WASHINGTON — The Pentagon had planned to test a hypersonic weapon in 2020 and deploy it in 2022, a Pentagon official said for the first time. Instead, the Pentagon focused on counter-insurgency while China developed the weapon.
Now China is far ahead and still going as the U.S. tries to catch up, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff official.
“We had a roadmap, they [China] had investments,” said Austin Long, nuclear policy adviser at the Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Policy Division, Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a Monday discussion at the Hudson Institute in Washington. “What happened? We had other priorities. This is the fallout.”
In budget figures announced Tuesday by Pentagon officials, $2.6 billion is being sought for hypersonic development. Four broad programs exist for hypersonic. Some budget funds for missile defense also will be geared to hypersonic, Pentagon budget briefers told reporters Tuesday.
Hypersonic weapons travel at least at Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound.
Currently, militaries have two general types of missiles.
Ballistic missiles launch straight into the air with a set target. When they reenter the atmosphere, they accelerate near to hypersonic speed en route to impact. They can be detected at launch by infra-red capture and then tracked by radar and — in theory — destroyed during acceleration and before final approach to target.
Cruise missiles travel below radar and at a slower speed and can be maneuvered. Defense against them can come from fighters and other weapons.
Hypersonic weapons combine the lethality of both. They can be guided like a cruise missile and travel below radar — but at hypersonic speeds. The launch is not usually visible by infra-red detection as easily as ballistic missile.
“This make it much harder to see,” Long said. “This combination makes hypersonic very challenging.
“You won’t see it on radar until it is quite close to the target…until the attack is almost complete,” he said. He said defense mechanisms will not “have a high confidence on where it is going.”
To offset hypersonic weapons will require new sensors and new interceptors, analysts said during the discussion.
Complicated the China challenge is geography, analysts said. China is looking to fully secure and control regions such as the South China Sea, relatively compact geographic areas in their immediate back yard. That makes hypersonic weapons even more of a challenge to deter because of the short range they need to destroy a target.
Additionally, while other nations such as the United States are conducting hypersonic work, China is the undisputed leader, Long said.
“China is number one,” he said, “and whoever is number two is far behind.”