Winning the race to deploy hypersonic weapons will be one of the most important achievements in U.S. national security of the 21st Century. This is why the former Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, Dr. Michael Griffin, called hypersonics his number one priority in 2018. With the appropriate enablers, particularly sophisticated ISR and targeting, these weapons could radically alter the character and pace of modern warfare.
For the U.S. and its allies, hypersonic weapons are more than a counterbalance to Russia and China. They hold out the prospect for fundamentally undermining competitors’ massive investments in so-called anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities. The Department of Defense has put together a well-thought-out and -funded program to provide all Services with hypersonic weapons. Equally important, the aerospace and defense industries of the U.S. and several allies are demonstrating the technical expertise and innovative approaches that are likely to make hypersonic weapons a near-term reality.
Because hypersonic weapons are still so new, it is worth explaining what they are and how they differ from traditional ballistic and cruise missiles. Hypersonic weapons fly at least five times the speed of sound but retain the capability to maneuver in the atmosphere. There are two basic varieties of hypersonic weapons.
First, a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle (HGV) is launched aboard a ballistic missile into the upper atmosphere, at which point it is deployed. The HGV then uses the ballistic missile’s speed to skip along the upper layers of the atmosphere with much greater maneuverability than traditional warheads.
Second, a hypersonic cruise missile maintains continuous thrust using either rocket power and/or air-breathing engines to reach the desired speed. They are generally smaller than HGVs and have shorter ranges. What fundamentally distinguishes hypersonic weapons from current types of ballistic and cruise missiles is their combination of speed and maneuverability.
While the U.S. had a tremendous base of experimental knowledge regarding hypersonic vehicles, it had never chosen to pursue a hypersonic weapons program. Now, between the Army, Navy, Air Force and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), there are no fewer than six major conventional hypersonic weapons programs in research and development. While there is no program of record for a hypersonic weapon, as yet, this is likely to change very soon. The Pentagon could begin deploying its first hypersonic weapons in just a few years.
Writer: Dan Goure