Understanding Hypersonics in an Era of Great Power Competition

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Hypersonic Weapon

Hypersonics are game-changing due to their ability to impact decision making and mitigate adversaries’ capability advantages. To borrow a phrase, speed kills. At their core, hypersonic weapons are high-speed weapons which allow for a combination of greater maneuverability, range, survivability, and faster response. These weapons can carry conventional or, in some cases, nuclear warheads.

Further, they cut reaction time and enable unpredictable decapitation strikes. These weapons can, as they mature, render even current state-of-the-art defense systems largely ineffective. Hypersonics could shift the global balance of power and the existing capability gap between the West and emerging, near-peer competitors, as well as potential emerging powers.

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The new and forthcoming generation of hypersonic weapons drastically will shorten decision and reaction-times at both tactical and strategic levels. Compared to traditional intercontinental ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, hypersonics combine speed exceeding that of intercontinental ballistic missiles, along with the high-end maneuverability of a cruise missile and additional deception capabilities. If used by adversaries, these two factors can mitigate America’s capability advantage in areas such as its blue-water navy, overseas bases, and associated power projection.

“We don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us.” Gen. John Hyten, Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Commander of U.S. Strategic Command.

Speed Kills - Next-generation hypersonics do not need to travel a straight line to their targets, thus they are harder to defeat once airborne They also open the possibility of decapitation strikes as their trajectory--unlike ballistic trajectories--cannot be predicted.  Further, it is difficult to determine who fired them, which also makes it challenging to deter or retaliate to a hypersonic attack. This increases the risk of miscalculation and unintended escalation.

“Our adversaries have taken advantage of what I have referred to as a holiday for the United States.” – Mike Griffin, Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering

Shifting the Balance - Traditional anti-missile and other air defense measures are of limited effectiveness against these same next generation hypersonics. For the U.S., the past two decades of counterinsurgency, counterterrorism operations, and fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq resulted in a lack of focus on the development of hypersonics limiting efforts to develop anti-hypersonic assets. It also allowed other nations to close the hypersonic capability gap, and in the cases of Russia and China, take the lead. In a vacuum, assets such as critical infrastructure, major military bases, and capital ships are potentially vulnerable to the threat of hypersonics. Given their range, hypersonics might shrink previous capability gaps between the U.S. and its adversaries in theaters from the Pacific to the Persian Gulf.

Global Efforts and Opportunity

Although the U.S. trails Russia and China in hypersonics, overall the three countries are the global leaders in research and development, followed closely by India who notably has a joint-venture on a hypersonic weapon with Russia. Beyond these four nations, several U.S. allies are individually, or in cooperation with one another, pursuing hypersonic weapons and/or anti-hypersonic capabilities, including Australia, France, Germany, Israel, and the United Kingdom. All still lag behind the United States, Russia, and China significantly.

Global Hypersonics Footprint

In the U.S., the broader hypersonics market is largely concentrated on offensive weapons and, more nascently, countermeasures. Annual unclassified defense spending on hypersonics is already over $2.6B annually – including $157.4M for hypersonic defense programs (FY2020). Unclassified spend is expected to grow to $5B by 2025. Further, the international hypersonic market is predicted to grow at a CAGR of 7.23% between 2018-2022. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) itself, is currently focused on building an offensive arsenal to act as a deterrent until a robust hypersonic defense strategy can be advanced and implemented.

All three countries are working on both HCMs and HGVs, but Russia and China have pursued a different approach in fielding these. First, both countries are focused on rapid sprints to hypersonic weapons, while the U.S. is working to create a complimentary family of hypersonic weapons and countermeasures. Second, Russia and China are focusing significantly on nuclear-capable hypersonic weapons, with the U.S. concentrating on conventional weapons. Third, Russia and China have been devoting greater resources towards hypersonics, while the U.S. and its allies have prosecuted the Global War on Terror. The result is that the U.S. is behind in fielding hypersonics, with the U.S. expecting the first iteration of these next generation hypersonic weapons to be readied by 2022.

Conversely, Russia has already fielded multiple HCMs, and has an HGV which is expected to be ready in 2019. China is not far behind, having successfully tested its new HCM and HGV multiple times, with both expected to be deployable in 2020. To address this, DoD is increasing spending on hypersonics, with DARPA and each of the individual services pursuing hypersonic and anti-hypersonic programs and activities, with over twelve separate programs currently in progress.

The Holistic Hypersonic Approach

Unifying hypersonic strategies and programs across the U.S. DoD and the services, requires a two-pronged approach that establishes common terminology and develops a unified strategy to create the right ecosystem.

First, to enhance the dialogue on these issues, DoD, Congress, and industry (both traditional aerospace and emerging technology companies) need to agree on a common language. Often the discussion of hypersonics descends rapidly into jargon. This obscures key issues and complicates even basic discussions. One way to address this is through the Defense Innovation Board (DIB), either by standing up a new subcommittee or using the existing DIB Science & Technology subcommittee bolstered by defense hypersonics subject-matter experts.  Then government can focus on honing a clear, holistic hypersonic strategy.

Second, building on this platform, DoD should form a cross-functional team to assess, aggregate, and articulate the hypersonic and anti-hypersonic capability requirements to support U.S. military strategy. With over a dozen hypersonics programs and initiatives across DoD and the services, aligning around a common, agreed upon end-state is crucial for success. Instead of pursuing multiple disconnected lines of effort – some related to capability assessment, some to product development, etc. – this team would deliver an integrated set of requirements to best posture the industrial base to achieve the desired end state.

Further, emerging best practices in manufacturing from non-traditional defense companies and technology startups – reached via the DIB’s network and access – is a key building block towards this success. This is critical to close the current capability gap with Russia and China, as well as keep up with the pace of technology evolution. The creation of a resilient ecosystem incorporating DoD, traditional aerospace companies, the DIB, and non-traditional defense companies should be the goal. 

Overall, hypersonics have the potential to transform warfare and alter the global balance of power. The shift from the Global War on Terror to Great Power Competition requires a fundamentally shift in thinking, priorities, and government focus. A holistic, collaborative approach, such as the above, is necessary for the U.S. to seize the advantage.

Establishing a clear baseline of understanding across these disparate groups is necessary to widen engagement, ensure greater support, and improve return on investment. This includes both hypersonic weapons and anti-hypersonic assets to regain a technical advantage over adversary state actors. Without these capabilities, the threat to the U.S., its allies, and the interests of the West will continue to grow.