A Non-Kinetic Answer to the Hypersonic Threat

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Adversaries are developing new, long-range, hypersonic strike capabilities that have wide ranging security implications. America and its allies may not yet have the critical infrastructure needed to respond and manage such threats in a crisis scenario. China and Russia pose the most immediate risk as they lead the world in developing hypersonic and ballistic missile technologies. While many government agencies are working on designing and implementing the architectures and tools needed to mitigate the hypersonic threat, they lack the speed and resources required to keep pace with these rapidly evolving technologies.  How or even if the U.S. should pursue missile defense technologies are questions yet to be answered. In the meantime, the government can take concrete, non-kinetic measures that will better ensure citizens' safety and counter new threats should the need arise.

Increasing awareness of the hypersonic threat with senior policymakers and within appropriate government institutions should be one of the first considerations. Enhancing understanding of the risks is the first step towards mitigating the threat from enemy systems. Such awareness includes the discussion of deterrence postures should tensions escalate. It also includes enhancing cyber capabilities, which will require an expanded, whole-of-government approach built upon a shared understanding of our vulnerabilities and available defense options.

Prior to any deployment of new missile defense technologies, American political and military leaders must acquire a better understanding of how U.S. adversaries plan to utilize hypersonic technologies in their efforts to dominate escalation and coerce the United States and its allies into making decisions favorable to the adversary during a time of crisis.  Interagency wargames, briefings on adversary escalation strategies, and collaborative opportunities will also prepare U.S. policymakers to respond to crises before state actors consider using these new technologies.

The speed and low-profile characteristics of new strike system technologies will challenge the U.S.'s current capacity to detect and trace their flight path. The United States needs to deploy advanced space sensor capabilities integrated with targeting and management infrastructure. Linking these sensors to advanced interceptors and/or directed energy weapons will also play a key role in lessening the impact of any attack from hypersonics.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and the Space Development Agency (SDA) are currently developing systems such as the Hypersonic and Ballistic Missile Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS), which will help reduce the emerging hypersonic threat. This system is designed to work cooperatively with SDA's tracking satellites to provide queuing data for ground-based interceptors. Additionally, HBTSS is currently focused on low-Earth orbit, but it will be crucial that it supports multiple orbits to ensure long-term success of the system.  Inadequate funding, however, is impeding a rapid development process. Currently, HBTSS is only receiving a small fraction of the total hypersonic funding budget – leaving a severe deficit in the resources required to keep pace with the development of these emerging technologies and posing a serious national security threat.

The next step is augmented system integration, especially for command and control, which is an essential component of any hypersonic defensive capability. For example, the Army's Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System (IBCS), which utilizes open architecture, allows for the integration of various sensors and interceptors. This, in turn, enables the best sensor to relay the targeting data to the most appropriate interceptor. The Air Force’s program of record – the Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) system – also holds tremendous promise for integrating disparate systems across operational domains and Services, if this “network of networks” is built using the right fundamentals and principles.

Ideally, HBTSS would integrate with this type of system to enhance the ability to meet the maneuverability challenges of hypersonics. Any advanced, space-based sensor, for example, must integrate with precise targeting and tracking infrastructure and link to advanced interceptors and/or directed energy weapons.  The government’s ownership of open architecture command-and-control systems should, in theory, make this easier.

The geographical advantages and safety enjoyed by the continental United States begin to erode under the threat of incredibly fast, low-visibility, hypersonic weapons capable of striking targets within the United States. Also, at risk could be our forward-deployed regional assets, such as carriers in the Pacific and U.S. military bases on Guam and Kadena. Our adversaries are currently strategizing methods of utilizing these technologies to threaten and coerce the U.S. and its allies during a time of crisis.

As China and Russia continue to develop and field hypersonic capabilities, the United States must also develop the kinetic and non-kinetic systems necessary to mitigate an attack. Swift deployment of adequate resources, awareness initiatives, and enhanced integration of systems capabilities are only the first steps in meeting this rapidly evolving national security threat.

E. Grant Haver is a National Security Fellow with the Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy and the Policy Program Coordinator for the National Security Institute where he oversees the Emerging Technologies and Cybersecurity working group. He has previously served on the Executive Committee of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity of America and on the staff at the Center for American Progress. He holds both B.A. and M.A. degrees in Political Science and Government from George Mason University.   

Jeffrey Edmonds is an expert on Russia and Eurasia and currently works as a Research Scientist for the Center for Naval Analyses and is a senior Advisor to the Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy. His research focuses on the Russian military, foreign policy, Russian threat perceptions, and Russian information operations.

Most recently, Jeff served as the Director for Russia on the National Security Council and acting Senior Director for Russia during the 2017 presidential transition. While on the NSC, he advised the president and his senior staff on Russia-related national security topics.

Prior to the NSC, Jeff served as a senior military analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency, covering Eurasian militaries. He has served in the U.S. Army on both active duty and the reserves for 22 years, with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Edmonds holds an M.P.A. from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, an M.A. from Boston University in Religious Studies, and a B.S. from the United States Military Academy at West Point.

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