US Congress funds hypersonic missile after China’s WU-14 hypersonic strike vehicle test

The US Congress approved funding last week for the Pentagon’s advanced hypersonic missile program and expressed concerns over China’s recent test of an ultra high-speed strike vehicle designed to deliver nuclear warheads through U.S. missile defenses.

The House fiscal year 2015 defense authorization bill approved $70.7 million for the Army’s hypersonic missile as part of the Pentagon’s conventional prompt strike program.

The Senate, in its version of the fiscal year 2015 defense bill, also authorized $70.7 million for hypersonic weapons.

The Chinese hypersonic glide vehicle is a ballistic missile-launched system that glides and maneuvers to its target at speeds up to Mach 10, around 7,611 mph.

The current House bill funding is focused on an Army program called the Advanced Hypersonic Missile that was first tested in 2011. The Army said the missile is capable of traveling at Mach 5, or 3,600 miles per hour or greater. In the 2011 test, the missile flew 2,500 miles from Hawaii to the Kwajalein Atoll of the Marshall Islands in 30 minutes.

If the second Army missile test goes well, the Pentagon will begin studying whether the weapon can be deployed on a submarine, the House report said, recommending a third test for the missile.

Another U.S. system is the Hypersonic Technology Vehicle, a glider that failed two tests and is facing opposition from some congressional defense authorizers.

The Carnegie Endowment says it is unclear whether the WU-14, the Pentagon’s designation for China’s hypersonic glider, is simply an improved version of China’s notorious “carrier killer” — the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, which has a range of about 900 miles — or a much more ambitious design rivaling Washington’s Advanced Hypersonic Weapon.

Since the WU-14 test, American pundits have pushed the possibility that the high speed of Chinese boost-glide weapons could defeat U.S. missile defenses in East Asia, which protect both land-based military installations and aircraft carriers at sea. This fear has probably been overstated, however. Although hypersonic gliders re-enter the atmosphere at breakneck speeds, they are slowed by air resistance and are generally not as fast as ballistic missiles by the time they reach their targets. They would, therefore, probably be less effective at breaking through U.S. missile defenses around the Western Pacific than the conventional ballistic missiles that Beijing already has in droves.

While Chinese boost-glide missiles might struggle to defeat the missile defenses around compact targets, such as U.S. military bases in Asia, they could easily bypass the wide-area defenses based in Alaska and California that are designed to protect the U.S. homeland. Thus, if over the next decade or so China were to develop accurate boost-glide missiles capable of reaching the United States, key military assets — such as satellite uplinks, communication hubs, and ships in port — could become vulnerable to conventional attack for the first time. Protecting them through point defenses, burial, or redundancy might be possible, but it would also be extremely expensive.

An even bigger impact might be psychological. The United States has been exposed to Beijing’s nuclear weapons for decades, but most Americans never give these forces a passing thought. By contrast, Chinese conventional weapons could represent a much more tangible threat. If U.S. involvement in an East Asian conflict could actually cause China to begin blowing things up in, say, California, Americans might think twice about whether their country’s defense commitments in the region — to Japan and Taiwan, in particular — were worth the risks.

The Chinese hypersonic strike vehicle test, which was first reported by the Washington Free Beacon and later confirmed by the Chinese Defense Ministry, marked a major leap in Beijing’s advanced arms program. U.S. officials said the strike vehicle test involved a maneuvering weapon that traveled at up to 10 times the speed of sound.

“The committee is concerned that the People’s Republic of China and other competitor nations pose an increasing challenge to the United States’ technology edge in such emerging areas as hypersonic weapons,” the report said. “On Jan. 9, China successfully conducted the first flight test of a hypersonic glide vehicle.” It also noted that Russia is working on hypersonic weapons, but that its program is said to be less advanced.

The January hypersonic test of what the Pentagon calls China’s WU-14 strike vehicle appears to have set off a hypersonic arms race, at least for Russia and China. The Pentagon’s severe budget crisis appears to be restricting investment in hypersonic weapons technology.

A Russian arms industry official, Boris Obnosov, told reporters at an arms show in Astana, Kazakhstan on Friday that “dozens” of Russian institutes and factories are involved in building a hypersonic weapon. “Hopefully, this will happen by 2020,” Obnosov said when asked when the first hypersonic missile prototype would be built.

Obnosov warned that other states are racing to build hypersonic weapons. “If we slacken and lag behind, we will not be able to catch up later,” he said, according to the state-run Interfax news agency.

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