The US military successfully tested a hypersonic missile prototype on May 4, the Lockheed Martin version of the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) that can travel faster than March 5 (five times the speed of sound). It reached altitudes greater than 65,000 feet and flew for more than 300 nautical miles.
This was the second successful flight in the HAWC program of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
The US successfully tested the first one in mid-March but kept it quiet for two weeks to avoid escalating tensions with Russia as President Joe Biden was about to travel to Europe, according to CNN.
The HAWC, which was launched then from a B-52 bomber off the west coast of America, was termed the first successful test of the Lockheed Martin version of the system. A booster engine accelerated the missile to high speed, at which point the air-breathing scramjet engine ignited and propelled the missile at hypersonic speeds of Mach 5 and above.
After the latest test on May 4, Andrew “Tippy” Knoedler, HAWC program manager in DARPA, said, “This Lockheed Martin HAWC flight test successfully demonstrated a second design that will allow our warfighters to competitively select the right capabilities to dominate the battlefield. These achievements increase the level of technical maturity for transitioning HAWC to a service program of record.”
Knoedler then added, “We are still analyzing flight test data but are confident that we will provide the US Air Force and Navy with excellent options to diversify the technology available for their future missions.”
Significantly, this second test was conducted just one day before (that is, May 5) the US Congressional Research Service released a report on Hypersonic Weapons.
It may be noted that the US Department of Defense (DOD) or Pentagon’s FY 2023 budget request to Congress includes $225.5 million for hypersonic defense programs and $4.7 billion for hypersonic weapons programs. In FY2022, DOD requested $247.9 million for hypersonic defense programs and $3.8 billion for hypersonic weapons programs.
From the above, it seems that the US is attaching more importance to hypersonic weapons than hypersonic defense programs.
There are two primary categories of hypersonic weapons. One is hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV) that are launched from a rocket before gliding to a target. The other is hypersonic cruise missiles that are powered by high-speed, air-breathing engines, or “scramjets,” after acquiring their target.
Unlike ballistic missiles, hypersonic weapons do not follow a ballistic trajectory and can maneuver en route to their destination.
In the process, they could challenge detection and defense due to their speed, maneuverability, and low altitude of the flight. Terrestrial-based radar cannot detect hypersonic weapons until late in the weapon’s flight.
This delayed detection compresses the timeline for decision-makers to assess their response options.
Need For Hypersonic Missiles
There is a debate in the US strategic circles about the need for the defense against hypersonic missiles. Some analysts have suggested that space-based sensor layers—integrated with tracking and fire-control systems to direct high-performance interceptors or directed energy weapons could theoretically present viable options for defending against hypersonic weapons in the future.
Indeed, the 2019 Missile Defense Review of the US notes that “such sensors take advantage of the large area viewable from space for improved tracking and potentially targeting of advanced threats, including HGVs and hypersonic cruise missiles.”
But, some other analysts have questioned the affordability, technological feasibility, and/or utility of wide-area hypersonic weapons defense.
According to physicist and nuclear expert James Acton, “point-defense systems, and particularly [Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)], could very plausibly be adapted to deal with hypersonic missiles.
The disadvantage of those systems is that they can only defend small areas. To defend the whole of the continental United States, you would need an unaffordable number of THAAD batteries.”
In addition, some American analysts argue that hypersonic weapons lack defined mission requirements, that they contribute little to U.S. military capability, and that they are unnecessary for deterrence.
This ongoing debate, perhaps, explains why hypersonic weapons programs in the US are far behind that of the programs in Russia and China. It is only after a series of successful Russian and Chinese hypersonic tests in recent years, exacerbating thus the concern in Washington that the US is falling behind on a military technology considered critical for the future, that the Pentagon is admitting that these weapons could enable “responsive, long-range, strike options against distant, defended, and/or time-critical threats [such as road-mobile missiles] when other forces are unavailable, denied access, or not preferred.”
That explains why Congress requested sanctioning more money for testing them.
However, the debates in the United States are still inconclusive on whether, like programs in China and Russia, US hypersonic weapons are to be nuclear-armed or conventionally armed. At the moment, the emphasis is on conventional nuclear warheads as these will have greater accuracy.
Indeed, according to Acton, “a nuclear-armed glider would be effective if it were 10 or even 100 times less accurate [than a conventionally-armed glider]” due to nuclear blast effects.
So much so that two years ago, when the US Air Force sought ideas for a “thermal protection system that can support a hypersonic glide to ICBM ranges, ” the Pentagon responded by saying it “remains committed to a non-nuclear role for hypersonics.”
US Going Slow In Hypersonic Technology
Technically speaking, and that could surprise many, at present, the DOD in the US has not established any programs of record for hypersonic weapons.
This suggests that it may not have approved either mission requirements for the systems or long-term funding plans. Indeed, as Principal Director for Hypersonics (Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering), Mike White has stated not so long ago, “DOD has not yet made a decision to acquire hypersonic weapons and is instead developing prototypes to assist in the evaluation of potential weapon system concepts and mission sets.”
This being the case, the Congressional Research Service report draws inputs from the open-source reporting and says that the United States is conducting research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E DARPA) on several offensive hypersonic weapons and hypersonic technology programs, including the following:
- U.S. Navy—Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare Increment 2 (OASuW Inc 2), also known as Hypersonic Air-Launched OASuW (HALO);
- U.S. Army—Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW);
- U.S. Air Force—AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW, pronounced “arrow”);
- U.S. Air Force—Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile (HACM);
- DARPA—Tactical Boost Glide (TBG);
- DARPA—Operational Fires (OpFires); and
- DARPA—Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC, pronounced “hawk”).
It is to be reiterated that these programs are intended to produce operational prototypes, as there are currently no programs of record for hypersonic weapons.
As regards the Hypersonic Missile Defenses, though investments have been made in counter-hypersonic weapons capabilities, former Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin has stated that the United States will not have a defensive capability against hypersonic weapons until the mid-2020s, at the earliest.
In January 2020, the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) had issued a draft request for prototype proposals for a Hypersonic Defense Regional Glide Phase Weapons System interceptor intended to be fielded in the mid-2030s; however, the program was later canceled in favor of a nearer-term solution, the Glide Phase Intercept (GPI).
It is understood that MDA seeks to field a regional, sea-based GPI capability in the mid-to the late 2020s. In addition, MDA is said to be developing the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS)—which it hopes to launch in March 2023—to improve the agency’s ability to detect and track incoming missiles. It has requested $89.2 million for HBTSS in FY2023.
Against this background, how will the US Congress respond to the funding requests? The report of the Congressional Research Service says that the principal query of the Congress could be as to how it could act when there is no clarity of “mission requirements” when the DOD says that it has not yet made a decision to acquire hypersonic weapons and is instead developing prototypes to “[identify] the most viable overarching weapon system concepts to choose from and then make a decision based on success and challenges.”
Secondly, the Congress may be worried over the “strategic stability” of the hypersonic weapons – the weapon’s short time of flight—which, in turn, compresses the timeline for response—and its unpredictable flight path—which could generate uncertainty about the weapon’s intended target and therefore heighten the risk of miscalculation or unintended escalation in the event of a conflict.
This risk could be further compounded in countries that co-locate nuclear and conventional capabilities or facilities.
Some analysts argue that unintended escalation could occur as a result of warhead ambiguity or from the inability to distinguish between a conventionally armed hypersonic weapon and a nuclear-armed one.
After all, such concerns have previously led Congress to restrict funding for many weapon programs.
Thirdly, there is the issue of “Arms Control” that Congress would ponder over as hypersonic weapons programs are essentially strategic weapons.
Should the US be a part of the arms race instead of taking measures to mitigate risks by negotiating for a new START with Russia, which, at the moment, does not cover weapons that fly on a ballistic trajectory for less than 50% of their flight, as do hypersonic glide vehicles and hypersonic cruise missiles?
After all, Article V of the treaty states that “when a party believes that a new kind of strategic offensive arm is emerging, that Party shall have the right to raise the question of such a strategic offensive arm for consideration in the Bilateral Consultative Commission (BCC).”
This question is important as many American strategic analysts have even proposed negotiating a new international arms control agreement that would institute a moratorium or ban on hypersonic weapon testing, with a “highly verifiable” and “highly effective” means of preventing a potential arms race and preserving strategic stability.
All told, there is a basic question on the efficacy of hypersonic weapons or their defense when intercontinental ballistic missiles, if launched in salvos, could overwhelm everything, a power both the US and Russia have in abundance.
However, with the worsening of relations with Russia and China over the former’s invasion of Ukraine, all these questions may not be conducive to a rational debate. Congress may grant everything the Pentagon demands, particularly when the US is way behind Russia and China.
- Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of Editorial Board – EurAsian Times and has been commenting on politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. CONTACT: [email protected]
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