The Race for Hypersonic Missiles
The technology gap between the U.S. and its adversaries, namely Russia and China, is slowly beginning to shrink. As mobile technology and processors become cheaper and computing power increases, our adversaries overseas are slowly developing and modernizing their militaries’ to include new electronic warfare capabilities, ballistic missile systems, precision strike capabilities, and hypersonic weapons.
"Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military has never really had to fight an enemy that had its own arsenal of precision-guided weapons," said Mark Gunzinger, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Embroiled in counterinsurgency operations for the last 15 years, the U.S. is steadily falling behind in countering new weapons technology developments from China to Russia, coupled with an antiquated acquisitions process; the U.S may soon find itself incapable of engaging in industrial state warfare while maintaining the strategic and tactical upper-hand.
Enter the race for hypersonic missiles, a weapon system capable of speeds greater than Mach 5, roughly 3,840 mph, a race that neither side can afford to lose. Hypersonic weapons have the capability of carrying conventional and nuclear payloads, as well as advanced sensor technology. With their immense speed, hypersonic weapons can penetrate deep into an enemy’s territory, avoid detection, and successfully counter missile defense systems.
On April 22, 2016, China successfully completed a seventh test of the DF-2F (also known as WU-14), which can reach speeds of nearly 7,000 mph. This missile system is capable of striking the U.S. in under an hour and would render U.S. missile defense systems useless.
The successful test of the DF-2F was followed up by similar tests by Russia of its RS-18A strategic ballistic missile (UR-100N, NATO designation SS-19 Stiletto) at a base in Orenburg near the Kazakhstan border.
Russia has stated that it plans to start outfitting its Navy and battlecruisers with Zircon hypersonic missiles – a missile capable of speeds of 4600 mph, by 2022. Production of the new ship based missile system is expected to begin by 2018, and is designed as an anti-ship weapon.
The U.S. has been slow to counter these developments, its focus too heavily immersed in counterinsurgency conflicts from Africa to the Middle East. The U.S. has been trying to develop hypersonic capabilities but is far behind, having only successfully tested the Boeing X-51 Waverider for a six minute flight test. It is possible the U.S. new Zumwalt destroyer, outfitted with the Navy’s new electromagnetic rail gun could provide a counter to some of these developments, but these platforms are still undergoing sea trials and it is too early to tell how the U.S. will utilize its new futuristic ship.
The Zumwalt destroyers are currently wrapping up at sea acceptance trials in Bath, Maine. It is rumored that the ships may be outfitted with an electromagnetic rail gun, a gun that can file a projectile 100 miles away. The Navy’s new electromagnetic rail gun is capable of firing a 25lbs projectile at speeds of Mach 5, comparable to hypersonic missiles without the guidance capabilities.
The extreme speed of the electromagnetic gun means the new weapon may have use in an anti-ballistic missile platform, but it is too early to tell how the U.S. will utilize its new futuristic ship. The use of a non-explosive projectile without expensive guidance systems cheapens warfare for U.S. Naval warships, allowing for vessels to stay at sea for longer periods without resupply.
Currently, hypersonic missiles are designed for short ranges and distance, a global strike platform has yet to be fully developed. However, the further development of hypersonic missiles strengthens Russia and China’s A2/AD (Area Access/Area Denial) strategy. If the U.S. does not counter these developments it will quickly find itself choked off from the Baltic and South China Seas, unable to challenge Russia and China.