Full Speed Ahead With Navy Prompt Strike
Last week’s news1 that the Navy had successfully conducted a test of the common hypersonic glide body (C-HGB) is most welcome. This program, acknowledged by the Defense Department to be "one of [its] highest technical research and engineering priorities," 2 when matured into a deployed hypervelocity glide (HGV) weapons system will be of great value to enhancing our warfighters’ ability to implement the National Defense Strategy. To date, however, the Service has failed to articulate why the capabilities demonstrated in the C-HGB are so important.
As Congress considers the Defense Department’s request for continued program funding, it is high time that a coherent rationale for high-speed, long-range, conventional weapons be made public. Judging by a recent Congressional Research Service Report3, that rationale will need to convincingly counter at least three spurious arguments against U.S., hypervelocity glide system efforts, viz, that the programs respond to relatively unimportant target sets conceived in the early 2000s; that they will create an arms race with China and Russia; and that they could be mistaken for nuclear systems, thereby inadvertently initiating a nuclear war.
Why the U.S. Needs Conventional Prompt Strike Weapons
While it is true that the Defense Department during the George W. Bush Administration viewed long-range prompt conventional strike weapons as a response to a variety of "niche" target sets dealing with counter-terrorism and nuclear proliferation threats, we live in a dramatically changing world today. China and Russia are acknowledged "peer-competitors," which means, to put it more bluntly, "potential adversaries." Over the past ten to fifteen years, both nations have built large defensive zones designed specifically to contest and restrict U.S. access and freedom of maneuver by preventing the U.S. from bringing naval and air power to support allies under threat.
Colloquially known as anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems, they are deployed by China on artificial islands in the South China Sea and by Russia in the Kaliningrad region. They consist of highly integrated and layered anti-air and anti-surface missile systems. To operate U.S. Navy/Marine (as well as allied) surface and air forces in Baltic and South China Sea contingencies, those defenses will need to be suppressed quickly and effectively. This is precisely the critical role that a U.S. conventional prompt strike system based on the C-HGB can fill.
To provide a credible crisis response force, U.S. prompt conventional strike systems must be proliferated across the fleet (much as the Tomahawk cruise missile system has been). Press reports suggest the Navy has yet to decide whether to deploy the prompt conventional strike capability on Virginia-class SSNs equipped with Virginia Payload Modules, on the four Ohio class SSGNs or on the three Zumwalt-class destroyers.4
The correct answer would be to do so on all three warship classes, as well as exploring the feasibility of placing some on large deck amphibious platforms (thereby giving the Marines the capability to knock down the defenses and rapidly exploit the result).
The U.S. is not starting a new arms race
The idea that the C-HGB test (the second test of this technology) will initiate a new arms race with China and Russia is risible and easily disproved. China has already conducted over 20 tests of HGV systems.5 China has already begun deployment of its DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle6 and is reportedly working on testing a second hypersonic system.7
Russia tested its Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle 14 times between 1990 and 20188 and has now deployed it with a nuclear warhead atop some SS-19 ICBMs.9 To the degree an arms race exists in this military technology, it is currently between China and Russia, with the U.S. not yet having entered the field.
Confusion with a nuclear strike
The flight profile of a hypersonic glide system is demonstrably different from the classic ballistic trajectory of U.S. ICBMs and SLBMs.
Assertions that Chinese and Russian warning systems are incapable of distinguishing an HGV from a ballistic missile are uninformed and unfounded. Similarly, the standard operating areas of the tactical platforms likely to deploy with a U.S. HGV system will almost certainly be quite different from those of U.S. SSBNs, adding to the ability to discriminate what has been launched.
Finally, the assertion that the use of a U.S. HGV will be perceived as a nuclear strike begs the question as to who would perceive it as such. In the case of China and Russia, given that they have already deployed such systems, that concern appears to be non-existent.
Implications for U.S. policymakers
The development and deployment of a U.S. tactical system employing C-HBG technology will be a highly important element of our ability to deter Chinese and Russian adventurism. In a crisis, Chinese and Russian leaders considering military action against the U.S. or our allies will want to be assured they can operate at will within their A2AD sanctuaries.
A U.S. maritime HGV system capable of suppressing those defenses, thereby permitting U.S. and allied forces to operate in those areas, will disabuse such thinking. Accordingly, a naval HGV capability should be fielded as quickly as possible and on as wide a variety of platforms as possible. Given the age and small number of the Ohio SSGNs (which are projected to be retired by 2028 and therefore would not have much service life carrying an HGV system) and the fact that there are only three Zumwalt class destroyers, distribution of the capability aboard as many Virginia SSNs as possible should be emphasized (and additional Virginia boats with VPMs procured).
To sustain Congressional support for the overall program, the Defense Department and the Navy should roll out a public rationale for the system soon. Finally, while officials should be aware of the counter-factual arguments which are certain to be used against the system and should be prepared to disprove them as they arise, officials should not be distracted by them.
Franklin C. Miller served for two decades as a senior policy official in the Defense Department and on the NSC Staff.