Hypersonic weapons could dramatically change the balance of conventional military power between the United States and its major competitors, Russia and China. Russia is investing heavily in hypersonic systems and is on the verge of deploying a variety of strategic and theater systems. The U.S. started behind its great power competitors but is racing to catch up. Deploying its own set of hypersonic weapons may be the second most important military modernization effort the Department of Defense (DoD) undertakes over the next two decades, coming just behind the modernization of the strategic nuclear deterrent.
Hypersonic weapons fly at least five times the speed of sound but retain the capability to maneuver in the atmosphere. There are two basic varieties of hypersonic weapons. The first, a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), is launched aboard a ballistic missile into the upper atmosphere. The HGV then uses the ballistic missile's speed to skip along the upper layers of the atmosphere with much greater maneuverability than traditional warheads. The second, a hypersonic cruise missile, maintains continuous thrust using either rocket power and/or air-breathing engines to reach the desired speed. What distinguishes hypersonic weapons from current types of ballistic and cruise missiles is their combination of speed, maneuverability, and the portion of the atmosphere in which they operate (between 80,000 and 200,000 feet).
Going forward, hypersonic weapons are likely to play a major role in Moscow’s military modernization efforts. They are a counter to current and prospective deployments of advanced air and missile defenses by the U.S. and its allies. Hypersonic weapons allow the Russian military to hold at risk critical U.S. and allied targets from the outset of a future theater conflict, possibly winning the war in the initial salvo.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu went even farther, declaring that precision weapons, primarily hypersonic, would form a critical element of Russia’s non-nuclear deterrent: “The potential of the non-nuclear deterrent forces, primarily of precision weapons, is being strengthened. They will be based on hypersonic systems of various bases.”
Russia is leading the world in deployed hypersonic weapons. It is developing multiple classes of hypersonic weapons. Uniquely among the great powers, Russia has developed a strategic nuclear hypersonic weapon. This is the nuclear-capable Avangard warhead, deployed on the RS-18 ICBM and, in the future, on the giant RS-28. The first Avangard equipped unit was declared operational in late 2019.
Russia also is developing at least two classes of theater-range hypersonic weapons: the ship-launched Tsirkon, with an estimated range of between 250-600 miles, and the aircraft-launched ballistic missile Khinzhal, which can be deployed on Russian fighters and bombers. The Khinzhal is assessed to have a range of approximately 500 miles. Both weapons are believed to be dual-capable, unlike U.S. theater hypersonic weapons currently in development.
Russian president Vladimir Putin may be looking at advances in military capabilities, particularly hypersonic weapons, to buttress his domestic political position. In a 2020 conversation with a leading Russian ballistic missile designer, Putin made clear the importance of the development of advanced weapons systems as a demonstration of Russia’s great power status:
. . . for the first time in our contemporary history, Russia has the most cutting-edge types of weapons that are far superior to all earlier and current weapons in terms of their power, capability, speed, and, which is crucial, precision. Nobody else in the world has this type of weapons, at least at the moment.
Meanwhile, the U.S. sees its investments in hypersonic weapons as a way to address the progressing loss of precision deep strike capabilities created by Russian and Chinese investments in Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities. Hypersonics will enable the U.S. military to rapidly respond to the initiation of hostilities, strike high-value targets from much longer distances, and offset the ability of Russia to conduct massed missile and aircraft strikes. As General John Hyten, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, observed, hypersonic weapons could enable “responsive, long-range, strike options against distant, defended, and/or time-critical threats [such as road-mobile missiles] when other forces are unavailable, denied access, or not preferred.”
Given this, the U.S. is making a serious investment in conventionally armed hypersonic weapons. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office estimated total Pentagon spending on hypersonics at $15 billion over the next decade. This number is likely to rise as competition from Russia in emerging military technologies intensifies. The Army, Navy and Air Force each have one or more programs to develop and deploy a hypersonic weapon.
The Navy’s effort is a program called Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS), which will be deployed first on the most advanced versions of the Virginia-class attack submarine in the early 2020s. In the future, this system could be deployed on Arleigh Burke and Zumwalt-class destroyers as well as a new Large Surface Combatant.
For the Army, hypersonics are but one element of its long-range precision fires program. The Army is focused on the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW), a mobile, canister-launched version of CPS, that will hold high-value targets such as air defense sites, military depots, and headquarters at risk at ranges of 1,500 miles or more. It would like to have an initial operating capability for the LRHW in 2023.
The Air Force is concentrating on an air-launched hypersonic weapon. The AGM-183A Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), is a rocket-powered hypersonic boost-glide vehicle. It is believed to have a range of nearly 600 miles and is small and lightweight enough to allow multiple weapons to be carried on strategic bombers and tactical fighters. The Air Force is also reported to be developing the Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile (HACM). The ARRW would be employed against the highest value, most time-critical targets, while the HACM would be deployed in larger numbers to attack a wide range of A2/AD targets.
The development and deployment of U.S. hypersonic weapons is vital to the maintenance of conventional deterrence of Russian conventional aggression in Europe or the Indo-Pacific region. Hypersonic weapons on land, in the air and at sea, will provide a powerful and credible counter to Russian investments in theater forces.
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Gouré has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.