The U.S. military is pouring resources into the superfast weapons but has struggled to develop them. China and Russia are far ahead.
The weapon Beijing launched over the South China Sea traveled at speeds of more than 15,000 miles an hour as it circled the globe.
Flying at least 20 times the speed of sound, it could reach anywhere on earth in less than an hour.
The summer 2021 test flight ended with the missile striking near a target in China, but it sent shock waves through Washington. National security officials concluded Beijing had launched a hypersonic weapon—a projectile capable of traveling at least five times the speed of sound.
The weapons can attack with extreme speed, be launched from great distances and evade most air defenses. They can carry conventional explosives or nuclear warheads. China and Russia have them ready to use. The U.S. doesn’t.
For more than 60 years, the U.S. has invested billions of dollars in dozens of programs to develop its own version of the technology. Those efforts have either ended in failure or been canceled before having a chance to succeed.
Washington, having spent recent decades focusing on fights with terrorists and insurgencies, is once again pouring resources into hypersonics. The Pentagon’s 2023 budget includes more than $5 billion for the weapons. The U.S. is also tapping the private sector—including Silicon Valley venture capitalists—to help develop them to a degree rarely attempted in the past.
A display of military vehicles carrying a DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile and a DF-17 hypersonic missile at an exhibition in Beijing in October. PHOTO: FLORENCE LO/REUTERS
The spending is part of America’s struggle to re-establish dominance in key military technologies as it enters a new era of great-power competition. The U.S. is straining to keep up with China in an array of military technologies, ranging from artificial intelligence to biotechnology.
Moscow’s work on hypersonics is also a concern for the Pentagon, even if Russia’s weapons are mostly based on Cold War research and not as sophisticated as those China is now developing. Moscow has developed weapons that can threaten NATO forces in Europe, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has touted Avangard, a hypersonic weapon that can reach the U.S.
The Pentagon’s problems with developing hypersonics run up and down the decision chain, from failed flight tests and inadequate testing infrastructure to the lack of a clear, overarching plan for fielding the weapons. The situation is raising alarms among some former officials.
“My concern about the lack of progress on hypersonics is only increasing,” said John Hyten, who was vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Chinese test flight. Now retired, Hyten said: “We need to move faster in multiple directions.” S. defense at risk
Hypersonics, in the hands of powers such as China or Russia, have the potential to alter the strategic balance that has long undergirded U.S. defense policy. While the U.S. military may still be the most powerful in the world, hypersonic missiles could help an adversary challenge that superiority by evading U.S. early warning systems designed to detect attacks on North America, or striking U.S. naval assets, including aircraft carriers, as well as key bases abroad.
Even the most advanced U.S. warship in the South China Sea could be defenseless against a hypersonic attack.
Ballistic missiles can travel at hypersonic speeds, but they follow a predictable flight path, making them easier to intercept before hitting a target. Cruise missiles, like the U.S. Tomahawk, can maneuver, but most travel more slowly, under the speed of sound.
Hypersonic missiles combine speed with the ability to fly at low altitude and maneuver in flight, making them more difficult to spot by radar or satellite. That makes them almost impossible to intercept with current systems.
In a battle in the South China Sea, Beijing could use hypersonic missiles to more than double its reach, leaving U.S. ships in the region nearly defenseless, and even strike Guam, home to thousands of U.S. troops and key military installations.
The U.S. has begun investing in missile defense systems that are designed to take out hypersonic missiles, including a new effort that will be developed jointly with Japan. Such systems are still nascent, however, and aren’t expected to enter service for at least another 10 years.
Over the past decade, China has conducted hundreds of flight tests of this new generation of weapons. Beijing already has hypersonic weapons ready to deploy in its arsenal, as does Moscow, which has used them against Ukraine.
Pentagon and intelligence officials haven’t released estimates of how many they think China and Russia have. The U.S., which has conducted just a fraction of the number of China’s flight tests, has yet to deploy any actual hypersonic missiles.
American engineers were for years at the forefront of research on hypersonics, working on missiles and aircraft.
Research in the field dates back to the late 1950s, when the U.S. military flew the X-15, a manned hypersonic test aircraft. The program, though successful, was canceled in 1968 as the U.S. got involved in the Vietnam War. Hypersonic aircraft didn’t seem relevant to fighting insurgents in the jungle.
President Ronald Reagan reignited interest in hypersonics in the 1980s when he announced plans for a hypersonic aircraft that could fly from Washington to Tokyo in two hours. The U.S. spent at least $1.7 billion on developing a prototype of the aircraft, which never flew and was canceled after the end of the Cold War.
No country today flies a manned hypersonic aircraft. U.S. and other militaries operate supersonic jets, meaning they can fly greater than the speed of sound, or Mach 1, but none can reach Mach 5.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. attention was diverted to a different type of warfare. For the next two decades, Washington funded technologies such as armed drones, bomb detection and sensors that could track terrorists and insurgents. Though some argued the usefulness of a superfast missile in striking a terrorist leader, others said hypersonic weapons offered little advantage in these fights.
“Our nation has chosen not to create an operational capability, and a lot of people ask why,” said L. Neil Thurgood, a retired lieutenant general who previously headed the Army’s hypersonics work. “One of the reasons is for the last 20 years, we’ve been spending our national treasure of blood and resources on the global war on terror.”
China, meanwhile, accelerated its efforts to develop hypersonic weapons with frequent flight tests, and Russia, which had long invested in the field, also moved ahead. Beijing often used American research on hypersonics—published openly in scientific journals—that the U.S. government funded for decades. Among other things, American researchers published on computational fluid dynamics, which helps model hypersonic flight, only to see China develop codes that clearly used those developed in the U.S.
Liu Pengyu, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said the U.S. had preceded Beijing in hypersonics work and accused Washington of spreading hypersonic technology. “We will never be engaged in an arms race with any country,” he wrote in a statement.
In the meantime, Russia, which also followed American developments closely, restarted work on hypersonic programs it pursued during the Cold War.
“We basically trained the world in hypersonics,” said Richard Hallion, an aerospace analyst who has followed hypersonics closely for more than 50 years.
In 2016, a high-level panel of the National Academies, an independent scientific group that provides advice to the federal government, warned that foreign adversaries, including China, were readying a new generation of hypersonic weapons. While the details of the study are classified, its conclusions set off alarm bells inside the Defense Department.
“My joke was, if I briefed it to any more people in the Pentagon, I would’ve been briefing the janitors down on the mezzanine level,” said Mark Lewis, a former senior Pentagon official who was involved in managing the military’s hypersonic portfolio and who participated in the 2016 study. “Everyone and their brother wanted to see it.”
Concerned by the growing threat, the Pentagon ramped up testing and development. The Army, Navy and Air Force are developing hypersonic weapons, sometimes in cooperation, as is the Pentagon’s research agency Darpa. “We are in a race,” said Lewis, who is now president and chief executive officer of the Purdue Applied Research Institute.
Pentagon officials are now debating how best to respond to this buildup. Some argue the U.S. should focus more on defensive systems, rather than missiles. Others say that even if U.S. adversaries have more hypersonic missiles, the state of American hypersonic weaponry—even if not yet deployed—will ultimately be more advanced. And not everyone agrees that a hypersonics arms race comes down to numbers of missiles. “If you have 10, should I have 11?” asked Heidi Shyu, the Pentagon top technologist.
Last year, the Air Force awarded Raytheon Technologies, now known as RTX, a nearly billion-dollar contract to develop a hypersonic cruise missile that would be launched from an aircraft and is designed to strike enemy ships. The Army hoped to have ready this year the U.S. military’s first hypersonic weapon—missiles that would be launched from trucks.
The U.S. is testing a variety of hypersonic missile systems, which face technological challenges. Development of the HACM is ongoing, but the Air Force discontinued the ARRW program after test failures.
Progress has been halting, in part, because hypersonic weapons are notoriously difficult to develop. Traveling at faster than a mile a second generates heat exceeding 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, beyond the limit of most materials. “The biggest challenge with hypersonics has always been the thermal management,” said Wes Kremer, the president of Raytheon.
Cost is also an issue. Hypersonic missiles, which are complex to develop and require specialized materials, are pricier than conventional missiles—about one-third more than ballistic missiles with comparable capabilities, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Kremer said that hypersonic missiles would be a “niche capability” to go after moving targets, where speed is essential. “Obviously you don’t need it to go against the bridge, the bridge isn’t moving,” he said.
The bigger challenge may be for the Pentagon to decide, after so many years and so much money spent, what sort of hypersonic capabilities it wants in its arsenal. The U.S. military is currently pursuing two different types of hypersonic weapons: cruise missiles that use an air-breathing jet engine known as a scramjet, and glide vehicles that are launched from the air, and then glide to their targets at high speeds.
The Pentagon is funding about a half dozen different hypersonic weapons—though the exact number is secret—and some former officials suggest there is no clear plan for deciding which of these to field and how. “There wasn’t a strategy during my time at the Pentagon,” said William Roper, the former head of Air Force acquisition. “And from what I can see from the outside, there doesn’t appear to be one now.”
One of the biggest stumbling blocks is a lack of infrastructure needed for testing. Developing the weapons requires testing in wind tunnels that can replicate the unique aerodynamic pressures of hypersonic flight.
The U.S. has about 26 wind tunnels capable of testing hypersonic weapons, owned by the government, industry and academic organizations, but many are decades old, according to the Government Accountability Office. Almost all of them are booked more than a year in advance, slowing the pace of weapons development.
“We’re forecasting a fivefold demand increase in our use of our ground test capabilities,” said George Rumford, director of the Defense Department’s Test Resource Management Center. The Pentagon is now building more facilities, but those won’t be ready until at least 2027, he said.
The lack of testing infrastructure caught the attention of Steve Feinberg, founder of the private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Management. Feinberg, whom President Donald Trump appointed to head a key intelligence panel in 2018, had been receiving high-level briefings on hypersonic weapons.
The briefings prompted Cerberus to buy a California-based company called Stratolaunch, according to those familiar with the purchase. First established by the late
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Stratolaunch had built the world’s largest aircraft to launch a manned space vehicle into orbit. The aircraft will soon be used to launch hypersonic test vehicles to help develop weapons, operating akin to what company officials like to call a “wind tunnel in the sky.”
Feinberg “saw that the government wasn’t stepping up,” said Lewis, who now also sits on Stratolaunch’s technical advisory board, “and he decided that he was going to fill this gap.” Feinberg, through a spokesman for Cerberus, declined to comment.
Cerberus’s goal is to make Stratolaunch commercially successful while also contributing to the Defense Department, said Zachary Krevor, the CEO of Stratolaunch.
Stratolaunch is one of a growing number of firms riding a wave of enthusiasm among some in the Pentagon to link private capital with the defense market. New hypersonics-focused companies are popping up to provide test services, rocket motors and even aircraft.
Unlike a defense contractor, which typically uses government funds to develop new technologies, companies such as Stratolaunch are relying almost entirely on private capital to fund development, similar to the path Elon Musk took with SpaceX, which launches satellites for the Pentagon and has a space-based internet critical to the Ukrainian military.
Proponents say the new firms are needed, in part, because some of the Pentagon’s highest-profile hypersonics efforts have failed.
The Army’s plan for the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon this year was thrown into doubt after an early March test flight was canceled at the last minute. The service scrubbed the flight after pretest checks showed that a battery failed to activate. Another test was canceled earlier this month. The Army now says it won’t deploy the weapon until after a successful test.
Also in March, the Air Force nixed its most advanced hypersonic program, developed by Lockheed Martin, after several test failures. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told lawmakers the service would instead concentrate on Raytheon’s hypersonic cruise missile, a prototype of which isn’t expected to be ready until at least 2027.e by China and ussia
Beijing in late February flew its DF-27 missile, a hypersonic glide vehicle, for 12 minutes across more than 1,300 miles, according to a highly classified U.S. intelligence document leaked on the Discord platform. The missile is designed to reach the so-called Second Island Chain, which includes Guam.
The document said the missile likely would have penetrated U.S. defense systems, and that China had ready a small number of DF-27 missiles last year.
Moscow has touted its powerful Kinzhal hypersonic missile, which has been used to strike targets in Ukraine. Because the Kinzhal is an air-launched ballistic missile, critics have questioned whether it is a true hypersonic weapon and say it is vulnerable to interception. Russia also claims to have ready the Avangard missile, a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle that can travel at up to 27 times the speed of sound.
Roper, the former Air Force acquisition head, said developing missiles just to keep up with an adversary is misdirected. “When you’re behind an opponent and you’ve made a big deal about it, it creates a blinders effect in the government where your entire focus is just pouring effort to catch up,” he said.
He argues that the U.S. should develop hypersonic aircraft rather than missiles. Roper now sits on the board of Hermeus, a Silicon Valley-backed startup that has raised more than $100 million in private funding to build hypersonic aircraft. A hypersonic strike aircraft, like the one Hermeus is hoping to build, could hit potential Chinese targets in the South China Sea, which would be more effective than expensive, single-use hypersonic missiles, he said.
Last year, the Air Force Research Laboratory awarded a contract worth $334 million to Leidos, a major defense contractor, to work on technology for a hypersonic aircraft project dubbed Mayhem. Lockheed Martin has also over the years worked on a hypersonic successor to the iconic SR-71 Blackbird, a now-retired spy plane that traveled at more than three times the speed of sound. The status of that effort is unknown.
Shyu, the Pentagon’s top technologist, declined to speak about any Pentagon effort to develop a hypersonic aircraft, saying it was classified.
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Appeared in the September 16, 2023, print edition as ‘China and Russia Outrun U.S. In Race for Hypersonic Missiles’.