Hitting a target with a missile anywhere in the world in less than an hour – that’s the Pentagon’s goal with its ongoing development of hypersonic weapons.
Moving from the experimental phase to construction and deployment, however, is still a ways off. But recent activity on this front by the Chinese military may help speed things along.
China surprised many in the defense community in January when it tested a related device that can detach from a ballistic missile and be steered toward its target. The U.S. is conducting its own tests of various systems under development by the Defense Department, all of which would be capable of delivering conventional or nuclear weapons at speeds of Mach 5 or faster, so at least five times the speed of sound.
Last year the Pentagon saw improvement in a trial run of a hypersonic device known as a scramjet that was attached to a B-52 bomber.
"It's the second time we have shown a scramjet can ignite and give positive acceleration," Alan R. Shaffer, acting assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, told an industry association last week, according to The Washington Times. "That is a huge deal. That means we are now starting to understand hypersonics. We, the U.S., do not want to be the second country to understand how to have controlled scramjet hypersonics,” he added.
The Army announced this month that it’ll undergo a second test of its hypersonic weaponry in August.
“Right now we are on target with the costs,” Lt. Gen. David L. Mann, commander, U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, told the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces on March 12. “I do not see any kind of an overrun at this moment. Everything is kind of predicated on what happens after the test.”
Spending on the scramjet technology for the B-52 cost about $250 million from 2004 through 2011. Last year the Pentagon estimated that its Advanced Hypersonic Weapon program would cost about $600 million over the next five years.
The programs have been more than a decade in the making. The Defense Department first identified the capability as one of its missions in 2003.
The Pentagon says these types of weapons will be ideal for hitting mobile military units or terrorist groups that don’t stay in one place for more than a day at a time. Using existing weaponry would take days to hit those targets, according to the Defense Department, because it would require getting forces into position before launching an attack. And because the delivery systems for hypersonics are capable of delivering conventional weapons instead of nuclear warheads, the missiles offer more precision.
Critics of the program point out that because the missiles are very similar to those used for nuclear weapons, adversaries won’t be able to tell the difference, leading some to erroneously suspect they’re coming under nuclear attack. For countries with nuclear capabilities, that could lead to a counter-attack.
“These systems cause real escalatory risks,” said James Acton, a senior associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But that’s not his primary concern. He questions whether hypersonics are even necessary.
“A lot of this is being driven by technology at the moment, and not by strategy,” he said, noting that the scenarios in which these missiles would be used rely too heavily on intelligence that needs to be rock solid. During that period of intelligence-gathering, he said, existing means of attack could be put into position.
Funding for development of the Conventional Prompt Global Strike program increased from $174.8 million in 2012 to $200 million in fiscal 2013, even though the Pentagon only requested $110.4 million last year, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
“There’s no question the U.S. is quite a long way ahead of China, at least at developing the very long-range stuff,” Acton said. “I’m sure the Chinese tests more or less ensure that the programs are likely to be funded.”
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