Sixty-four years ago this month, U.S. fears were ignited by the successful launch of the world’s first artificial satellite – Sputnik I – by the Soviet Union. It was a first we were hoping to claim, only to be surprised by the Soviets. In the race to space, we clearly had fallen behind.
Last August, we were again caught by surprise, this time by the Chinese, who successfully launched a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile. The missile circled the globe at more than five times the speed of sound (Mach 5) or 3,853 mph before reentering earth’s atmosphere to hit its target. Had the missile been aimed at a U.S. target, by operating at such a speed, its interception, while circling the globe, would have been impossible.
While the Chinese missile apparently missed its target by two dozen miles, had it been armed with a nuclear weapon, that would not have made much difference. But this capability with which to attack a target is most definitely an eye-opener for the U.S. intelligence community. As with the Sputnik I launch, it was caught off-guard, failing to recognize an ideological competitor’s technology was so advanced.
As one expert on Chinese nuclear weapons explains, such a capability can be “destabilizing” if fully developed as, in addition to their speed, “Hypersonic glide vehicles … fly at lower trajectories and can maneuver in flight, which makes them hard to track and destroy.” This comes on the heels of satellite images showing China – which is not currently limited by any arms control deals – building at least 100-plus new nuclear missile silos, upgrading its inventory from 250 to more than 350 weapons.
The Indo-Pacific commander, Adm. Philip Davidson, testified last March that an increasing imbalance was being created in the region by China’s rapid military advancements. He forewarned that, “with this imbalance, we are accumulating risk that may embolden China to unilaterally change the status quo before our forces may be able to deliver an effective response.”
Also testifying last March was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley who – seemingly as knowledgeable about hypersonic missiles as he is about Critical Race Theory – suggested hypersonics have no “Achilles heel.” Milley claimed, “There is no defense against hypersonics. You’re not going to defend against it. Those things are going so fast you’re not going to get it.” While partially right, Milley does not seem to quite “get it.”
It is virtually impossible to intercept hypersonic missiles during the “midcourse” of their global flight, but they do have a vulnerability. Upon reentry, en route to a target during what is known as the “terminal” moments of flight, they move slower. Missile expert Kingston Reif tells us this terminal phase may well leave hypersonics vulnerable to interception by our existing SM-3 missile defense.
The Navy has SM-3 interceptors, capable of destroying medium-range ballistic missiles, which move slower than hypersonic missiles during the “midcourse” phase of their flight. These, therefore, could play a key role in intercepting hypersonic missiles during their terminal phase. Reif explains, “Terminal, narrower-area defenses designed to intercept reentry vehicles as they are bearing down on their target would in theory be more feasible, since at that stage a glider would be traveling slower than a ballistic [re-entry vehicle].” It is in such terminal defenses against hypersonic missiles that the Pentagon is making big investments. In 2020, Congress gave the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) $400 million for this purpose; in 2021, MDA seeks another $200 million. Unlike Milley, the rest of the military knows a hypersonic missile defense system is not at all impossible.
Reif believes, “Hypersonics have been hyped up to be unprecedented, game-changing weapons,” leading some to adopt a fatalistic approach when it comes to defending against them. Other defense experts agree, emphasizing “the hypersonics craze” is unwarranted as “what we’re talking about here are prototypes.” Of course, China’s recent successful test above suggests a new reality must now be considered.
The U.S. has not been idle in its own hypersonic missile research and development. While last year’s budget was $3.2 billion, the 2022 request increased it to $3.8 billion, with the cost of such missiles estimated to hit tens of millions of dollars per unit. In September, a successful testing by the U.S. of an air-breathing hypersonic weapon was conducted. But cost concerns are being expressed by the Pentagon.
Russia also has become a contender in the hypersonic missile competition. In July, it reported successfully testing its own such missile – touting it as unequaled in the world.
As hypersonic missiles become a reality, it remains to be seen if the best offense will be a good defense.
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