Panel: China Leading the World in Hypersonic Weapon Development

March 14, 2019 11:08 AM
Artist Rendering of Chinese DF-ZF Experimental Vehicle

China is leading the world in hypersonic technology due to Beijing setting a clear investment strategy to its industrial base, a panel of national security experts said Monday.

“[The U.S.] commercial sector [and] Silicon Valley will never ever develop” the technologies associated with hypersonic weapons, Roger Zakheim, a member of the National Defense Strategy Commission, said at the Hudson Institute.
“The capability is going to come from the Pentagon and the traditional (defense) industrial base,” in large measure because they know what is needed to support a hypersonic weapon.

While the United States has been engaged in counter-terrorism wars and missions since 2001, Russia and China “concentrated on the spectrum of air and missile threats, not just one bright shining object” to counter American military strengths, Thomas Karako, director of the missile defense project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said.

Hypersonic glide weapons “can hold at risk carriers, bases” in an attempt to change U.S. behavior in places like the South China Sea. Zakheim added, “it is the [hypersonic missile] capability that will keep us out” of the Indo-Pacific [and] rendered [aircraft carriers] operationally useless.”

Hypersonic weapons pose warning and assessment challenges unlike any other systems, Austin Long, a nuclear policy advisor to the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said.

Describing the warning challenge, he said satellites could detect the weapon in its boost phase but, because its trajectory differs from a ballistic missile and its speed is so much greater than a cruise missile, “you won’t see it” with existing radar until it is too late.

This eliminates the “dual assurance” that an attack is underway and the United States needs to respond that the president would expect in a crisis, Long said.

Long said that, because these weapons have speed and are maneuverable in flight, assessing what they are targeting becomes much more difficult. For example, he said: even though a launch has been detected, is the weapon moving at Mach 5 coming at the Pentagon or the White House, or is it really targeting the large military concentration in Hampton Roads?

While the panelists agreed that the United States needs to invest in offensive hypersonic weapons technology and start imposing costs particularly on China to defend against this development, the first step speakers recommended taking were boosting counter-hypersonic defensive systems. That would be fielding improved and more sensors that “looking down” from high space orbit and “looking up” from low earth orbit, Karako said.

It would also include as a follow-up developing “dramatically different” airframes for interceptors with greater range and velocity. But “first we’ve got to get the sensors right and then we [can] kill” the incoming hypersonic weapon.

He also suggested “more distributed operations [especially for the Navy]… to make passive defense” viable again.

“We’ve got to present the other guy with a really hard Scud hunt” to identify and hit targets.

In answering this question of what to do first, he added, “I don’t believe the Navy will get out of the missile defense mission any time soon” if for no other reason than fleet protection. Zarako was referring to an address Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, gave at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., in June. Defense News quoted him as saying then that he wanted to move to a “dynamic ballistic missile defense,” and have Aegis Ashore or new land-based systems to defend land from missile attack. Six Aegis destroyers now are carrying out the missile defense mission.

Imposing costs is a two-way street that affects the United States as well as competitors to test, develop and field new systems. The three acknowledged it also could trigger a new arms race among the three and also could lead to proliferation of this technology to regional powers like North Korea and Iran.

Though the event occurred ahead of the release of the Fiscal Year 2020 budget request, the panelists noted that early reports show the president requesting $2.5 billion for hypersonic weapons technology, an increase from last year’s $500 million.

But exactly where this money is going is yet unknown.

The overall Missile Defense Agency budget is projected to decline about $500 million to $9.4 billion.

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

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