Hypersonic Weapons Are Coming. The Pentagon Needs To Spend More On Defending Against Them.
In the year since Russian President Vladimir Putin declared to the world that his nation had successfully tested a hypersonic weapon, funding for similar weapons in the U.S. has greatly increased. The Pentagon now plans to spend an average of over $2 billion per year through 2024 on developing hypersonic systems for the Air Force, Army and Navy.
Hypersonic weapons typically move at over five times the speed of sound, meaning faster than a mile per second. But it isn’t just sheer speed that makes them different from existing weapons. Unlike long-range ballistic missile warheads that can approach 25 times the speed of sound as they reenter the atmosphere, emerging hypersonic weapons can glide and maneuver.
That makes them devilishly hard to track or intercept, because they don’t follow a predictable trajectory the way that the warheads from an intercontinental ballistic missile might. Once launched, their path to targets is unpredictable, and thus it will not be clear until very late in their flight what the intended target is. At that point, it is too late for defensive preparations.
Which is why the Pentagon needs to prepare for defending against them now, before Russian systems and their likely Chinese counterparts become operational. However, while the Defense Department is making rapid progress in applying hypersonic technology to an array of munitions, it isn’t spending much on defending against them. The Pentagon’s fiscal 2020 budget request seeks $2.6 billion for hypersonic weapons work, but only $157 million of that (about 6%) is for defending against hypersonic threats.
This seems out of step with the identification of hypersonic defenses as an urgent priority in the Trump administration’s recently completed missile defense review. The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA), which oversees development of systems capable of tracking and intercepting hostile missiles, has identified accelerated investment in hypersonic defenses as its single most important unfunded activity in the 2020 request. In fact, it would prefer over five times the funding it is getting—nearly $900 million—to speed development of hypersonic defenses.
The number one unfunded item MDA cites, for the second year in a row, is a “space sensor layer” capable of more reliably tracking fast-moving threats, whether they be hypersonic boost-glide weapons or advanced ballistic missiles. If any kind of effective defense is to be mounted, U.S. warfighters must be able to track hypersonic weapons from the moment they launch until they reach the vicinity of their targets so that whatever interceptor systems exist might be used to optimal effect.
Birth-to-death tracking, as it is called, is even more important when hypersonic weapons are approaching than when threats are purely ballistic, because it is so hard to predict the path maneuvering hypersonic vehicles might follow. If North Korea launches a ballistic missile towards America, defenders can make an educated guess early-on what the intended target is; that is not the case with gliding hypersonic weapons. They need to be tracked continuously, which means there must be a constellation of space-based sensors in various orbits to accomplish that part of the defensive mission.
Obviously, tracking is just the beginning; there also need to be readily relocated interceptor systems that can use the tracking data to disable the incoming weapons before they reach their targets. MDA has already developed agile ground-based interceptors like the Patriot PAC-3 and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) that might be adapted to that purpose. And there must a highly automated battle management system capable of assigning defensive systems to specific targets within the very demanding timelines dictated by threats moving at speeds in excess of a mile per second.
I should note that I have business ties of one sort or another to several of the companies currently engaged in developing systems relevant to hypersonic defense. They compete fiercely with each other, but as a practical matter the best option U.S. defenders have for coping with the emerging hypersonic threat is to adapt what we have to the mission. If MDA were to start over with a defensive architecture dedicated solely to coping with hypersonic weapons, our allies, warfighters and homeland would be undefended for many years to come against the danger. Countries like Russia and China would likely try to exploit that vulnerability to hold U.S. interests at risk. Putin has already said as much.
So while a new approach to defensive preparations might be necessary over the long run, our best option today is to adapt the investments already made to the extent feasible in countering the first generation of hostile hypersonic weapons. As I noted earlier, ballistic reentry vehicles often travel at high hypersonic speeds, and yet we have found ways of coping with that danger. In fact, the preferred approach to intercepting most ballistic threats today is hit-to-kill warheads that generate such extensive kinetic damage no explosive mechanism is needed. What MDA requires the additional funding for, more than anything else, is the kind of orbital sensor array that can tell interceptors precisely where to find the attacking hypersonic threats, in a timeframe relevant to defenders.
There are only a handful of companies that can plausibly meet the challenge. For instance, Lockheed Martin not only has extensive experience in developing space-based sensors, but has been the leading recipient of funding for U.S. hypersonic weapons. It presumably understands the threat at least as well as any other player. Raytheon works with Lockheed on both the Patriot and THAAD systems, and builds the kill vehicle for the only system currently postured to defend the American homeland against incoming ballistic warheads. There are other companies with relevant experience and expertise, but not many.
The most important point, though, is that we need to get serious about defending against hypersonic threats, otherwise our enemies will focus their efforts in that area because the U.S. is vulnerable. The amount of money requested in the 2020 budget for hypersonic defenses represents less than one hour of federal spending at current rates. That just isn’t enough for what may one day soon be the gravest threat facing our warfighters and homeland. More money is needed, right away.