The top American nuclear commander, Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, testified before a congressional committee on Tuesday that both Russia and China were attempting to develop hypersonic ICBMs that are capable of defeating current missile defenses.
“Both Russia and China are aggressively pursuing hypersonic capabilities,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us.”
That means, for now, the U.S. has to rely solely on the MAD concept — mutually assured destruction — as its primary deterrence, he added.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., asked the STRATCOM commander to explain what a hypersonic weapon is and what it does.
“A hypersonic threat is a system that starts out ballistic, so you’ll see it like a ballistic missile, but then it depresses the trajectory and flies more like a cruise missile or airplane,” Hyten said. “It goes up into the lower reaches of space and turns immediately back down and then levels out.”
At that point, the weapon begins to fly at a high rate of speed, which is where the term ‘hypersonic’ comes from.
“Both Russia and China are aggressively pursuing hypersonic capabilities,” Hyten told Inhofe. “We’ve watched them test those capabilities.”
In terms of U.S. deterrence, Hyten told the panel he believes in the Trump administration’s plan to pursue low-yield battlefield nuclear weapons.
“I strongly agree with the need for a low-yield nuclear weapon,” he said of the Pentagon’s request for a low-yield warhead for submarine-launched ballistic missiles. “That capability is a deterrence weapon to respond to the threat that Russia, in particular, is portraying. President [Vladimir] Putin announced as far back as April of 2000 that the Russian doctrine will be to use a low-yield nuclear weapon on the battlefield.” [source]
Analysis: Hyten believes that Russia poses the “most significant threat” to U.S. and NATO security and has said so. As to the threat, Putin announced earlier this month that Russia now possesses a hypersonic missile, the Avangard, which the country has said it plans to deploy in 2019. Not all U.S. analysts believe that the system is that close to being deployed, but as Hyten has testified, the U.S. is aware that Russia has at least tested the missile.
The U.S., meanwhile, is believed to be behind both countries in hypersonic weapon development. That said, one reputable media outlet reported [here] that the U.S. and Australia conducted a secret test of a U.S.-made HiFiRE hypersonic weapon capable of traveling more than 6,000 miles per hour. The report was dated July 2017, so obviously the U.S. isn’t starting from scratch; in fact, the report noted that U.S. research spun up around 2009 with the first test of a scramjet engine.
China has also conducted successful hypersonic missile testing — in 2016. That vehicle reportedly reached speeds between 4,000 and 7,000 miles per hours. But the Chinese have not announced a date for deploying a functional hypersonic capability. [source]
That said, the U.S. has also been working on weapon systems to counter hypersonic missiles: Lasers. Doug Graham, vice president of missile systems and advanced programs for Lockheed Martin, said in late summer 2016 that his company was working on lasers that can hit hypersonic missiles shortly after launch and before they reach ultra-high speeds. These systems have been undergoing testing since around 2014; but it could take a decade or longer to get a functional system.
That the head of STRATCOM would specifically mention this emerging threat and then openly admit that the United States military has no defense against them is significant. That said, hypersonic weapons are complex. Notes the National Interest in March 2016: “…[A] a state that invests in hypersonic weapons must also invest in advanced sensor systems that can detect and track a specific target, and have secure data links from the sensor to the decision-maker and then to the shooter. It’s not just about faster missiles—it’s about the technologies that come together to either use such weapons or defeat them.”