Russian and Chinese Hypersonic Glide Vehicles: Closing the Gap
Russia and China are quickly developing robust hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) programs intended to coerce the United States (U.S.), allies, and partners. In recent years, Moscow’s and Beijing’s HGV testing programs have significantly outpaced Washington’s comparable program. Russia and China have prioritized these programs, believing that HGV capabilities can easily overcome U.S., allied, and partner defenses. Therefore, both are working to attain a coercive and debilitating capability. Exacerbating the problem, Moscow and Beijing have reportedly broached the possibility of arming HGVs with conventional or nuclear munitions thus complicating how the U.S., allies, and partners might handle a crisis situation. Russia’s and China’s races to field HGVs make imperative a U.S. response which includes more modern missile defenses and sufficient response options.
HGV technology could be a revolutionary transformation overriding existing ballistic and cruise missile capabilities. Traveling at hypersonic speeds, HGVs reduce the defending party’s response time. In addition to improved speed, their considerable mobility and range allow HGVs to overcome or circumvent existing missile defense systems. On one hand, even if an HGV is within range of current missile defense interceptors, its speed and agility will challenge the computing programs used to plot the course for an interceptor. On the other hand, missile defense sensors and interceptors are often intended to defend against threats from one direction. HGVs could have the range to approach targets from a wider series of azimuths, negating current missile defenses. Collectively, when compared to traditional intercontinental ballistic missiles, the advantages provided by HGVs give them a greater penetration capability. This would reduce the necessary force employment package for a potential adversary to achieve the same objectives in a limited employment scenario. Particularly for the first state to develop HGVs, it will likely be an effective coercive instrument.
Russia is fast approaching an operational HGV capability. In recent years it has tested an HGV, the “Avangard,” as the vehicle for a modified SS-19 intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM), the SS-X-19 Mod-4. While Avangard has reportedly been tested with a modified SS-19, Russian officials have hinted that it will be fielded on the Sarmat – Russia’s new heavy ICBM, expected to be fielded by 2020. Russia is also apparently developing an air-launched hypersonic cruise missile, the Kinzhal. It was reportedly tested using a MiG-31 as the launch platform in early March. Armed with these capabilities, President Putin has explicitly stated he intends to threaten the U.S., allies, and partners.
To date, China’s HGV program has been concentrated in ground-launched capabilities. Its prototype HGV apparently is the WU-14, also known as the DF-ZF. In theory, Beijing could use the WU-14, or a modified version, on multiple ballistic missile systems. Diversifying delivery vehicles could, for instance, allow China to make use of more affordable shorter range systems while also putting multiple HGVs on its ICBMs. In recent months, it has reportedly conducted multiple HGV tests with the DF-17, a medium-range ballistic missile with an estimated range between 1,800-2,500 kilometers. Similar to Russia’s Sarmat ICBM, China’s developmental DF-41, with a range of at least 12,000 km, may be able to carry multiple WU-14 HGVs. China’s emerging HGV program threatens not only the U.S. but also states such as Japan and India.
The U.S. HGV program stands in sharp contrast to Russian and Chinese efforts. Unlike Moscow and Beijing, Washington has taken longer to develop a robust HGV program – possibly delaying naming a lead Service until 2020 – and has focused its projects only on conventional capabilities. As a result, the Air Force, Army, Navy, and the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) have each tested HGV concepts. The Navy, building on prior Army testing, conducted the U.S.’s most recent test in November 2017 and is attempting to develop an intermediate range capability that could be launched from a submarine or surface vessel. Meanwhile, the Air Force and DARPA are working on an air-launched missile, the X-51. It would use a booster to accelerate to Mach 4.5 and the HGV, armed with a scramjet, would then exceed such speeds. Given the multiple efforts underway, Congress has attempted to focus work by directing that an “early operational” capability be produced by 2022.
Moscow and Beijing are likely racing to field HGV capabilities in the hope that they can be a central component in a strategy to coerce Washington, its allies, and its partners. Russian and Chinese officials regularly threaten their neighbors, believing this could separate them from the U.S.. Given that HGVs can easily overcome current missile defense capabilities, if Russia and China can master HGV technology, they would possess a highly provocative and effective coercive capability. Vladimir Putin has already threatened U.S. allies and partners with HGVs – a modification to his nuclear threats–in his March 2018 speech to the Duma. He specifically targeted European states that have supported U.S. missile defense efforts in an attempt to intimidate and coerce those most willing to cooperate with the U.S.. While Chinese officials are less likely to publicly threaten their neighbors with missile strikes, territorial incursions against Japan, India, Vietnam and others are clear signs that Beijing seeks to intimidate those most willing and able to cooperate with the U.S..
In response to Russian and Chinese HGV programs, the U.S. must modernize its missile defense capabilities and develop additional response options. Enhancing missile defense requires improvements in two areas. First, the transformation from traditional ballistic missiles reentry vehicles to HGVs will likely necessitate improvements to the software used to track incoming trajectories and plan intercept courses. Second, intercepting missiles in the initial launching phase mitigates the value of fast, long-ranging, and highly maneuverable HGVs. This will require a new emphasis on overhead capabilities, such as directed energy. Additionally, should deterrence fail, and a potential adversary begins launching missiles, the U.S. must possess a range of response options. This will likely come via air-, ground-, and sea-launched capabilities with an emphasis on responsiveness, to one day include HGV systems. Expanding and modernizing missile defense capabilities and response options is necessary given the highly provocative and dangerous technologies Russia and China are now vigorously pursuing.
The possibilities for HGVs represent a significant leap in missile technology. Representing a quantum leap over the speed, maneuverability, and range of existing capabilities, HGVs provide a substantial advantage over current missile defense systems. Until defensive systems can meet the technological advancements HGVs present, the likelihood of successful employment with of HGVs will be very high. Particularly should Russia and China field HGVs well in advance of the U.S., Moscow and Beijing will possess a valuable employment option that could threaten the U.S., allies, and partners in new ways. As a result, the U.S. must expand and modernize its missile defense capabilities and response options to negate the advantages Russia and China seek.
Davis Florick is a James A. Kelly non-resident fellow with the Pacific Forum and a senior fellow with the Human Security Centre.
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This article appeared originally at the National Institute for Public Policy (NIPP).