Are hypersonics the answer to matching China?

Pentagon isn’t panicking yet over China’s lead in the hypersonic missile race

There is no doubt, that both China and Russia, are well ahead of the United States in hypersonic weapons technology.

You only have to do a simple Google search on that one, to read the headlines.

It has, in fact, sparked a new arms race between the three superpowers.

In 2020, the Pentagon devoted just over $2 billion to developing hypersonic technologies, including missiles. In 2021, that number jumped to $3.2 billion, reported.

It grew once again in the Defense Department’s 2022 budget proposal, with $3.8 billion now earmarked for the effort. All told, there are at least 70 hypersonic programs drawing funds from this pool, seven of which are for publicly disclosed hypersonic missiles.

If you sense, a feeling of panic setting in at the Pentagon, you are not mistaken. But is this necessarily the way to go for US forces? At least one official doesn’t think so.

Speaking at a Jan. 19 virtual Center for a New American Security event, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall warned an audience of military brass and journalists of putting too much emphasis on hypersonics just because China is advancing in that area, saying hypersonic missiles are better suited to China’s strategy and that USAF has yet to determine the right munitions mix for the future, John A. Tirpak of Air Force Magazine reported.

The targets that China is “worried about, that we present” are well addressed with hypersonic weapons, Kendall added.

These tend to be major air bases in the Pacific such as Guam, and naval formations, such as carrier groups. But “I think we have to be careful about not mirror-imaging the potential threats,” he said.

There was a “rush” during the wayward Trump administration to develop hypersonics, Kendall noted, but they may not always be the most “cost-effective … tool” for the Air Force.

US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall. Photo: US Air Force

“We don’t have the same targets that [China is] worried about,” he said. “We have to think about what’s most cost-effective for us … [Hypersonic systems are] very expensive compared to conventional weapons.

“So we’ve got to look at that very carefully and decide where we need to be in that tradeoff. I don’t think enough work has been done on that,” AFM reported.

Kendall, who is considered by some as an unapologetic China hawk, didn’t elaborate on the targets most compelling for USAF or whether they are best addressed by slower, stealthy cruise missiles, and air-breathing hypersonic cruise missiles that would be cheaper than the boost-glide, or direct-attack weapons.

Broadly speaking, he said, the US goal is “having a deterrence that defeats aggression … whether it’s in Ukraine or … Taiwan, for example.”

The “core mission” of adversaries such as China, however, is “to keep us out of their part of the world, or to keep us from intervening,” he said. These are “very different operational requirements,” AFM reported.

The right weapons mix is “still very much an open question for me,” Kendall said.

He acknowledged that hypersonic missiles have the advantage of being fast and unpredictable but that the Air Force needs to better plot its path for future munitions.

“There is a role for hypersonics in that mix,” he allowed. “And I think we should continue to proceed with developing and fielding appropriate hypersonic” systems.

DF-17 on parade in Beijing, October 1, 2019. Photo: PLA

But the fact remains that the US still appears to be literally years away from fielding a hypersonic weapon, and in the minds of many, that’s a serious problem, reported.

The Mach 5 elephant in the room can’t be ignored: America’s hypersonic weapons programs have been riddled with failure in recent years.

Out of 16 tests conducted since 2010, four failed due to problems with the missile’s conventional rocket booster, with one other called a total failure for undisclosed reasons.

Two more failed due to issues with stage separation mechanisms or control fins, both of which are technologies the US has had in service for decades, reported.

An additional three tests were considered partial failures after achieving hypersonic speeds before something went wrong.

The most recent failure came on October 21, 2021 when again, a conventional rocket booster failed.

But even after the US defense apparatus shifted focus toward hypersonics, it remains just one area of focus. Hypersonic weapons have to compete for time on test ranges with other developmental programs.

The US has been beset by numerous test failures of hypersonic missiles. Photo: Pratt & Whitney.

In addition, there is only one wind tunnel in the country that can manage both the high speeds and the high temperatures associated with hypersonics testing, and it belongs to NASA.

The US has earmarked around $500 million to put toward wind tunnel facilities to ease this chokepoint, but it’s not the only one.

China, on the other hand, announced plans last summer that it will build the world’s fastest hypervelocity wind tunnel by 2022.

Once built, the JF-22 tunnel will be able to simulate flying conditions at about 30 Mach, or 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) a second, and contribute to the development of hypersonic and aerospace vehicles, Global Times wrote. 

Meanwhile, military analysts say America only has plans to develop new conventional, or non-nuclear, hypersonic weapons at this point, and that poses larger technical challenges than fielding nuclear ones.

Nuclear weapons don’t need to be nearly as accurate because of the relative size of their blast radius. A conventional weapon, on the other hand, carries a smaller destructive yield, and as such, must be more accurate in order to destroy its target.

Both of Russia’s operational hypersonic weapons, the KH-47M2 Kinzhal and the Avangard boost-glide vehicle, can be armed with nuclear warheads, The National Interest reported.

For years Russia was concerned that the US has the capability to intercept its traditional ballistic missiles.

The Kremlin pursued hypersonic technology, believing these weapons could give them assured means of penetrating US missile defenses and restoring some of that strategic balance.

China’s DF-17 is also considered nuclear-capable but is not openly called a nuclear weapon.

Its primary purpose, however, is to engage aircraft carrier-sized targets at great distances (potentially in excess of 1,000 miles), and to date, the jury is still out that their targeting kill-chain could accomplish such a feat.

The cold reality of China’s advanced hypersonic technology remains a concern for one simple reason.

Unlike intercontinental ballistic missiles which travel in a predictable arc and can be tracked by long-range radars, a hypersonic weapon maneuvers much closer to the earth, making it harder for radars to detect. 

Combined with hundreds of new missile silos China is building, US officials believe the Chinese could one day have the capability to launch a surprise nuclear attack on the US – a scenario that will not go over well at the Pentagon.  

General John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told CBS News in an interview: “They look like a first-use weapon. That’s what those weapons look like to me.”