US Steps Up Hypersonic Technology Effort: Playing Catch Up Ball
Andrei AKULOV | 10.09.2018 | SECURITY / DEFENSE

US Steps Up Hypersonic Technology Effort: Playing Catch Up Ball

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is pursuing a new initiative to counter hypersonic threats, such as the Russian Kinzhal (Dagger) missile, which is able to travel 10 times faster than the speed of sound. Air Force General John Hyten, Commander of US Strategic Command, has said the United States currently has nothing to counter that threat. According to the Drive, “DARPA showed off concept art of the interceptor portion of Glide Breaker for the first time at its D60 Symposium, which honors the organization’s 60th anniversary, in September 2018.” Few details have been made public, and it’s not known whether that program is related to the Missile Defense Agency’s (MDA) own hypersonic defense project. Hard-kill, kinetic interceptors will be an element of a multi-layer system.

The US is engaged in a hypersonic race with Russia, China, and Israel. Last month the Air Force awarded Lockheed Martin a contract worth up to $480 million to begin designing a hypersonic weapon prototype designated the AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, or ARRW. In June, that company was awarded a $928 million contract for the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW).

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, “We are going to go fast and leverage the best technology available to get hypersonic capability to the warfighter as soon as possible.” Everything is being done to achieve this goal and, as events have shown, the ways to do it are not limited to merely creating defenses or hypersonic attack systems.

The US does not shy away from using spies to find out more about Russia’s programs. In July, Viktor Kudryavtsev, who was based at the Central Research Institute of Machine Building (TsNIIMash), which is affiliated with the Federal Space Agency, was detained and then imprisoned after being charged with espionage. A commission was formed to comb through activities at the institute, which focuses on the development of spacecraft. Russian media reported that Western security services had obtained information on new classified hypersonic technology being developed by Russian industry.

How successful are America’s efforts to take the lead in hypersonic technology going to be? The US is actually just beginning to get its feet wet in this area, while Russia already has hypersonic weapons in its inventory. At least ten Kinzhal-equipped MiG-31 fighters are operational. Each plane carries one missile, but the Tu-22M3 bomber’s armament suite includes four of them. The bomber-based Kinzhal will be tested soon. It’ll take the US at least 10-12 years to develop an interceptor. And naturally Russia won’t be sitting around idle. It’ll have much more sophisticated hypersonic weapons in its arsenal by that time.

The emergence of hypersonic weapons is a revolution that changes the entire concept of contemporary warfare. Their sheer speed renders any anti-aircraft systems obsolete. The Russian S-500 is the only air-defense system that can intercept targets flying at Mach 5.0- 6.0.

Last year, the new US $15 billion Ford-class aircraft carrier was commissioned with great fanfare, only to become a target for Russia’s Kinzhal hypersonic missiles that were fully operational and ready for combat just a few months after that ceremony took place. This is the arms race the US is already losing despite a defense budget exceeding $760 billion compared to Russia’s $50 billion. Russia spends less than a tenth of what the US does, yet produces weapons the US has no defense against. The Pentagon has been pursuing hypersonic technology for more than a decade, but has failed to achieve its goals.

The US is obviously losing the “cost-efficiency” competition overall. For instance, much has been written and said about the US Prompt Global Strike (PGS) concept, but it is Russia, not America, who was the first to acquire global, rapid, first-strike capability, as its hypersonic weapons can be armed with conventional warheads. Perhaps that’s what is prompting the US to take the arms race into space, as it appears to have lost its technological advantage in other domains and is lagging behind in hypersonic development. It has to play catch-up but there’s no way to know how it’s going to pan out. And added to that is its huge national debt — the heavy burden the US has to shoulder, unlike Russia or China.