U.S. accelerating its own hypersonic missile development

The United States is ramping up development of a hypersonic intercontinental ballistic missile as near-peer competitor states continue to advance their own programs.

About a year ago, officials with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, told then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work that U.S. hypersonic missile development was lagging behind those of China and Russia.

On 1 March, in a speech before Russian Federation representatives, President Vladimir Putin — while offering no specific proof — announced that Moscow had developed a hypersonic weapon that could hit any target on earth.

New DARPA director Steven Walker has not publicly commented on the agency’s hypersonic missile progress but said it was racing to test a hypersonic missile by 2020. However, he said, DARPA needs assistance.

“Most of our programs at DARPA [related to hypersonic research] are testing at one facility,” Walker said: NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, where research and testing takes place 24 hours a day.

But there is not enough testing infrastructure, he added.

“If you look at some of our peer competitors, China being one, the number of facilities that they’ve built to do hypersonics… surpasses the number we have in this country. It’s quickly surpassing it by 2 or 3 times. It is very clear that China has made this one of their national priorities. We need to do the same,” he said.

Noted one U.S. defense media report:

DARPA and the U.S. Air Force are working on two hypersonic weapon concepts. One is the Tactical Boost Glide weapon. A rocket accelerates the craft to very high speeds and altitudes, then glides back to earth. The other is the hypersonic air-breathing weapon concept, or HAWC, whose scramjet engine takes in air at supersonic speeds, compresses it, and pushes it through a nozzle out the back.

The military is requesting a lot more money for hypersonic research following some technological breakthroughs within the last few years. The trend began in 2010 with the achievement of 200 seconds of supersonic combustion in the air, on the X-51 Waverider experimental aircraft.

Walker said that the effort to develop a weapon is moving forward and that the program is not looking simply for breakthroughs but how to link the technology to weapons and figuring out how much they will cost.

“Things are moving,” he said. “This is becoming not just [a science and technology] thing. The services are interested in moving forward with real capabilities.” [source]

Analysis: China’s commitment to developing hypersonic missiles — which will quickly become game-changers, by the way, at least until a peer competitor builds a similar capacity — is likely aimed at creating a deterrent capability it does not currently have. But developing this technology is tricky; the engineering is proving difficult.

Beijing seeks to dominate the South China Sea and its own Asian neighborhood. Beijing understands the U.S. has security agreements with Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, though returning Taiwan to Beijing’s sphere of influence remains the principal objective. To another extent, China seeks to regain islands Japan (and Taiwan) currently claims in the Pacific Ocean.

China has already successfully tested hypersonic glide vehicles. December reports noted that the vehicle can achieve a speed of around 7,900 miles per hour — far faster than any existing missile defense system can defend against (only lasers would be faster). 

Make no mistake: China intends to use this weapon to keep the U.S. away when Beijing decides it’s time to move on Taiwan and/or Japan’s Senkaku Islands. So the Pentagon needn’t waste any more time in developing their own hypersonic missile.

Jon E. Dougherty is a political, foreign policy and national security analyst and reporter with nearly 30 years of experience in both fields. A U.S. Army veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, he holds BA in Political Science from Ashford University and an MA in National Security Studies/Intelligence Analysis from American Military University.

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