to protect against missiles. Until recently when the U.S. Navy ended research and funding of the item, they wanted to upgrade to rail guns. The technology uses a bunch of fancy terms, but the simple version is they shoot objects at fast speeds and the collision, not the explosives on them, destroy the opposing projectile. The attractiveness was another inexpensive solution to counter expensive missiles. All it needs is a solid object shot at high speeds to destroy a missile. And it is a simple upgrade of an existing system. The Navy has put this on pause for other elements of countering hypersonic missiles, but remains promising.

The best system for missile defense remains the AEGIS combat system. And this system is being supplemented by other weapon systems to (eventually) track hypersonic missiles and launch anti-hypersonic weapons. The United States is developing inexpensive and new counter missile technology like lasers and rail guns. It is also possible the United States could use existing missiles like the SM 3 or SM 6, but AEGIS ships are upgrading to their own hypersonic “glide breaker” missiles. They use existing launch tubes on an existing and proven platform to adjust and negate new technology.

The Chinese regime was farther along than U.S. intelligence likely knew, but America is still well positioned to counter the technology if it becomes reality. For all of these reasons, Americans should be reasonably concerned about a potential new weapon, but not give in to fear and panic.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Morgan Deane
Morgan Deane is a former U.S. Marine, a military historian, and a freelance author. He studied military history at Kings College London and Norwich University. Morgan works as a professor of military history at the American Public University. He is a prolific author whose writings include "Decisive Battles in Chinese History," "Dragon’s Claws with Feet of Clay: A Primer on Modern Chinese Strategy," and the forthcoming, "Beyond Sunzi: Classical Chinese Debates on War and Government." His military analysis has been published in Real Clear Defense and Strategy Bridge, among other publications.