Looming Hypersonic Arms Race: Unaddressed Problem
Andrei AKULOV | 18.10.2017 | SECURITY / DEFENSE

Looming Hypersonic Arms Race: Unaddressed Problem

The US programs to create hypervelocity strike systems in combination with ballistic missile defense plans are elements of strategic first strike capability, said Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Alexander Yemelyanov on October 12 during the Russian-Chinese briefing on the sidelines of the first committee of the UN General Assembly.

Prompt Global Strike (PGS) is a United States military effort to develop a system that can deliver a precision-guided conventional weapon airstrike anywhere in the world within one hour. Today, there is no such system in the US inventory but technological advancements have made the notion of gliders and air-breathing vehicles flying at Mach 5 or faster significantly viable. The effort includes the X-15 rocket plane, the Boeing X-51 scramjet, the Hypersonic open Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2) program, the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC), and the Tactical Boost Glide (TBG). In July, the US and Australia concluded secret hypersonic flight series, which involved a Mach-busting missile flying eight times the speed of sound.

According to The Drive, in May 2017, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) hired Boeing to build what will likely be a solely rocket-powered hypersonic, reusable spacecraft, known as the XS-1. The Pentagon wants to test this design as a way of rapidly putting satellites into orbit, with an eye toward other roles in the future. The US military's goal is a space plane that can fly 10 missions in as many days while carrying a 3,000 pound load.

The military is pouring money into hypersonic research but the information is too scarce to make any conclusions about how efficient the programs are. The Trump administration requested $75 million for "hypersonic defense" in its fiscal 2018 budget as part of $7.9 billion overall funding plan for missile defenses. Capable both of maneuvering and of flying faster than 5,000 km/hr, hypersonic weapons could penetrate most missile defenses and to significantly compress the timelines for response by a nation under attack.

A landmark event took place in June. The unmanned subscale hypersonic SR-72 aircraft was reportedly spotted during flight tests in July. The follow-on step would be development of a full-scale, twin-engined SR-72. Program specifics are off limits as the development is a tightly-kept secret. There are few bits of open information that need to be pieced together to give at least the general picture of what it is.

The optionally piloted flight research vehicle (FRV) test is slated for 2018. Development of the FRV is expected to begin next year and first flights could occur as soon as 2020. The aircraft will roughly have the same proportions as its predecessor - the SR-71.

The proposed reconnaissance plane is expected to hit Mach 6 (7,400 kph) thanks to advanced new hypersonic technology. The SR-72 is to use a turbine-based combined cycle (TBCC) system to use a turbine engine at low speeds and a scramjet engine at high speeds. There is a breakthrough in the air-breathing side of hypersonics is the propulsion system to make it capable of outrunning missiles. With this speed, there is no need for stealth technology. The Skunk Works team in Palmdale, California, is doubling down on our commitment to speed,” said Orlando Carvalho, executive vice president of aeronautics at Lockheed Martin, speaking at the SAE International Aerotech Congress and Exhibition. “Simply put, I believe the United States is on the verge of a hypersonics revolution,” he added.

Besides spy missions, the SR-72 will have strike capability. The SR-72 flight testing follows the planned timeline for the hypersonic High Speed Strike Weapon.

To counter the threat, Russia applies efforts not to lag behind in hypervelocity capability. China does the same. Other nations are launching such programs. About 20 countries, including France, Australia, Japan and India, are already involved in the effort. The technology can be shared and exported. Like in case of nuclear weapons, the problem of proliferation comes to the fore.

The US is exploring the way to counter the hypersonic threat. For instance, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 requires the Missile Defense Agency to “serve as executive agent for the Department of Defense for the development of a capability to counter hypersonic boost-glide vehicle capabilities and conventional prompt global strike capabilities that may be employed against the United States, the allies of the United States, and the deployed forces of the United States.” The problem is that air-breathing engine generates a very different signature from a rocket motor, meaning space-based surveillance assets might not be able to spot one as quickly or keep tracking it during flight, or even spot it at all for that matter. Super-fast flying cruise missiles or drones are extremely hard to counter as they are able to fly in more erratic ways well within the atmosphere, or even changing course in mid-flight.

The hypervelocity arms race is going on though very little attention is paid to the fact. The combination of hypersonic strike capability with a missile defense creates a temptation to deliver a first decapitating strike. An added danger is the potential marriage of hypersonic missiles with nuclear weapons. A weapon projectile flying at a hypersonic speed is too much for contemporary scanning surface- and airborne radars to track and process.

Once the technology is there, the race cannot be stopped but it can be controlled. The issue of hypersonic weapons control and non-proliferation is not included in the international agenda but it should be. As key players in the process, the United States, Russia, and China should launch discussions on the control of hypersonic technology capabilities. The existing arms control regime is gradually eroding, while new problems appear that should become a part of international security agenda but they are not. The overall deterioration of relations between the US and Russia, the US and China stands in the way of addressing burning arms control and non-proliferation issues. A looming hypersonic race is certainly one of them.