This week, alarm bells sounded over the apparent testing of a hypersonic weapon by the Chinese government. Some in our own government, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, have compared the latest development to a “Sputnik moment,” a reference to the pioneering 1957 satellite that gave the Soviet Union an early lead in the space race.
The concern is well-founded. This next-generation technology, if perfected, could be used to send nuclear warheads over the South Pole and around American anti-missile systems in the northern hemisphere.
Defense Department spokesman John Kirby has sought to reassure Americans that this is not catching us flat-footed, telling reporters at the Pentagon that “this is not a technology that is alien to us, that we haven’t been thinking about for a while” and that the U.S. has defensive capabilities “that we need to hone and to improve.”
“Our own pursuit of hypersonic capabilities is real, it’s tangible and we are absolutely working towards being able to develop that capability,” Kirby said, “but I won’t get into the specifics of testing and where we are.”
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall referred in a speech last month to the potential for such a Chinese space-based capability, which during the Cold War was called a “Fractional Orbital Bombardment System,” or a system that goes into orbit and then de-orbits to hit a target.
Suddenly, President Trump’s Space Force doesn’t seem like such a silly concept. Indeed, it’s downright critical.
Now that the importance of this new technology has been established, let’s delve into exactly what it is we’re talking about when we refer to hypersonic weapons and what they mean going forward.
What are hypersonic weapons?
In layman terms: they are fast, low-flying, highly maneuverable weapons designed to be too quick and agile for traditional missile defense systems to detect in time. Unlike ballistic missiles, hypersonic weapons don’t follow a predetermined, arched trajectory and can maneuver on the way to their destination. The term “hypersonic” describes any speed faster than 5x that of sound, which is roughly 760 miles (1,220 kilometers) per hour at sea level, meaning these weapons can travel at least 3,800 miles per hour. At hypersonic speeds, the air molecules around the flight vehicle start to change, breaking apart or gaining a charge in a process called ionization. This subjects the hypersonic vehicle to “tremendous” stresses as it pushes through the atmosphere.
There are two main types of hypersonic weapons–glide vehicles and cruise missiles. Most of the attention is focused on the former, which are launched from a rocket before gliding to their target, because of the challenges of achieving hypersonic propulsion of missiles. The missiles have engines called scramjets that use the air’s oxygen and produce thrust during their flight, allowing them to cruise at a steady speed and altitude.
Bottom line – They fly low at an extremely high rate of speed so as to carry a nuclear warhead toward our shores undetected. This information an more can be found in this U.S. Army paper published in 2018.
Does anyone else have them?
Yes. At this moment, China, the U.S. and Russia have the most advanced capabilities, while several other countries are investigating the technology, including India, Japan, Australia, France, Germany and North Korea. Kim Jong Un claims to have tested a hypersonic missile but we do not have evidence of that claim. Here are the (known) details of what’s out there:
- Russia: Its Avangard is a glide vehicle launched from an intercontinental ballistic missile and will reportedly carry a nuclear warhead. Russian news sources claim it entered into combat duty in December 2019. Tsirkon is a ship-launched cruise missile said to be capable of striking both ground and naval targets.
- China: Its military conducted possibly two hypersonic weapons tests over the summer, including the launch into space of an orbiting hypersonic weapon capable of carrying a nuclear payload. China has disputed reports of the tests, saying it simply launched a reusable space vehicle, but their claims don’t withstand the scrutiny of our surveillance. Previously, China conducted a number of successful tests of the DF-17, a medium-range ballistic missile designed to launch hypersonic glide vehicles. U.S. intelligence analysts have issued a high confidence assessment, which I have seen, that it has now been deployed. China has also tested the DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile, which could be modified to carry a conventional or nuclear glide vehicle.
- The U.S: Despite significant investment, I can say with high confidence that we are at least several years behind China in hypersonic technology. In the last 5 years, we’ve increased funding approximately 740%. Between 2015 and 2024, we will have spent nearly $15 billion on the endeavor. The U.S. Navy has taken the lead in development of a glide vehicle for use across the military branches, while the Air Force is working on an air-launched glider. The government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, is developing an air-launched hypersonic cruise missile, according to CRS.
We are full steam ahead in our development of hypersonic weaponry, but let me be clear — we are scrambling to catch up and it will take years to get there.
What does this mean in terms of global competition?
The U.S. and Chinese militaries have increasingly squared off across Asia, from the South China Sea to the Taiwan Strait, as part of what the Biden administration has characterized as “strategic competition” between the world’s two largest economies. The threat of a U.S. strike that wipes out Chinese missiles before they can hit an American target has long been seen as a deterrent against more assertive military action by Beijing.
The reported hypersonic test was part of a broader buildup of the Chinese military with broad implications for America. The Chinese military is both expanding and evolving at a rapid pace — in space, in cyber not only in the traditional domains of land, sea and air, but in the new realms of cyber and space. In the last 40+ years, they have gone from a massive peasant-based infantry army to a very capable military that covers all the domains. And one that has global ambitions.
Tactically, hypersonic weapons are very difficult to counter using existing defenses. American hypersonic weapons, unlike those being developed in China and Russia, are being designed to carry conventional rather than nuclear weapons. But this doesn’t help our foes rest any easier at night, as they have no way of knowing whether such a weapon in fact carried a nuclear warhead while it was in flight. Our enemies — China and Russia especially — are concerned that U.S. hypersonic weapons could enable America to conduct a preemptive, decapitating strike on their nuclear arsenals and supporting infrastructure. U.S. missile defense deployments could then limit their ability to conduct a retaliatory strike against the U.S.
Thus, they have decided to take preemptive action of their own, but not the theoretical type. While analysts around the globe have been speculating on what America might do, our enemies have parlayed fear into action. And now we’re playing catch-up.
If only America were as formidable as they thought.
The big picture here–and it’s hardly a secret– is that China will be our primary geopolitical foe over the next few decades and possibly beyond. They are no longer a bunch of poor farmers with Kalishnikovs. While we’ve been memorizing pronouns for gender identity, they’ve been building a fighting force capable of bringing the global ambitions of the CCP to fruition. They are our peers, and we’d better warm up to that reality quickly.
How did this happen given our defense budget?
The U.S. military budget is massive. We spend more on defense than the next 10 countries on the list combined. Given that staggering figure, how did we find ourselves behind on perhaps the most important next-gen defense technology of this century?
Most of it has to do with how money is spent. The scope of China’s military buildup is greater than official defense spending figures suggest. To get an accurate picture of defense spending of the U.S vs China, one must zero out to the cost of labor. Chinese military troops are not nearly as expensive as U.S. troops. Once personnel costs are accounted for, our budgets that are much closer. Of course, things like morale are extremely important and investment in our ranks certainly affects that. But tactically speaking, there is not as much daylight between the U.S and Chinese militaries as the raw numbers would suggest.
In addition, much of the Chinese military’s research and development is led by state-owned companies in the commercial sector, which isn’t counted as official defense spending. If one conducts a detailed analysis that compares apples to apples, including investments made from the commercial sector, you’ll see budgets that are much closer to each other than people might think.
And finally, the difference in our respective positions in the hypersonic race reflects a difference in priorities. As mentioned above, the U.S. has prioritized this technology since 2015, but by then we were already behind. We simply dropped the ball on leading defense technology into the future. All the money in the world can’t compensate for a lack of vision.
When President Trump announced the formation of the Space Force, many people laughed. It quickly became the butt of jokes from late night hosts, the narrative being that Trump was launching yet another absurd initiative designed to do little more than stroke his own ego. He wanted to be the president who brought Star Trek to life, nothing more.
As it turns out, there was more. A lot more. So much, in fact, that objective analysts must ask why President Obama and even President Bush did not do more in this realm. President Trump did not let us fall behind in this arena. Rather, he did all he could to catch us up. Now, God help us, it will be up to Joe Biden’s handlers to complete the task, assuming the Bidens don’t continue their trend of selling our country to China for a handful of gold.
Whatever shortcomings President Trump may have had, days like this make it crystal clear just how good we had it in many areas under his presidency. And there is no more important area than national defense. Now, the question is, can we as a citizenry wake up and start prioritizing actions over personality? Can we put more emphasis on policies than offensive words?
The answer may come at hypersonic speed.
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