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Good defense is the best offense with hypersonic missiles

The Pentagon, Capitol Hill and the White House are worried about the threat posed by hypersonic missiles and how to defend our warfighters and the homeland.

Both the Defense Department and Congress know that in war games, often sponsored by the Pentagon, the United States has always lost when fighting against China and Russia.

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While hypersonic missiles are a major reason why, the defense budget before Congress fails to reflect a plan to defend against them either at home or abroad.  

In fact, Mike Griffin, the Pentagon’s undersecretary of research and engineering, said on March 20: “If war breaks out tomorrow, we’re probably not going to kill hypersonic boost glide missiles.”

Mike White, Pentagon assistant director for hypersonics, added that “we are stepping out first on the offensive side.” In other words, we build our hypersonic missiles first, and build our defense to defeat enemy missiles second.

That strategy is reflected in the fiscal year 2020 (FY20) budget of $2.6 billion sent to Congress by the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) almost entirely for offensive hypersonic weapons development, while only allocating $157.4 million for hypersonic missile defensive capabilities. 

Worse, defensive funding drops to $142.3 million in FY21, $116.9 million in FY22, $119.7 million in FY23 and $122.0 million in FY24. This is only loose change in the couch cushions compared to the investment needed to fund the hypersonic defense initiative advocated by Pentagon leadership and national security experts, alike.

A year ago, at the annual Association of the U.S. Army missile defense conference, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, head of the U.S. Strategic Command, said time and technology were available to build a system of satellites to track ballistic missiles and hypersonic missiles from launch to mid-course flight and to the terminal phase.

Gen. Hyten should know. As an Air Force captain, he worked on President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and has been immersed in space-based missile defense technology for decades.

He also testified last month before the Senate Armed Services Committee and reiterated his call for space-based sensors to defend against ballistic and hypersonic missiles.

In view of Gen. Hyten’s testimony and that of others, the large differential in the budget between building a hypersonic missile defense and simply developing our own hypersonic missiles is perplexing.

Analyzing the MDA’s and the Space Development Agency’s budget, Tom Karako, missile defense expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was surprised the satellite sensor system, identified by Griffin as key to hypersonic missile defense, will get only $15 million in FY20 to create “a prototype proliferated Low Earth Orbit (pLEO) communications and data transport layer.”

Karako said: “That’s just enough to build some paper satellites. That’s not prioritizing the space sensor layer as it needs to be — that’s kicking the can."

Karako highlights the debate between those believing a credible hypersonic missile defense system is a primary need and those simply believing building hypersonic missiles is a better strategy.

This rift was evident weeks and months before the budget was released and was highlighted when Roger Zakheim, Washington director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, declared at a recent Hudson Institute event, “the best defense is a good offense here.”

While the trade media ran with this provocative soundbite, it does little to capture the true complexity of the current conundrum for U.S. policymakers and our military.

That idea is based on the notion that an arsenal of U.S. hypersonic missiles will somehow deter Russia and China from using theirs or cause them to construct an expensive missile defense system beyond the capability of their technology and economy.

This is “cost imposition strategy,” precisely what President Reagan used against the Soviets. However, his strategy was not based on building more missiles but on SDI — the “Star Wars” space-based defense system.

Moscow had neither technology nor money to match it, pressuring Gorbachev to sign the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. That was the correct application of “cost imposition strategy” since building more ICBMs would have been ineffective.

Gen. Hyten has testified that the United States has the technology and time to build a space-based sensor system and, since Russia and China are unable yet to deploy operational hypersonic missiles for at least a year or two, it seems factors other than cost imposition — usually political and economic in nature — are influencing the budget. 

Political factors include Chinese and Russian reaction to an American space-based missile defense system. As President TrumpDonald John TrumpNearly 300 former national security officials sign Biden endorsement letter DC correspondent on the death of Michael Reinoehl: 'The folks I know in law enforcement are extremely angry about it' Late night hosts targeted Trump over Biden 97 percent of the time in September: study MORE conducts trade negotiations with China, announcing a system to defeat Chinese strategic and hypersonic missiles might complicate those talks.

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With respect to economic factors, it is cheaper and quicker to build hypersonic missiles, depending on the number manufactured, than to build a defense. Nevertheless, a good defense will allow a good offense to be effective — not the other way around.

A comprehensive defense architecture that tracks a hypersonic missile from launch to terminal phase and then defeats it with a combination of kinetic and directed energy weapons is the defense that is needed.

Now is the time for the leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, as well as the House and Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, to ensure the Pentagon commits proper funding to rapidly build an effective defense against hypersonic missiles, here and abroad.

America must not risk losing the next war game. The hypersonic missiles might be very real.

Lt. Col. James Zumwalt is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam War, the 1989 intervention into Panama and Desert Storm. He currently heads a security consulting firm named after his father: Admiral Zumwalt & Consultants, Inc.