Report Warns Hypersonic Weapons Would be Hard to Defend Against, Puts Spotlight on China’s Ambitions

September 20, 2019 Updated: September 21, 2019

News Analysis

A new report by the the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) highlights that a coming generation of China hypersonic weapons traveling at 3,800 miles an hour would be hard to defend against.

The Trump administration on Aug. 2 withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia due to the latter’s continuing violation of the pact, which included developing, testing, and fielding multiple battalions of intermediate land-based Iskander SSC-8 and sea-based Kalibar missiles.

The United States and its NATO allies have complained since 2013 that Russia was violating the INF Treaty. Experts, however, say it was Beijing’s efforts in becoming a leader in developing hypersonic missile technology that motivated Washington to take action to counter the new military threat.

National Defense Strategy Commission member Roger Zakheim told a Hudson Institute forum in March that hypersonic missile technology differs from ballistic missile in altitudes and cruise missile in speeds: “you won’t see it” with existing radar until it is too late. He added, China may eventually have the “capability that will keep us out” of the Indo-Pacific theater by rendering our aircraft carriers “operationally useless.”

In a report (pdf) published on Sept. 16, the non-partisan GAO said that advances in offensive and defensive hypersonic technologies have significant implications for U.S. national security, as well as for transportation and space systems. Unlike ballistic missiles that are visible in boost phase, reach space altitudes and continue in stable parabolic trajectories, hypersonic weapons fly at lower altitudes, travel at speeds of at least Mach 5 (3,836 miles per hour), are highly maneuverable and may have artificial intelligence to allow target changes in mid-flight.

The two major weapons classifications are hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) and hypersonic cruise missiles (HCMs). HGVs are launched by a rocket to high altitudes 25 and 60 miles and then glide to their targets. HCMs are initially powered by high-speed rocket engines to altitudes of between 12 and 19 miles before their own ramjet or supersonic scramjet engine kicks in to achieve supersonic speeds.

The Congressional Budget Office said that both China and Russia have a number of hypersonic weapons programs and are expected to field an operational hypersonic glide vehicle—potentially armed with nuclear warheads—as early as 2020.

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Air Force, the Navy, and the Army have been are leading research or developing hypersonic weapons for a variety of applications and launch methods. NASA has also conducted work related to hypersonics for vehicles and spacecraft reentry into the atmosphere.

The GAO rated the US core technologies attainment needed for the development of a tactical range HGV on the nine point ‘”Technology Readiness Level” (TRL) as a TRL 7, which indicates the technology has achieved form, fit, and function level for pre-production.

The Pentagon’s approved 2020 budget for hypersonic-related research is $2.6 billion. Although the Department of Defense has officially not made a decision to acquire any hypersonic weapons, Lockheed Martin broke ground in an Alabama cotton and corn fields on Sept. 16 for a new facilities to test and produce the hypersonic weapons.

The GAO said that U.S. hypersonic weapons would be able to strike fleeting targets, “such as mobile, high-value military targets and adversary weapons systems.” Using advance “agile targeting,” U.S. warfighters’ ability to maneuver hypersonic weapons in mid-flight will make it extremely difficult for targeted adversaries to counter attacks.

One of the biggest challenge for weapons traveling at hypersonic speed is developing advanced exterior materials that can protect internal guidance electronics from temperatures that exceed 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit during acceleration and flight, the report said.

The report also suggested that the United States would need to make rapid technical improvements in defensive tracking and intercepting of incoming hypersonic weapons, because “current radar and satellite systems are inadequate for this task.”

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