The U.S. lead in the technologies of high-speed flight is in question, particularly as it pertains to military applications. Several countries around the world have been quite busy establishing their own capabilities, in many cases building directly on work gleaned from the United States. These countries have recognized the military potential of speed and see it as a promising counter to U.S. capabilities.
Their investments have been significant, their advancements notable, and their accomplishments in some cases startling. These countries have made no secret of the fact of their interest in hypersonics, nor of their intentions. They have taken advantage of data and lessons learned from the United States and have been helped by the start-stop approach to technology development (including canceling programs even after major successes) and inefficiencies in the U.S. acquisition processes. As a result, the Committee on Future Air Force Needs for Defense Against High-Speed Weapon Systems has concluded that the United States may be facing a threat from a new class of weapons that will effectively combine speed, maneuverability, and altitude in ways that could challenge this nation’s tenets of global vigilance, reach, and power.
A lifting-body hypersonic weapon, operating at high altitude but in the sensible atmosphere, could use aerodynamic forces to make its trajectory difficult to predict and even more difficult to interdict. As a result, this report highlights some of the challenges to providing a defensive capability against the combination of speed and maneuverability.
When this study began, the committee hoped to identify a class of technology, or suite of technologies, perhaps even currently in development, for employment against high-speed maneuvering threats. The committee saw many concepts and heard about many different possible approaches, but in the end it concluded that there are no “silver bullets.” Stopping a maneuvering hypersonic weapon will be difficult, which is precisely why potential adversaries may be pursuing such systems. More importantly, the committee found that while methods might be developed to defend against one or two incoming threats, traditional approaches in employing defensive measures may be less effective against multiple high-speed maneuvering weapons.
Offense and defense are two sides of the same coin; as in the days of the Cold War, the only reliable deterrent to the use of a hypersonic weapon may in fact be the threat of a corresponding hypersonic countermeasure that might hold at risk the very sites from which the adversaries’ hypersonic strike would originate. To better understand the potential operational capabilities and technical characteristics of such weapons, as well as their potential vulnerabilities, it will be important for the United States to make its own timely investments in this area. To this end, the United States’ relatively leisurely pace of disjointed hypersonics technology developments, the lack of diversity in concepts, and the absence of a clear acquisition pathway appear to stand in stark contrast to potential adversaries’ feverish pace of research and development and test and evaluation, as well as their broadly cast net of technology options.
China’s multiple tests of a hypersonic glide vehicle dubbed DF-ZF appear to be the more advanced program. The most recent test took place in April.
A Russian official announced in August that developing hypersonic missiles to defeat U.S. missile defenses is a high priority and that the first weapons could be fielded by 2020.
Russia flight-tested its experimental Yu-71 hypersonic glider in April atop a SS-19 missile.
The Pentagon currently has no well-resourced program to either developing hypersonic missiles or to counter them.
Congress has sought to prod the Missile Defense Agency into focusing more resources on hypersonic missiles.
SOURCES- NAP, US Air force, Freebeacon