Pentagon in Race with Russia & China to Build Hypersonic Weapons

Pentagon in Race with Russia & China to Build Hypersonic Weapons

January 23, 2020 – The next phase of a new cold war is upon us, and the national pride of the United States is at risk in this latest quest for advanced weaponry and the technology of the future. According to an article by Richard Stone of Science Magazine:

High in the sky over northwestern China, a wedge-shaped unmanned vehicle separated from a rocket. Coasting along at up to Mach 6, or six times the speed of sound, the Xingkong-2 ‘waverider’ hypersonic cruise missile (HCM) bobbed and weaved through the stratosphere, surfing on its own shock waves. At least that’s how the weapon’s developer, the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics, described the August 2018 test. (China did not release any video footage.) The HCM’s speed and maneuverability, crowed the Communist Party’s Global Times, would enable the new weapon to ‘break through any current generation anti-missile defense system.’

For decades, the U.S. military—and its adversaries—have coveted missiles that travel at hypersonic speed, generally defined as Mach 5 or greater. Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) meet that definition when they re-enter the atmosphere from space. But because they arc along a predictable ballistic path, like a bullet, they lack the element of surprise. In contrast, hypersonic weapons such as China’s waverider maneuver aerodynamically, enabling them to dodge defenses and keep an adversary guessing about the target.

Since the dawn of the Cold War, the Pentagon has periodically thrown its weight behind the development of maneuverable hypersonic weapons, only to shy away when technological hurdles such as propulsion, control, and heat resistance proved daunting. ‘You see a flurry of activity, a lot of investment, and then we conclude it’s a bridge too far,’ says aerospace engineer Mark Lewis, director of defense research and engineering for modernization at the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). ‘The community was underfunded and largely forgotten for many years,’ adds Daniel DeLaurentis, director of Purdue University’s Institute for Global Security and Defense Innovation. – Science Magazine

When it comes to upgrading weapons and defense systems, the Pentagon will not permit Russia or China to beat them to the punch. The United States prides itself on having state of the art equipment and having the most innovative brain-trust.

The article continues:

Now, DOD is leading a new charge, pouring more than $1 billion annually into hypersonic research. Competition from ambitious programs in China and Russia is a key motivator. Although hype and secrecy muddy the picture, all three nations appear to have made substantial progress in overcoming key obstacles, such as protecting hypersonic craft from savage frictional heating. Russia recently unveiled a weapon called the Kinzhal, said to reach Mach 10 under its own power, and another that is boosted by a rocket to an astonishing Mach 27. China showed off a rocket-boosted hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) of its own, the Dongfeng-17, in a recent military parade. The United States, meanwhile, is testing several hypersonic weapons. ‘It’s a race to the Moon sort of thing,’ says Iain Boyd, an aerospace engineer at the University of Colorado, Boulder. ‘National pride is at stake.’

This new arms race promises to upend strategic calculations. Russian officials have cast nuclear-armed hypersonic craft as a hedge against future U.S. prowess at shooting down ICBMs, which could undermine nuclear deterrence.

China’s military, in contrast, sees hypersonic weapons (as well as cyberwarfare and electromagnetic pulse strikes) as an ‘assassin’s mace’: a folklore term for a weapon that gives an advantage against a better-armed foe, says Larry Wortzel, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council who serves on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. If tensions were to spike over Taiwan or the South China Sea, for instance, China might be tempted to launch preemptive strikes with conventional hypersonic weapons that could cripple U.S. forces in the Pacific Ocean, Wortzel says. China’s hypersonic weapons, he warns, ‘seem deliberately targeted at upending the tenuous strategic stability that has been in place since the end of the Cold War.’

For now, maneuverability at hypersonic speeds makes the weapons nearly impossible to shoot down—’unstoppable,’ as a headline in The New York Times put it last summer. But, ‘Unstoppable today does not mean unstoppable tomorrow,’ says Shari Feth, a materials engineer at the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA). She’s at the vanguard of U.S. efforts to field countermeasures against hypersonic weapons. ‘There are technologies that could be developed that could be used for a more robust defense,’ Feth says. ‘But we have more work to do to get there.’

THE UNITED STATES has spent decades trying to get hypersonic flight right. The first vehicle to exceed Mach 5 was a two-stage rocket, dubbed Project Bumper, launched in 1949. After four failed tests, the V-2 rocket lifted off from a missile range in New Mexico, releasing a second-stage sounding rocket that attained Mach 6.7. – Science Magazine

Indeed much is at stake. Maintaining the delicate balance of power existing since the end of World War II is under constant challenge as new technology permits smaller actors to engage in modern warfare at the state level. The U.S. is basically defenseless against hypersonic missiles aimed at the homeland. Because of this, Congress is willing to pour billions of dollars into finding a solution.

This illustration depicts the Defense Advanced Research Products Agency’s (DARPA) Falcon Hypersonic Test Vehicle as it emerges from its rocket nose cone and prepares to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. DARPA has conducted two test flights of the vehicle; in the second, in 2011, the HTV reached a speed of Mach 20 before losing control. (Image courtesy of DARPA)

Recently Amanda Macias of CNBC wrote an article entitled How Hypersonic Weapons Sparked News Arms Race Between Russia, China, US that claims these technological advances in weaponry are starting a new Cold War:

In March 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin touted his nation’s budding arsenal by unveiling a slew of new hypersonic weapons.

Of the six new weapons Putin unveiled, CNBC learned that two of them, a hypersonic glide vehicle and an air-launched cruise missile, will be ready for war by 2020.

What’s more, China announced in 2018 that it had conducted the first successful testing of a hypersonic aircraft, a feat the United States has yet to accomplish.

The paces made by Russia and China have triggered a three-way arms race in developing this new breed of weapon.

The U.S. does not have a defense against hypersonic weapons, which can travel at least five times the speed of sound, or a little more than a mile per second. Combined with blistering speed, maneuverability and long-range flight, these weapons are difficult to track, target and defeat. – Amanda Macias, CNBC

Simply put, currently the United States is at a great disadvantage when it comes to these new weapons systems. This is most likely due to how the Military was hollowed out under the Obama administration with funding and personnel cuts, among other things.

However, Andrew Reddie of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has a different take. In his report entitled ‘Hypersonic Missiles: Why the New ‘Arms Race’ is Going Nowhere Fast’ that claims:

Speaking on December 24, 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin marked the deployment of Russia’s first nuclear-capable hypersonic missile system, noting, ‘Today, we have a unique situation in our new and recent history. [Other countries] are trying to catch up with us. Not a single country possesses hypersonic weapons, let alone continental-range hypersonic weapons.’

The question that is now facing policy makers in Washington, Beijing, London, and elsewhere is whether and how this deployment reshapes strategic stability.

The answer, perhaps counterintuitive amid the hand-wringing over Moscow’s announcement, is not much. In reality, the systemic consequences of hypersonic missiles will be minimal to nil, and the narrative that Washington is ‘behind’ in a hypersonic arms race fails to take into account the different strategic challenges facing China, Russia, and the United States—not least that the United States need not overcome an adversary’s missile defense systems.

Maneuverable missiles. Hypersonic missiles travel faster than Mach 5 (approximately 3,800 miles per hour) and have the ability to maneuver during flight. Existing research and design efforts associated with hypersonic weapons have focused on two types of missile technologies. The first, a boost-glide vehicle, is designed to sit on top of an existing ICBM and to be launched on a normal ballistic trajectory before being released and maneuvering to a target without any additional propulsion. Russia’s recently-deployed Avangard system serves as an example of this type of hypersonic weapon. The second type, perhaps more complex to develop and deploy, is a hypersonic cruise missile. This type of weapon involves a supersonic combustion ramjet or turboramjet engine that would provide in-flight propulsion, and this feature would allow it to travel at significantly lower altitude than its boost-glide counterpart. In both cases, though these missiles are named for their speed, it is their potential maneuverability that represents the central concern surrounding the effects of their deployment.

Hypersonics and missile defense. Just as missile defense systems represent an antidote to traditional nuclear missiles that travel on a ballistic trajectory, hypersonic weapons represent an innovation to overcome these defenses. As a result, it is difficult to discuss the strategic effects of hypersonic weapons without taking into account the current state missile defense capabilities.

Among those who frame hypersonic weapons as a strategic game-changer, there are three aspects of missile defense that are too often ignored. First, missile defense technologies remain in their infancy, with the United States the only country possessing significant numbers of deployed missile defense systems. Second, US capabilities are explicitly deployed to deter North Korea and Iran—not peer or near-peer competitors like Russia or China. As the 2019 Missile Defense Review notes, ‘Today’s US missile defenses provide significant protection against potential North Korean or Iranian ballistic missile strikes against the US homeland, and will improve as necessary to stay ahead of missile threats from rogue states.’ Finally, amid a mixed test record with debates surrounding the appropriateness of test conditions, it remains unclear whether existing US missile defense technologies are as successful as policy makers might like. …

Commentary suggesting that increased US investment in hypersonic weapons is needed to ‘match’ or ‘lead’ are also incongruous with the various offset strategies used by the United States to engage in military competition over the past six decades. For example, faced with superior Russian conventional forces in Europe in the 1950s, Eisenhower armed a much smaller US ground force with battlefield nuclear weapons—using a technological solution to asymmetrically compensate for a strategic disadvantage. More recently, the third offset strategy sought to ‘include autonomous learning systems for handling big data and determining patterns, human-machine collaboration for more timely relevant decision making, and assisted human operations’—and using these technological capabilities as a force multiplier. In both cases, military planners did not seek to match an adversary capability for capability. Instead, they sought a policy solution that addressed the underlying strategic threat. These offset strategies offer benefits both in terms of flexibility and reducing the resource cost of strategic competition, and it is unclear why this logic would be abandoned in the context of hypersonic missile threats.

Hypersonic risks. So, should we be concerned about hypersonic weapons?

In terms of both systemic consequences and the US position on the proverbial hypersonic leaderboard, the answer is no.

There are, however, real—if largely ignored—concerns that hypersonic weapons deployed in regional contexts (to assure allies, for example) may increase the risks of inadvertent escalation. The development and deployment of conventional hypersonic missile systems may also lead to a failure among parties in a conflict to discriminate between conventional and nuclear attacks. – Andrew Reddie, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Reddie makes a very good point here: this is nothing new when it comes to the behavior of the U.S. Military. The same can be said for Russia and China. The development of new and advanced weapons systems does not automatically mean there is a new Cold War going on. This appears to be the status quo for the Military Industrial Complex, although we should always be vigilant as regards the permanent arms industry.

Another perspective is presented by David Axe of The Daily Beast. How the U.S. Is Quietly Winning the Hypersonic Arms Race contends that the U.S. has already won this new so-called Cold War.

The United States, Russia, and China all tested new super-fast ‘hypersonic’ munitions in 2018, escalating a global competition for weaponry that can strike farther and harder than ever before and potentially defeat existing defenses.

The Russian and Chinese hypersonics tests were the most dramatic. But the much quieter American trial pointed toward a much more immediate and widespread transformation of military capabilities than the Russians or Chinese are likely to achieve.

The world’s armies have long eyed faster munitions, especially faster munitions that also are maneuverable. Swifter, nimbler rockets could strike with less warning and evade missile-defense systems. Speedier, more streamlined artillery shells could travel farther and impact with greater destructive force.

Most experts agree: If a weapon can travel at least five times the speed of sound, it’s hypersonic—although some say the munition must be maneuverable, too, to be effective. …

Avangard is a hypersonic glide vehicle. It boosts into the upper atmosphere atop a rocket then detaches and glides toward its target, performing small maneuvers en route. The Kremlin announced it would fit Avangard with an atomic warhead and, starting in 2019, deploy it alongside old-style intercontinental ballistic missiles.

But as a delivery system for nuclear warheads, Avangard doesn’t actually enhance Russia’s military arsenal. That’s because Russia’s ICBMs already possess the range to strike targets all over the world and the speed to evade all but the luckiest shot by American missile defenses.

Indeed, ICBMs in the terminal phase of their flight already are hypersonic. Avangard flies lower in the atmosphere than an ICBM does and might be faster than an ICBM is in early phases of flight. The practical differences end there. …

America’s own nukes deter Russia from using its nukes, and vice versa. Labeling a new weapon ‘hypersonic’ doesn’t alter that balance of power.

For that reason, the nuclear-armed Avangard mostly is for show. It looks fearsome and sounds cool. ‘There is a lot of political theater there,’ Podvig said. …

It’s China, not Russia, that’s making what seem the biggest strides toward fielding a non-nuclear hypersonic weapon. But even China’s new weapon is less fearsome than it might appear to be. Ironically, its own sophistication holds it back.

Around the same time Putin announced the results of the Avangard test, a photo appeared online that showed a Chinese warship sailing the open ocean while armed with an electromagnetic railgun that could be capable of firing shells at hypersonic velocity.

A railgun propels its projectiles by way of magnetic force, as opposed to explosive-powder charges that conventional guns use. – The Daily Beast

Axe correctly points out here that so much of what we see in the civilian world is political theater designed to confuse the enemy population or try to convince adversaries that they are farther along the road to completing the next weapon of the future than they actually are. China is notorious for these kinds of theatrical displays. The article continues:

Pentagon officials in early January leaked news of the U.S. Navy’s own hypersonics test, this one involving a Navy warship firing hypersonic shells during a summer 2018 war game near Hawaii. The Pentagon’s secretive Strategic Capabilities Office helped to oversee the trial.

In the test, the destroyer USS Dewey fired 20 of the hypervelocity projectiles from its standard, five-inch-diameter gunpowder cannon, officials told the website of the U.S. Naval Institute.

The new projectile is more aerodynamic than old-style shells and features tiny fins and a radar guidance system that helps it to hone in on a target at speeds as fast as seven times the speed of sound. That’s roughly three times the velocity a normal naval shell can achieve.

Far-flying and accurate, the shells in theory can target ships, ground targets, aircraft and even incoming missiles.

At first glance, the American test might appear to be the least remarkable of the three countries’ 2018 hypersonics trials. It didn’t involve a new gun or missile, just a new, super-aerodynamic shell. The shell is non-nuclear. The Pentagon didn’t formally announce the test or circulate any photos.

But the U.S. test arguably is the most likely to result in the widespread deployment of a truly transformational new weapon. And it underlines the Pentagon’s advantage over the Russian and Chinese militaries in the hypersonics race.

While Russia, China and the United States all are developing a wide array of new hypersonic weapons, it’s telling which systems each country has prioritized.

Russia has focused on seemingly impressive but marginally useful hypersonic weapons that make for good PR but don’t actually shift the balance of power. China for its part has chosen to tinker with very advanced high technology that might prove impractical. America meanwhile has focused on less sophisticated weapons it’s reasonably certain it can deploy quickly and widely, while deferring development of more ambitious munitions designs until the technology is more mature.

‘Experts often argue the United States is behind in this technology because Russia and China appear to be testing more frequently,’ Acton wrote in an explainer on the Carnegie Endowment website. ‘This is true, but in many ways, the United States is running a different race from Russia and China.’

Usefulness and scalability are the American weapon’s major advantages over the Russian and Chinese weapons. In opting to develop a unique, electromagnetic cannon to fire super-fast projectiles, China has limited how fast it can deploy its new hypersonic weapon. – The Daily Beast 

I have to agree with Axe that while Russia and China make great strides in the advancement of their respective weapons systems, the U.S. has focused more practically on developing hypersonic ordnance for existing guns that can be quickly and reliably deployed.


Clearly nuclear weapons are the focus of this year’s presidential campaign. The current geopolitical trends have people concerned for the future. The recent pull-out from the prior non-proliferation agreement has the media up in arms. However, those agreements only work as long as each party is willing to uphold their commitment. We have seen that if they think they can get away with it, they are willing to violate it. I believe a little healthy competition can be a good thing and we know all these countries do collaborate on some of these things. Whether or not this is cause for serious concern, I will leave up to you, the reader, to decide.

This story is still developing, please check back for updates. 

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