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Our missile defense systems are no match for hypersonic weapons

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A Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies paper makes a complete and compelling case for why the United States should aggressively pursue hypersonic weapons, systems that travel faster than five or six times the speed of sound.

Hypersonics, the authors conclude, would afford the U.S. with unprecedented rapid reach, global target access, a “fourth dimension effect” by effectively shrinking a foe’s decision-making window and a complete rendering of existing air defenses to be obsolete. 

{mosads}What may not be obvious to U.S. policymakers is the corollary: Hypersonic weapons can provide these very same advantages to our adversaries. In fact, given the state of hypersonic weapons development in Russia and China, they already do. 

Russian and Chinese research, test and development of hypersonic weapons have far outpaced that of the United States. A Russian hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), known as the Avangard, completed a successful flight test in December in which the weapon purportedly reached 27 times the speed of sound. The Russians also claim this system is now in production and ready to be fielded. 

The Chinese have been even more aggressive in their pursuit of hypersonic weapons. According to Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Dr. Mike Griffin, China has conducted “more tests in the past year than the United States has conducted over the past decade,” and it has achieved an initial operating capability with these weapons. 

The United States, on the other hand, currently has no such capability. The stark reality is that our current missile defense systems, as well as our operational mindset, are simply incapable versus this threat.  

What many in Congress may not understand is that HGVs are specifically designed to exploit gaps and seams within our current missile defense structure.

The Missile Defense Agency’s (MDA) array of satellite sensors, sea-borne and terrestrial radars, and ground-based interceptors are designed against a singular threat — an incoming ballistic missile launched from North Korea or perhaps Iran. 

While a ballistic flight path is relatively predictable, an HGV flies a completely unpredictable path, with the energy to aggressively maneuver throughout flight. This renders point-defense systems, such as Patriot and THAAD, ineffective. 

Finally, hypersonics travel at such high velocities that when combined with their lower flight altitude, they compress the radar detection range and reaction times to the point that none of our current systems have a realistic chance of successful intercept.

Unlike our current air and missile defense philosophy with the U.S. Joint Force, an effective defense against HGVs must, from the outset, be capable across the entire globe. 

Potential hypersonic targets include not just decapitation opportunities within the U.S. but also our Carrier Strike Groups at sea and remote operating locations around the world, such as Guam or Kadena Air Base on Okinawa. 

Countering this threat will require U.S. investment in an extensive defensive architecture that provides diversified, redundant, globally persistent space layers to detect an initial HGV launch, track it from launch to hypersonic flight and then through its profile, until cueing-capable “destroy” systems can defeat it. 

These systems may include an actual kinetic interceptor, a directed energy weapon, other non-kinetic means or optimally, a combination of each.

Across and through this enterprise must be robust, secure, very high speed and very high-quality data transfer capabilities that immediately share with all nodes and components everything that is known and learned about the HGV, from detection to destruction. 

All of the above speaks to a highly robust “family of systems” that nonetheless must be envisioned, designed, developed and deployed in a completely holistic manner. It must provide a continuum of capabilities across the entire problem set that allows for no single points of failure.  

The key will be Congress committing to fully fund such a necessary enterprise and resisting the urge to hastily adapt existing assets for hypersonics defense.

While such a proposition may sound politically appealing, “tweaks” will essentially amount to building full new interceptor. We owe it to the American taxpayer and warfighter to get new capabilities right from the start and avoid costly and myopic “quick fixes.” 

To some, this might indicate that a single company be identified to accomplish the task. In fact, just the opposite is true. To address this hypersonic threat the U.S. must move away from winner-take-all contracting and create “an ecosystem that has sustained competition,” an approach specifically promoted last month by then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan.  

{mossecondads}One solution is a heretofore unachieved collaboration between industry and the Department of Defense, creating a consortium singularly focused on the HGV defense challenge, committed to open mission system architecture design providing for configuration control and interoperability within the resultant “family of systems.”

The depth and breadth and variety of technical and engineering challenges ahead are significant but need not be daunting.

Multiple satellite constellations requiring different sensor capabilities and occupying different orbits, global communications and data transfer and a new set of kinetic and non-kinetic kill mechanisms, all point to skill sets available across this envisioned “new industrial base.” 

Yet to be addressed is the leadership of this HGV defense consortium. What is clear is that this is too important to be an “additional duty” for MDA. DoD should, therefore, work with industry partners and the defense laboratories to create an empowered and agile consortium “board of directors,” responsible directly to Griffin or the secretary, to direct the effort. 

China and Russia have assured us that relying on Band-Aid solutions and doing missile defense the way we’ve always done it — in a piecemeal and/or siloed fashion — is no longer acceptable.

Retired Maj. Gen. Howard “Dallas” Thompson is a former chief of staff for NORAD/NORTHCOM and a former Air Force fighter pilot.

Tags Aerodynamics Aerospace engineering Aircraft Airspeed Aviation Hypersonic flight Hypersonic speed Missile defense Missile Defense Agency outer space Terminal High Altitude Area Defense

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