Raytheon and Northrop Grumman teamed to accelerate air-breathing hypersonic vehicle development. Credit: Raytheon.

Be afraid, be very afraid.

In 2017, China started showing first images of the tests of their hypersonic glide vehicles, and in 2018, Russian president Vladimir Putin presented an array of new hypersonic armaments that are being developed for the Russian army.

Both countries have since claimed their respective weapons having at least initial operational capability.

And quite frankly, it scared the pants off Pentagon planners.

The possibility, that a hypersonic missile gap existed, could not be tolerated … in any way, shape or form.

Whether America really needed these weapons, is entirely irrelevant. Some experts say they were not needed at all.

But the fact that one hypersonic missile — without a warhead — could tear through a US aircraft carrier at Mach 5, completely rendering it out of action, was enough to terrify American war planners in the Pentagon.

According to a new government study released by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), the US now has 70 different hypersonic weapon programs costing US$15 billion that will be spent between the financial years of 2015 and 2024, Aerotime Hub reported.

The effort peaked in 2020, when US$2.5 billion were spent on such weapons.

It was also the first year when more money was allocated to product development than technology development, signifying a switch from research to more production-oriented goals, Aerotime reported.

The largest contributor to the development is the US Department of Defense (DoD), while the Department of Energy (DOE) and NASA are also conducting their own programs.

Likewise, the US Navy (USN) is the main participant of those programs, with US$6.2 billion coming from their funding. The US Air Force (USAF) comes in second, allocating US$3.6 billion to hypersonic weapons development, Aerotime reported.

The majority of those efforts focus on the development of hypersonic glide vehicles, with the USN and the US Army developing the Common Hypersonic Glide Body (CHGE) that could be used on platforms wielded by both arms.

The Pentagon is now spending billions of dollars on hypersonic technology as it seeks to keep pace with competitors such as China and Russia, National Defense reported. Credit: Lockheed Martin.

The USAF, meanwhile, most prominently runs their own program jointly with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) — a hypersonic glide body that could be launched from a B-52 bomber, Aerotime reported.

Currently, five different programs have entered the product development stage, with the remaining 65 being in the technology development stage.

The USAF Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) is going to be the first hypersonic weapon to enter the production stage and reach operational capability in late 2022.

Meanwhile, the New York Times ran a column in January 2020 arguing that hypersonic missiles are a “game-changing” new weapon—“unstoppable,” “phenomenally accurate,” and able to “reach nearly every coordinate on the surface of the earth within 30 minutes.”

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, hypersonic weapons are fast, but they are nothing new.

Even the first modern missile, the German V-2, achieved near-hypersonic speeds in the 1940s. ICBMs, which the United States and Russia have fielded since 1959, travel much faster — more than 20 times the speed of sound.

Are they stealthier than ICBMs? No. Are they undetectable? No.

The fastest hypersonic weapons are launched on the same rocket boosters that launch ballistic missiles. The rockets’ hot exhaust makes it easy for satellite-mounted infrared light sensors to follow both weapons.

But hypersonic missiles are unique in that the air resistance they encounter in their low-altitude flight keeps them extremely hot — and visible to these sensors — even after their rocket boosters run out of fuel.

Master Sgt. John Malloy and Staff Sgt. Jacob Puente, both from 912th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, secure the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon as it is loaded under the wing of a B-52H at Edwards AFB. (Air Force photo by Giancarlo Casem)

Their calculations show that hypersonic missiles would remain visible to currently deployed satellites for much of their flight.

On top of that, ground-based radar systems would be able to detect hypersonic weapons once they flew close enough that air defenses could intercept them.

Thomas Spoehr, a retired Army lieutenant general who heads the Center for National Defense at the Heritage Foundation, warns against the frenzy for superweapons.

“Washington, D.C., is awash today in predictions that combinations of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics (especially swarms), hypersonic weapons, railguns, and directed-energy weapons will fundamentally change warfare. Less plentiful are the operational concepts that describe how these systems will be used. Great significance is ascribed to the amounts of money that China and Russia are investing in advanced technologies such as hypersonic missiles and AI, while opinion pieces warn daily that the U.S. must ‘win’ the hypersonic missile race.”

Courtesy, The National Interest

But “the hypersonic missile ‘race’ need only be ‘won’ if, indeed, a hypersonic missile fills a necessary capability gap for the joint force,” he points out.

Note that none of these weapons have been used in combat, and there are questions about the stability and accuracy of missiles maneuvering at such speeds, National Interest reported.

Nonetheless, US planners — stoked by Russian propaganda about unstoppable wonder weapons — fear that hypersonic missiles are too fast to be intercepted.

Spoehr says he is not against hypersonic weapons per se. 

“But I have not heard an well-articulated concept of how the US intends to use them or how they help us solve an operational problem,” he adds. 

“I can understand why China wants them, perhaps to evade US missile defenses and take out a key node such as an aircraft carrier or a C2 [command and control] node on Guam.

“But Russia really does not have sophisticated theater ballistic missile defense systems.  So what is the US concept?  Would we be better off investing our resources towards hypersonic missile defenses versus offense?”