U.S. be­hind Rus­sia, China in hy­per­sonic weapons race

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitic­s - BY CARLO MUÑOZ

It is a non-nu­clear weapon that the­o­ret­i­cally can hit any tar­get around the world in one hour — while evad­ing the most mod­ern of mis­sile de­fense sys­tems. The Rus­sians on Wed­nes­day pa­raded one in Red Square, and China is ag­gres­sively pur­su­ing a de­vel­op­ment pro­gram for its own vari­ant.

In the race to de­velop hy­per­sonic weapons, the Pen­tagon finds it­self in an un­fa­mil­iar place: trail­ing its two main mil­i­tary ri­vals in a cut­ting-edge mil­i­tary tech­nol­ogy and scram­bling to catch up.

De­spite spend­ing al­most the past decade at the fore­front of de­vel­op­ment for hy­per­sonic weapons tech­nol­ogy, the U.S. is be­hind China and Rus­sia in an emerg­ing arms race.

Top U.S. mil­i­tary brass, past and present, have touted the weapon’s speed and ver­sa­til­ity as a vi­able al­ter­na­tive to the nu­clear bomb — the only other weapon in the Amer­i­can arse­nal that can travel as far and fast as a hy­per­sonic mis­sile.

The­o­ret­i­cally, U.S. forces would need only a hand­ful of the mis­siles to take out high-value tar­gets at hy­per­sonic speeds, which could eas­ily evade the most ad­vanced air de­fense sys­tems.

“I wish to hell we had one when [Osama] bin Laden was in Tora Bora,” a U.S. mil­i­tary source said in 2012 at the peak of U.S. hy­per­son­ics de­vel­op­ment.

But af­ter nu­mer­ous test and de­sign fail­ures, Pen­tagon sup­port faded for hy­per­son­ics and de­vel­op­ment of a Prompt Global Strike mis­sile, and re­sources were shifted to­ward other ef­forts such as long-range mis­sile de­fense sys­tems and next-gen­er­a­tion in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles.

The last con­certed ef­forts by the U.S. to de­velop a hy­per­sonic weapon was the 2011 HTV-2 Fal­con, a mis­sile-based sys­tem cre­ated by the De­fense Ad­vanced Re­search Projects Agency (DARPA) and the 2010 Air Force X-51 Waverider scram­jet hy­per­sonic weapon. Nei­ther made it out of the early de­vel­op­ment phase.

“Hy­per­sonic weapons sys­tems could dra­mat­i­cally al­ter the ex­ist­ing balance of con­ven­tional mil­i­tary power forces be­tween the United States and its ma­jor com­peti­tors,” Daniel Goure, vice pres­i­dent of the pub­lic pol­icy re­search think tank Lex­ing­ton In­sti­tute, wrote re­cently in the for­eign pol­icy jour­nal Na­tional In­ter­est. “They could strike key mil­i­tary tar­gets such as air­fields, com­mand and con­trol cen­ters, de­pots and force con­cen­tra­tions al­most without warn­ing.”

The weapons are seen as par­tic­u­larly use­ful against such tar­gets as air­craft car­ri­ers, am­phibi­ous war­fare ships and crit­i­cal mil­i­tary sup­ply trans­ports, Mr. Goure said.

Rus­sia and China rushed to fill the gap in the field of hy­per­sonic weaponry. Moscow, first to claim it, de­vel­oped the first com­bat-ready hy­per­sonic mis­sile this month.

Rus­sian mil­i­tary of­fi­cials an­nounced the first de­ploy­ment of the Kinzhal, or “Dag­ger,” hy­per­sonic mis­sile aboard 10 MiG-31 fighter jets on test com­bat duty, Rus­sian Deputy De­fense Min­is­ter Yuri Borisov said dur­ing an in­ter­view Satur­day with Rus­sian news out­let Zvezda TV.

With Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin in the re­view­ing stand, the Dag­ger was one of the prime at­trac­tions at Wed­nes­day’s an­nual pa­rade mark­ing the Soviet Union’s de­feat of Nazi Ger­many.

“It is a cut­ting-edge weapon ca­pa­ble of over­com­ing air and mis­sile de­fenses. It is in­vin­ci­ble, hav­ing se­ri­ous com­bat might and po­ten­tial,” said Mr. Borisov, con­firm­ing the weapon’s de­ploy­ment.

Mr. Putin touted the weapon’s gamechang­ing abil­ity dur­ing a speech to the Fed­eral As­sem­bly on March 1.

“I want to tell all those who have fu­eled the arms race over the last 15 years, sought to win uni­lat­eral ad­van­tages over Rus­sia, in­tro­duced un­law­ful sanc­tions aimed to con­tain our coun­try’s de­vel­op­ment … you have failed to con­tain Rus­sia,” he said at the time.

Rus­sia is not alone in the race to be the next hy­per­son­ics power.

Re­gional news re­ports say China last year suc­cess­fully tested a hy­per­son­ics mis­sile dubbed the DF-17. The test was con­firmed by sources within the U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity, who de­clined to com­ment on how close Beijing was in get­ting the weapon fully op­er­a­tional. Re­cent re­ports say the DF-17 could pos­sess a kill range of up to 1,200 miles and could be fielded as soon as 2020.

The Rus­sian and Chi­nese claims have caught the at­ten­tion of se­nior U.S. mil­i­tary brass, who are once again sound­ing the alarm at the Pen­tagon’s lack of par­ity in the hy­per­son­ics do­main.

“You should be­lieve Vladimir Putin about ev­ery­thing he said he’s work­ing on,” Air Force Gen. John Hyten, chief of U.S. Strate­gic Com­mand, told re­porters last month at a space sym­po­sium in Col­orado Springs.

“There are cer­tain ar­eas where I think we have ad­van­tages on Rus­sia and China in hy­per­son­ics. But what they’ve done, what is sig­nif­i­cant, is they’ve done full-up in­te­grated test­ing of those ca­pa­bil­i­ties,” Gen. Hyten said in re­marks cov­ered by De­fense News.

Navy Adm. Philip David­son, who will re­place Adm. Harry Harris as head of U.S. Pa­cific Com­mand, also ex­pressed con­cern about China’s pur­suit of hy­per­sonic weapons.

“It’s clear to me that some of our po­ten­tial ad­ver­saries are in­no­vat­ing with weapons sys­tems that we need to catch up on, in some cases, or ad­vance the gap that we cur­rently might hold over them,” he told mem­bers of the Se­nate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee dur­ing his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing last month.

“I am highly con­cerned about China’s pur­suit of hy­per­son­ics, and that is one area in which we need to get af­ter quickly [and] al­low us to in­no­vate more quickly” to ad­dress the threat.

The mil­i­tary blog We Are The Mighty re­ported this week that the Air Force is de­vel­op­ing an ag­gres­sive timetable to de­sign, test and de­ploy hy­per­sonic weapons, in­clud­ing air-launched weapons and a con­ven­tional strike mis­sile.

Air Force. Lt. Gen. Sa­muel A. Greaves, di­rec­tor of the Mis­sile De­fense Agency, told Congress last month that China and Rus­sia are build­ing mis­siles de­signed to de­feat mis­sile de­fenses, in­clud­ing hy­per­sonic cruise mis­siles and hy­per­sonic glide ve­hi­cles launched atop bal­lis­tic mis­siles.

“The com­bi­na­tion of high speed, ma­neu­ver­abil­ity and rel­a­tively low al­ti­tude makes them chal­leng­ing tar­gets for mis­sile de­fense sys­tems,” he said.

Ad­vances by po­ten­tial ad­ver­saries in the field is one of the great­est threats to U.S. se­cu­rity, the gen­eral said.

“We are ex­e­cut­ing the plan­ning, and I ex­pect to see a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in the amount of time and re­sources that we will spend in that area,” he told a House Armed Ser­vices sub­com­mit­tee hear­ing last month.

The con­cern about a hy­per­sonic mis­sile gap is re­flected in the Pen­tagon’s de­fense spend­ing re­quest for the com­ing fis­cal year, which called for $256 mil­lion for hy­per­son­ics work at DARPA.

Last week, mem­bers of the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee added $20 mil­lion to that fig­ure in their ver­sion of the Pen­tagon spend­ing blue­print for fis­cal year 2019. It re­mains to be seen whether their Se­nate coun­ter­parts will fol­low suit when they mark up their de­fense spend­ing bill later this month.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A Rus­sian Air Force MiG-31K jet dis­played a high-pre­ci­sion hy­per­sonic aer­obal­lis­tic mis­sile Kh-47M2 Kinzhal dur­ing Moscow’s Vic­tory Day mil­i­tary pa­rade last week to cel­e­brate 73 years since the end of World War II and the de­feat of Nazi Ger­many.

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