Can we deploy hypersonic weapons before China and Russia outgun us? It’s up to Congress
Russia allegedly deployed hypersonic weapons for the first time at tactical scale earlier this month. It dispatched the Admiral Gorshkov, one of Russia’s newest warships, to the Atlantic on a long-distance cruise, armed, according to the Russian Defense Ministry, with Zirkon cruise missiles. Meanwhile, on Dec. 9, the U.S. reached a major hypersonic milestone, conducting a successful test of the AGM-183 ARRW air-launched hypersonic missile. And in late 2021, China launched a Hypersonic Glide Vehicle that circumnavigated the globe before engaging a target.
Each hypersonic advance demonstrates the need for the U.S. to accelerate testing, production and rapid deployment of hypersonic weapons to front-line forces.
Doing so will require congressional support to “go-fast” on all hypersonic platforms and, equally relevant, a commitment for a diverse hypersonic arsenal to deter or defeat our adversaries.
Hypersonic weapons travel faster than Mach 5 — that is, five-plus times the speed of sound. Traditional cruise missiles range between Mach 0.75 (around 560 miles per hour) and Mach 3 (around 2,000 mph). By comparison, a hypersonic weapon moves at between 4,000 to over 10,000 mph. Its speed cuts down early warning time and helps counter air defenses; it can fly fast enough and, depending upon the variant, shift flight paths rapidly enough to overwhelm traditional tracking systems.
Two types of hypersonics exist. Boost-glide systems are propelled by a rocket from which they detach during flight, maneuvering to the target independently, while hypersonic cruise missiles use air-breathing propulsion and normally fly at lower altitudes.
Hypersonics are extraordinarily difficult to design. Their speed exposes them to harsh conditions, facing significant aerodynamic heating; every element must be designed and stress-tested, otherwise it will literally break apart. Hence, the various failed U.S. tests that American media publicly report undeniably occur in Russia and China, too.
However, hypersonics are extremely close to operational maturity. Russia and China both allegedly field operational systems, most notably the Kinzhal air-launched cruise missile that Russia demonstratively employed in Ukraine last year and the Chinese DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle, mounted on the DF-17 medium-range ballistic missile. Russia also has deployed its Avangard glide vehicle on a handful of ICBMs and, with its Gorshkov’s deployment, may now have a nascent hypersonic naval force. By decade’s end, China and Russia will both field hypersonic weapons at some scale — not enough to displace traditional missiles, but enough to influence the balance of forces.
US systems are in the works
American systems also are approaching maturity. The U.S. has four nascent systems spread across the Army, Navy and Air Force. The Army’s Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) and Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) missile — the systems are nearly identical technically, but the LRHW is a ground-launched weapon and CPS a ship- or submarine-launched system — have gone through multiple tests.
The Army plans on initial operational capability by the end of this fiscal year, while the Navy will deploy its system in 2025. The Navy’s HALO cruise missile, an evolution of the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile program, remains in early stages, as the service selects between three offerings, but initial deployment is expected in 2028.
The Air Force’s AGM-183C Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) ballistic missile should be deployed by late 2023; the air-launched Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile should be deployed by 2027, per Air Force commitments. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is pursuing several advanced projects, including the OpFires program and the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept, but both are more of technology demonstrators than actual programs for delivery.
On paper, then, the U.S. hypersonic ecosystem is robust and nearing operational use. And some of these programs are likely to be delivered on time. Yet closer examination reveals a lack of strategic focus.
Changing the balance of forces
Hypersonics have the potential to modify the balance of forces because of their shattering speed and maneuverability. Even a small number of hypersonics would allow China, for example, to execute a layered initial barrage against targets across the Indo-Pacific region during the first minutes of an attack on Taiwan. Moreover, hypersonic speeds allow these weapons to negate all but the most densely layered integrated air defenses, particularly when targeting fixed locations.
A modern military will require multiple “families” of hypersonics, both boost-glide and air-breather. There should be long- and short-range versions to allow for “stand-off” firing and close-range rapid response; there should be air-, ground- and sea-launched versions to deter and defeat a peer adversary. Without a hypersonic force properly distributed across all military branches, we would sacrifice substantial deterrence and combat value, since an adversary can more readily counter the specific capabilities it faces. Moreover, design differences between hypersonic platforms have a significant impact upon speed, maneuverability and range.
Notionally, U.S. hypersonic programs fit this requirement. The CPS/LRHW have a 1,700-mile range and can reach Mach 17, allowing a missile launched from a ground battery in Guam to hit targets around Taiwan in ten minutes. The Navy’s HALO and, later in the decade, the Air Force’s HACM, are shorter-range but can deploy from fighter and bomber aircraft, increasing tactical flexibility. And the ARRW, with a 620-mile range, can deploy on the Air Force’s heavy bomber fleet, giving the U.S. legitimate airborne standoff capability.
If all systems actually achieve initial operational capability by the late 2020s, and if some — likely the LRHW and ARRW, given their numerous tests and maturity — are deployed at scale by 2026-2028, the U.S. can substantively shift the Indo-Pacific balance of forces back in its favor. By the early 2030s, as more systems are deployed, American deterrence credibility will only increase.
Funding remains up in the air
However, only the LRHW currently has the funding for deployment in the near future. The HALO program remains in its platform selection stage; the HACM is still notional, despite the claimed benefits of DARPA’s hypersonic research.
Of greatest concern, the AGM-183 ARRW already has encountered delays; it did not achieve its operational deadline of late 2022 and has now pushed that back to late 2023. The Air Force worked with Congress to reallocate production dollars to Research Development Test & Evaluation (RDT&E). It is vital to fund a plan for low-rate initial production (LRIP).
ARRW, in particular, has demonstrated technical maturity following its successful testing of the first All-Up-Round — a nearly fully assembled system — on Dec. 9. Full qualification of the All-Up-Round and completion of the final flight tests is expected in September. The Air Force, meanwhile, has invested in hypersonic supply, meaning that two ARRW units could be assembled per month. Notionally, then, this could give the Air Force between 24 and 30 ARRWs by March-April 2024, just as the U.S. enters a particularly dangerous strategic period with Taiwan’s next presidential elections.
ARRW deployment this year, and its production expansion this year and next, would demonstrably influence the military balance. Air Force heavy bombers are flexible assets that Indo-Pacific command can hold beyond most Chinese missile ranges and keep on-station for near-continuous availability.
It is a matter of supreme importance that we deploy hypersonic weapons at scale — and in a variety of platforms — as rapidly as possible. Congress should encourage the Pentagon to accept testing risks and push rapid operational deployments. The ARRW, in particular, should be fully funded for procurement, not just RDT&E. More generally, Congress should ensure that hypersonics are not a casualty of misguided fiscal prudence or progressive domestic priorities.
Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of “Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy” (2013) and “Seablindness: How Political Neglect Is Choking American Seapower and What to Do About It” (2017).