Regular subscribers to the weekly Strategic Intelligence Summary know that we’ve been following the development of Chinese and Russian hypersonic missile technology for some time. We’ve always believed that in terms of offensive capability, the technology was a game-changer.
While the U.S. has been working to develop hypersonic missiles, the U.S. hasn’t put nearly as much into research as the Chinese and Russians. As such, the U.S. has lagged behind in this capability, even as the Chinese and Russians have been successfully testing systems. Russian President Vladimir Putin even announced earlier this month that his military had tested a functional hypersonic system. Big news, if true.
A video posted by the Russian Defense Ministry shows a MiG-31 fighter jet launching a Kinzhal (Dagger) missile during a training flight. The ministry said the missile, which carried a conventional warhead, hit a practice target at a firing range in southern Russia. The missile is capable of flying around 1,250 miles (roughly a straight line distance from Atlanta, GA to Denver, CO) at 10 times the speed of conventional ballistic missiles, rendering U.S. missile defense systems nearly useless. Putin said the Kinzhal is also capable of delivering a nuclear payload, adding that the weapon has already been deployed and is in use with forces in the Southern Military District.
The Chinese, meanwhile, has been conducting successful tests with the DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle, also known as the WU-14. We haven’t seen any OSINT or chatter indicating that the Chinese have fully developed and deployed a hypersonic ballistic missile system, but we believe, based on what we’ve seen reported, that they are close — as in, they may have a deployed weapon by 2020.
But given the tone of U.S. military commanders and some lawmakers, we don’t appear to be on the verge of deploying such a capability. And our leaders are clearly worried about it.
“Right now, we’re helpless,” Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said recently in advocating for more investment in hypersonics, along with missile defense.
Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, last week described a hypersonic as a missile that starts out “like a ballistic missile, but then it depresses the trajectory and then flies more like a cruise missile or an airplane. So it goes up into the low reaches of space, and then turns immediately back down and then levels out and flies at a very high level of speed.” [source]
Does this bring us closer to war with either China or Russia? Will U.S. development of hypersonic systems ‘catch up’ to our competitors in time to reach parity? This is a weapon system we’re watching very closely. Each week, Jon Dougherty, our Strategic Threats Analyst, produces a situation report on the potential for war with Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. He monitors foreign media outlets for information not being reported in the U.S., and then delivers updates on the risk of war in each of the four flashpoint regions. If you want to get a head start in understanding what a war with these countries is looking like, then you can get access to his Strategic Intelligence service with a monthly or annual subscription.