U.S., Russia and China embroiled in hypersonic missile race with winner-take-all stakes

Thursday, April 21, 2016 by

(NationalSecurity.news) In terms of ballistic missile capabilities, a weapon designed to travel at hypersonic speeds would essentially become a game-changer overnight for the country that develops it first, given such a weapon’s ability to make obsolete even the most advanced ballistic missile defense systems.

And right now, the U.S., Russia and China are locked in a dead heat to see which country can build and deploy hypersonic missiles that could also carry nuclear weapons – and at a much faster pace than current conventional nuclear-armed missiles.

As reported by the Daily Mail Online, the Pentagon would like to have a hypersonic missile deployed by 2020, and one that would carry only conventional warheads. However, several experts believe that other great powers currently developing such weapons want to equip them with nuclear warheads, which would give them a distinct first-strike advantage.

Current ballistic missiles already travel at hypersonic speeds, and they are designed to carry both conventional and nuclear payloads. However, while they are capable of reaching outer space during flight, they can’t maneuver. The Pentagon’s hypersonic missiles would be smaller, guided, and designed to carry conventional explosives for time-sensitive, rapid response in military theaters of operation.

The missiles would also give warfighters the capability to launch hypersonic missiles from land, sea (including submarines) and air to strike time-critical targets at a longer range more quickly.

“Hypersonic weapons can be more survivable because of the extreme speed and high altitude. They would be hard to stop,” J.R. Smith, director of Raytheon’s Advanced Land Warfare Systems, told the <i>Daily Mail</i>.

For the Pentagon, at least, such weapons are being designed only to carry conventional payloads.

“Washington had always intended for the new ‘hypersonic boost-glide’ weapons to remain purely conventional,” wrote Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist and visiting research fellow at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy in the Huffington Post.

“But Russia and China seem to be pursuing nuclear variants,” he continued. “If the hypersonic arms race heads in a nuclear direction, Washington may be pressured to follow.”

Nuclear-tipped hypersonic missiles would become dangerous first-strike threats, given the lack of technology to track and stop them at present.

As reported by Defense One, the Defense Department is currently funding three hypersonic weapons designs. These include the Lockheed Martin Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 program, the Raytheon Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC), and the Raytheon/Lockheed Tactical Boost Glide.


The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, has awarded Raytheon $20 million to develop the technology and Lockheed $24 million. Currently, planners want to test a hypersonic design by 2020.

The Chinese, however, have already conducted about a half-dozen tests of hypersonic vehicles, as well as new anti-satellite missiles.

In March, Defense Secretary Ash Carter revealed that the U.S. was engaged in high-stakes development of a next-gen hypersonic missile.

During a speech in California Carter said that part of a nearly $72 billion package earmarked for weapons research and development will include funding for “new hypersonic missiles that can fly over five times the speed of sound.”

Just days before, the WFB noted, Air Force Maj. Gen. Thomas Masiello, head of his service’s weapons research programs, also revealed that two technology prototypes of hypersonic strike weapons – a scramjet-powered cruise missile and a hypersonic glider – could be ready to deploy in four years.

Because of their potential to start World War III, some scientists are urging that hypersonic missiles be banned.

“Hypersonic flight may sound like screaming good fun—but it’s not meant for you,” Mark Gubrud, a physicist and adjunct professor in the Peace, War, and Defense curriculum at the University of North Carolina, wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

“It’s meant for weapons that would probably be used only in the opening salvos of a nuclear war. They could also carry nuclear warheads, and could fly in under the radars that watch for ballistic missiles,” he continued. “US strategists propose that hypersonic weapons could be used for ‘conventional prompt global strike’ without the risk of being mistaken for a nuclear attack. Yet Washington alleges that China intends its hypersonics for nuclear delivery.”

See also:

Daily Mail

Defense One

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