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The US is lacking significant progress in terms of hypersonic technology, Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff admitted on January 17th.
According to him, the US has failed in the domain of hypersonic arms research and development and it would take years for the US to potentially regain its leading position.
“We are now locked in a serious competition with other nations in the hypersonic arms sphere. We used to be in the forefront ten years ago. We used to have two programmes, two prototypes…They did not work very efficiently. What did we do after we had failed? We had been studying the reasons for these failures for years before cancelling these projects”, Hyden stated.
He called on the parties involved to accelerate the revival of development efforts and to test space capabilities in orbit rather than sitting idly by and “studying the heck” out of them.
Since the end of the Cold War, the US has several times thrown a lot of investment into hypersonic technology, and then given up.
“You see a flurry of activity, a lot of investment, and then we conclude it’s a bridge too far,” said aerospace engineer Mark Lewis, director of defense research and engineering for modernization at the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).
Since 2018, the Pentagon is trying to kickstart development and research into the field. This is through funding $1 billion each year into hypersonic research. The United States is reportedly testing several hypersonic weapons. “It’s a race to the Moon sort of thing,” says Iain Boyd, an aerospace engineer at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “National pride is at stake.”
Except, that Russia has already gone to the moon, landed, and then come back and is now planning a trip to Mars, to continue the metaphor. Since, the US has already fielded the Kinzhal hypersonic missile, successfully tested the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle and them fully entering combat duty isn’t too far into the future.
The rising military stakes have prompted the Pentagon to consider classifying some basic hypersonic research. DOD “is very concerned about educating our enemies,” Jonathan Poggie, an aerospace engineer at Purdue said.
“They are in the middle of trying to draw these red lines,” Iain Boyd, an aerospace engineer at the University of Colorado, said. But, “If we overclassify,” he warned, “there are a number of domino effects. You’d be stifling innovation. Inevitably, that means fewer new ideas.”
On top of having no hypersonic weapons of its own, the US also lacks the capability of defending against them. US military satellites are vigilant for flashes that reveal launches of ICBMs and cruise missiles. But they would probably lose track of even a rocket-boosted hypersonic weapon soon after it detaches from its booster.
To avoid “shooting blindly … you need to continue to track it when it starts doing these maneuvers in the atmosphere,” said Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
To remedy that shortcoming, the Pentagon plans to launch hundreds of small satellites with sensors capable of tracking heat sources an order of magnitude cooler than rocket boosters.
“By proliferating them, you make it impossible to take them all out,” Karako said. The full Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor network could be up and running by 2030, according to the expert.
According to open-source reporting, the United States has a number of major offensive hypersonic weapons and hypersonic technology programs in development, including the following
- S. Navy—Intermediate Range Conventional Prompt Strike Weapon (IR CPS);
- S. Army—Land-Based Hypersonic Missile (also known as the Long Range Hypersonic Weapon);
- S. Air Force—Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW, pronounced “hacksaw”);
- S. Air Force—AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW, pronounced “arrow”);
- DARPA—Tactical Boost Glide (TBG);
- DARPA—Advanced Full-Range Engine (AFRE);
- DARPA—Operational Fires (OpFires); and
- DARPA—Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC, pronounced “hawk”).
These programs are intended to produce operational prototypes, as there are currently no programs of record for hypersonic weapons.21Accordingly, funding for U.S. hypersonic weapons programs is found in the Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation accounts, rather than in Procurement.
They received the following funding for Fiscal Year 2019 and 2020:
As it can be seen, most of these are at the very early stage, with no prototypes fielded, excluding the ARRW, which passed its first tests in mid-2019.
Currently, it is considered that the US’ best chance at parity in terms of hypersonic technology isn’t so much catching up to Russia and China, but rather establishing some sort of arms control treaties that would limited development in one way or another.
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