Playing Catch Up: How the U.S. Plans to Counter Hypersonic Missiles
The Hypersonic Missiles Arms Race has profound implications for the global strategic environment and existing deterrence frameworks. The U.S. and its NATO allies are developing a range of countermeasures in response, enabling them to detect, deter and defeat this emerging missile threat.
After years of development, Russia successfully tested its Avangard Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV) in January, with reports suggesting that it will achieve initial operating capability by 2020. Russia is also expected to be the first country to field hypersonic cruise missiles on its submarines, with tests on the Zircon type missile expected to take place next year.
China, too, has already announced the successful test of its hypersonic DF-17 missile, which is capable of delivering both nuclear and conventional payloads, and this will also be operational by 2020.
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Both of these developments take place against a backdrop of fraying international arms control agreements between nuclear powers, notably the dismantling of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) this year.
Countering Hypersonic Missiles
The rapid development of hypersonic technology and the resultant strategic threat against the United States and its allies has the Department of Defense ‘playing catch up’ and investing in countermeasures designed to restore parity. One such programme led by DARPA is glide breaker, a counter-hypersonic capability reported to be ready for testing in 2020. The technology would enable the U.S. to intercept HGVs, forming a perfect ‘defence by denial’ deterrent.
Against the threat of multiple targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) that could make interception countermeasures less effective, however, the U.S. is also working on Mulitple Object Kill Vehicles as a possible defence against MIRVs and multiple re-entry vehicle (MRVs) respectively.
The U.S. has also considered the option of an extended range Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD)-ER system as well as exo-atmospheric interceptors to counter HGVs. Space based sensors would be capable to track, discriminate and target HGVs more efficiently, providing interceptors with greater time and scope to intercept HGVs. Space-based interceptors will also be conducive against HGVs.
The conventional prompt global strike capability (CPGS) would also enable the U.S. to reach any target in the world in less than sixty minutes. This offensive strike capability could target missile launchers that carry HGV equipped ballistic missiles and destroy them even before they take their flight. This ‘left of launch’ option has gained greater traction in missile defence policy in recent years: “Left of launch is something we need to continue to pursue and develop, because we need to have a balance,” stated Lt. Gen. Jim Dickinson, Chief of Army Space & Missile Defense Command and Army Forces Strategic Command last year. Adversaries will, however, utilise dummy launchers and silos to deceive and disrupt offensive attacks.
Global Strike Command have also discussed innovations in the B-1B’s weapons carrying capability, including the potential for adding hypersonic missiles to its load.
HGVs launched from submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) are further difficult to detect and destroy. The U.S. Navy is working with DARPA on a blend of conventional missile deterrence and conventional disruption operations as potential options to quash the use of hypersonic missiles.
Finally, the U.S. is stepping up its own HGV programmes to strengthen deterrence: in the second quarter of FY2019 alone, Lockheed Martin reported hypersonic contracts from the U.S. military amounted to more than $3.5 billion, whilst Raytheon and Northrop Grumman have teamed up on the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept, a DARPA-USAF project underway.