The United States has successfully tested a hypersonic missile, marking a major milestone in the race to catch up with Russia and China in what the Pentagon describes as its highest research priority.
Hypersonic missiles are the latest must-have super-power military tech. Flying at over five times the speed of sound, as the name suggests, they are fast. But they are coveted not for speed, but for their ability to slip past the eyes of military tech by gliding along the edge of the atmosphere, and for their ability to maneuver mid-flight.
According to a Pentagon statement, on the evening of March 19 at a missile range in Hawaii the Common Hypersonic Glide Body (CHGB) was successfully tested.
That missile is one of several hypersonic programs currently being developed by the Pentagon as it scrambles to catch up with Russia and China’s similar programs.
The military wants hypersonic missiles in the field in the next five years.
“Hypersonic systems deliver transformational warfighting capability,” said Mike White, Assistant Director, Hypersonics, OUSD Research, and Engineering (Modernization) in a statement. “The glide body tested today is now ready for transition to Army and Navy weapon system development efforts and is one of several applications of hypersonic technology underway across the department.”
“These capabilities help ensure that our warfighters will maintain the battlefield dominance necessary to deter, and if necessary, defeat any future adversary.”
The Pentagon described the test as a “major milestone” in the race to field hypersonic missiles in the early- to mid-2020s, in support of the National Defense Strategy.
The Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense strategy laid out renewed “great power competition” with Russia, and more so with China, as the top priority for the military, sparking a modernization push.
Half a Century of Research
Hypersonic development goes back more than a half century, with the United States originally leading the pack.
But as U.S. research waxed and waned, Russia continued steadily, and then China joined the race, unbound by the limitations of INF treaty.
“We did their homework for them,” Mark Lewis, director of defense research and engineering for modernization at the Pentagon, told reporters on March 2. “Hypersonics is a field that was basically invented in this country. We did the basic research, we developed the concepts, we did the fundamental experiments.”
Now the United States is stepping on the gas in the hypersonics race. Last year, the Pentagon requested $2.6 billion (FY2020) for all hypersonic-related research. This year, it increased the budget request to $3.2 billion.
Pentagon officials said March 2 they are setting up a “hypersonic war room” to ensure that the U.S. industrial base is up to the task.
Seven different hypersonic development programs across the Navy, Army, Air Force, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are listed in a recent Congressional Research Service report.
Technically, “hypersonic” simply means something that goes more than five times the speed of sound.
But it isn’t speed that makes hypersonics so sought-after, but their flight path.
“The name is a little misleading. We actually already have missiles that can go that fast, or faster,” Patty-Jane Geller, a policy analyst in nuclear deterrence and missile defense at the Heritage Foundation, previously told The Epoch Times. “For example, the United States Minuteman ICBM goes Mach 23 during its descent.”
Rather than being launched hundreds of miles above the earth into space like ballistic missiles, hypersonics skip along the edge of the atmosphere, about 100 miles up.
This makes them hard to spot for sensors on the ground and high-orbit satellites which are designed to track ballistic missiles.
Different nations see different strategic advantages in hypersonics.
The U.S. military wants them to help counter China and Russia’s long-range missiles and layers of defenses currently keeping aircraft and carriers at arm’s length.
Vladimir Putin wants them to bolster Russia’s nuclear posture.
And Beijing wants them to add to its nuclear options and the strategic headache for U.S. carrier commanders in the Pacific.
“The Chinese are very focused in this area,” said Timothy Walton, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
“They are the world leaders in terms of intermediate-range ballistic missiles and hypersonic weapons today,” he previously told The Epoch Times. “They’ve fielded a significant number of very long-range intermediate weapons. They’ve also fielded a hypersonic weapon that they’ve demonstrated and paraded last year, the DF-17.”
Hypersonics are able to evade early detection by current ground radar and satellite systems, and maneuver with precision at speeds in excess of one mile per second.
The United States is also researching potential ways to track hypersonics including the use of low earth orbit satellites.
During yesterday’s test launch, the Missile Defense Agency also gathered tracking data to inform its development of defense against hypersonic missiles.