By Keith Button|June 2020
The U.S. believes it has made a breakthrough toward closing the gap in hypersonic missile technology it perceives between itself and China and Russia. Some independent observers, however, question whether those countries have, in fact, progressed quite as far as U.S. planners contend. Keith Button spoke to Pentagon officials and independent missile watchers.
The visual evidence is slight: a photo and a five-second video of a white rocket blasting off into the pitch-black night from a Kauai, Hawaii, launch pad. The U.S. Department of Defense’s description of the March flight test is similarly lacking in detail: That the missile launched and flew at a velocity of more than five times the speed of sound to a designated impact point. That’s it.
But this flight was an important milestone, according to the Pentagon. After five decades of sporadic research, the hypersonic spending push begun by the Trump administration two years ago has at last nudged a maneuverable hypersonic missile program over the threshold into weapons prototype development.
Perhaps the U.S. isn’t hopelessly behind China and Russia on maneuverable hypersonics, if indeed it is significantly behind at all.
The public record tells a murky tale on this question of a missile gap. China and Russia both claim to have already fielded maneuverable hypersonic weapons like the missile the U.S. tested in March — missiles that are boosted to hypersonic speeds by rockets and then hypersonically glide to their targets. Shortly before the March test, Michael Griffin, the under secretary of defense for research and engineering, referred to “rocket boosted hypersonic glide” weapons in an address at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., and he said China and Russia are accumulating “these things by the hundreds and thousands.” His office later amended his comments, saying his numbers were meant to include “high-speed conventional weapons, maneuverable or otherwise, that are fielded, in development, or planned.” And some independent analysts are skeptical about China and Russia’s true maneuverable hypersonic weapon capabilities.
What no one disputes is that the U.S. does not have hypersonic boost-glide missiles fielded.
That’s a big deal, because boost-glide or other maneuverable hypersonic missiles could arguably render aircraft, other missiles, naval forces and other traditional military weapons obsolete.
“It’s not about the speed,” says Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, in Washington, D.C. While Mach 5 is fast and the start of the hypersonic regime, “it is the trajectory, rather, that circumvents our early warning systems or ability to track it,” he says.
The speed difference
Boost-glide missiles would be slower than intercontinental ballistic missiles, which, in a nuclear war, must accelerate out of silos or submarines or mobile land-based launchers to reach the fringes of space. There, they would release multiple cone-shaped warheads to fall toward their targets at Mach 20 to Mach 25. As frightening as they are due to their nuclear payloads, the trajectories of these warheads can be predicted from a missile’s early flight. A maneuverable boost-glide missile would fly a similar path toward suborbital space, but after that its flight path would be unpredictable to an air defense system trying to shoot it down. It would glide toward its target with its momentum and could be maneuvered to hug the terrain like a conventional cruise missile does to avoid radar detection. The difference is that it would streak toward its target about 10 times faster.
The U.S. is aiming to field conventionally armed boost-glide hypersonic missiles by 2025, says Mike White, who is in charge of hypersonics in Griffin’s office. The missile flown from Hawaii in March was a concept called the Common Hypersonic Glide Body, which is closer to fruition than the decadeslong U.S. research on air-breathing hypersonic missiles that would maneuver to their targets while under continuous propulsion. The U.S. Army and Navy will each take the common body design as the base to develop its own hypersonic missiles: a truck-launched Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon for the Army, with a range of 2,250 kilometers, and a submarine-launched missile called Intermediate Range Conventional Prompt Strike for the Navy, which plans to build prototypes for flight tests through 2024.
Separately, the U.S. Air Force is developing a hypersonic boost-glide missile not related to the Common Hypersonic Glide Body called the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, which would have a range of 925 km. The Air Force is targeting 2022 for deploying the missile, but so far its only flight test has been while attached to a B-52, which was in June 2019.
If the U.S. is behind in the arms race for boost-glide or other maneuverable hypersonic missiles, some experts don’t believe the gap to be extreme.
Hypersonics guidance is “tricky”
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported last December that its Avangard boost-glide design was operational: a 5.4-meter-long hypersonic weapon boosted by a ballistic missile to a range of 6,000 km, and capable of carrying either a conventional or nuclear warhead. The weapon “heads to target like a meteorite, like a fireball,” President Vladimir Putin said of Avangard in 2018.
But the Avangard’s testing history is less impressive, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan nonprofit focused on preventing global catastrophes.
Only three of the Avangard’s 14 flight tests that were reported since 1990 were considered successful, the group says, citing Pavel Podvig, senior researcher for the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research.
China publicly displayed its DF-17 boost-glide missile for the first time in a military parade last October. The truck-mounted missile is 11 meters long with a range of up to 2,500 km, capable of carrying either non-nuclear or nuclear warheads, according to the CSIS website. CSIS says the service readiness of the missile is unclear.
The decision by China and Russia to note the potential of their weapons to carry nuclear explosives caught the eye of analysts.
That could be interpreted as a sign that neither country’s weapon is as accurate as what would be required to destroy a target with a conventional warhead with a much smaller blast radius, says Jill Hruby, former director of Sandia National Laboratories and a consultant for the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
“Hypersonics guidance is tricky, to be sure. So if they haven’t perfected their guidance system and it’s not very accurate, they would be more tempted to deploy a nuclear system if they want a deterrent; if they really want a war-fighting capability,” Hruby says. China’s DF-17 seems to be a more legitimate concern for the U.S. than Russia’s Avangard based on the number of its flight tests — at least nine since 2014, of which only one was deemed a failure, she says.
Iain Boyd, who tracks hypersonics research as a professor and national security faculty director at the University of Colorado Boulder, is also skeptical of the capabilities of China’s and Russia’s maneuverable hypersonic missile arsenals. “There’s a big difference between having the kind of test flights that have been documented with China and Russia and having the capability to predictably launch and hit targets,” he says. “There’s a number of steps between those two things.”
China does have a considerable research advantage in hypersonics, based on publicly available academic peer-reviewed articles, says Boyd, who has tracked the hypersonics research figures by country since 2005. Over the last five years, Chinese researchers have published 1,334 such articles, compared to 418 for American researchers and 133 for Russian researchers.
In recent years, Chinese researchers have published hundreds of papers on guidance, navigation and control of hypersonic vehicles, which seems to show that their understanding of hypersonic flight has grown advanced, while the U.S. has published very little on these topics. “It’s kind of an indication that they’re starting to think: ‘OK; we can now fly a hypersonic vehicle. We can now build and design a hypersonic vehicle. What are we actually going to do with it?’” Boyd says. “It’s an indication that they’re clearly in that part of the development cycle where they’re really thinking hard about what can they actually do with this technology.”
China has also poured money into hypersonic wind tunnels over the last 15 years, building 30 to 40 new hypersonic test facilities, compared to five or six in the U.S., Boyd adds.
But academic research can take 10 or even 15 years to translate into fielded flight technology, according to Boyd, and he’s not convinced that the U.S. is necessarily behind China or Russia in hypersonics. “Someone’s going to declare victory and have the first hypersonic thing fielded, but it will be limited in capability. That doesn’t mean that that country has won, so to speak, the hypersonic race,” he says.
The U.S. plan to close the presumed hypersonics gap starts with pouring money into research and development. Hypersonics spending is difficult to track, because the funding is contained in multiple locations of the defense budget, but an analysis by the CSIS Missile Defense Project shows that after spending $100 million in fiscal 2016, $200 million in 2017 and $700 million in 2018, the Pentagon spent $1.3 billion in fiscal 2019 and will spend nearly $2 billion in 2020. This would be followed annually by requests for $2.4 billion, $2 billion, $1.9 billion, $1.4 billion and $1.4 billion.
Developing hypersonics workforce
Included in that plan is a doubling of the funding for hypersonics research at U.S. universities, establishing a university consortium with the Department of Defense to encourage more applied research. Besides advancing university research more quickly into working hypersonic vehicles, the increased university funding would help develop the future workforce for hypersonics fields, Boyd says. The hypersonics workforce is another perceived gap between the U.S. and China, correlated to the numbers of university students working on the published academic research. “If the U.S. is really going to build a lot of these things, then the Lockheeds and the Raytheons need thousands of engineers to work on hypersonics,” he says.
The U.S. will spend $14 billion over the next several years to build and demonstrate its various hypersonic weapon prototypes, says White, the hypersonics chief. The U.S. is planning at least 40 flight tests of hypersonic missiles in the next several years, including several more in 2020, White says. He declined to provide any details about the planned tests.
This comes after years of only research-and-development-level flight tests, following testing in the 1960s of the crewed, rocket-powered X-15 hypersonic aircraft, which logged 199 flights. With the March test of the Common Hypersonic Glide Body, the U.S. is no longer stuck in a research-and-development mode with hypersonics, White says. For years, “we’ve bumped up against that transition gap or glass ceiling for getting over the hump to building real systems,” he says. “I think we’re over that hump.” Another area where the U.S. could be poised to advance in the hypersonics race is with air-breathing. As for air-breathers, no country has fielded those yet, and the U.S. wants to advance here too. Air-breathers, powered by scramjet engines, could be smaller, lighter and more maneuverable than boost-glide missiles because they wouldn’t have to carry solid fuel for rocket engines. “They fit on fighters and they fit on bombers in numbers, so you might fit eight times more cruise missiles on a B-52 than you would fit on the boost-glide systems,” White says. He is aiming to have an air-breathing prototype flight by the mid-2020s.
Ultimately, new hypersonic missiles will add an incremental capability to the existing arsenals of ballistic and cruise missiles, which already have similar capabilities to the new hypersonic missiles for avoiding detection and swiftly hitting distant targets, says Karako of CSIS. But that increment can be significant.
New hypersonic missiles are “neither all hype — it’s not meaningless — nor is it completely new and different,” he says. His analogy: A new tank that has only a slightly longer artillery range than an old tank still has a considerable advantage. “If I’m fighting tank to tank, that extra range means all the difference in the world.”