“There is no defense against hypersonic. You’re not going to defend against it. Those things are going so fast, you’re not going to get it.”
— Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs, Gen. Mark Milley
It travels at Mach 6, creates a chemical explosion over a major city and generates an electromagnetic pulse that instantaneously fries communication and power lines — essentially crippling the populace, within seconds.
While electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons are not new, they are destructive and effective — and that is what Chinese military scientists are counting on.
According to the team of researchers at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology in Beijing, the new missile, which has a range of 3,000 kilometres at six times the speed of sound (an estimated 25-minute flight), would stay within the earth’s atmosphere to dodge space-based early warning systems, UK’s The Sun reported.
Once over the target area (at an altitude not disclosed), a chemical explosion is triggered that would compress an electrically charged magnet known as a “flux compression generator.”
This would convert the shock energy to short but extremely powerful EMPs.
Engineering scientist Sun Zheng and his co-researchers, boasted in a domestic journal called Tactical Missile Technology, state: “It can release 95 percent of the energy in just 10 seconds, suitable for instantaneous discharge to cause electromagnetic pulse damage.
“This would cause the effective burnout of key electronic devices in the target information network within a range of 2 kilometers.
“The active stealth electromagnetic pulse weapon based on energy regeneration conforms to the current development trend of rapid warfare, strong confrontation, and full-dimensional information damage.”
The researchers also noted that compared to other non-nuclear EMP bombs, there would be no batteries in this weapon. In place of the dry cells, super-capacitors will be used.
According to LiveScience.com, an EMP is a massive burst of electromagnetic energy that can occur naturally or be generated deliberately. This energy, by the way, passes harmlessly through humans.
Such a magnetic field causes electrons in nearby wires to move, thereby inducing damaging power surges in any electronics within range.
While many experts don’t think EMPs pose a big threat, some people argue that these types of weapons could be used to cause widespread disruption to electricity-dependent societies.
“You can use a single weapon to collapse the entire North American power grid,” said defense analyst Peter Pry, who served on the Congressional EMP Commission, which was set up to assess the threat of EMP attacks but shut down in 2017.
“Once the electric grid goes down, everything would collapse,” Pry told Live Science. “Everything depends on electricity: telecommunications, transportation, even water.”
Of course, as Dr. Strangelove might say, a major advantage of their new weapon is that the enemy would not know it was on the way. Or would they?
As it speeds through the air at hypervelocity, air molecules are ionized by the heat and form a thin layer of plasma over the missile surface which effectively acts as a cloak that can absorb radar signals … but not all.
Pry said it would be within the capabilities of many militaries, or even terrorist groups, to build an EMP weapon.
“We’ve arrived at a place where a single individual can topple the technological pillars of civilization for a major metropolitan area all by himself armed with some device like this,” he said.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Mark Milley, overhyped the capabilities of China and Russia’s Mach-five missiles during his March 4, 2020 testimony before the US Senate Armed Services Committee.
No doubt, he was deliberately stirring uncertainty into ongoing negotiations over the Pentagon’s budget for 2021.
“There is no defense against hypersonic,” Milley said. “You’re not going to defend against it. Those things are going so fast you’re not going to get it.”
With all deference to the general, that is not exactly true.
While currently, there is no operational defence system that can deny the use of these strategic weapons, some experts say it might be possible to intercept a hypersonic weapon during its final, “terminal” moments of flight.
That’s because a hypersonic missile is slower during its terminal phase than an ICBM is.
The US Navy deploys SM-3 interceptors that can destroy, during their so-called “midcourse” phase, slower medium-range ballistic missiles, such as the type to which Iran might fit a nuclear warhead.
But hypersonic weapons such as China’s DF-17 and Russia’s Avangard essentially are believed to be impossible to intercept during the latter midcourse phase — experts say they are just moving too fast.
Current midcourse missile defenses aren’t capable of defending or postured to defend against hypersonic glide vehicles, largely because gliders fly at a lower altitude and in a different atmosphere than traditional ballistic missiles, Kingston Reif, a missile expert at the Arms Control Association in Washington, DC, told The National Interest.
“The less predictable trajectory and potential maneuverability of gliders would also pose challenges to these defenses,” Reif added. “Existing terrestrial and space-based radars and sensors would also be challenged to track lower-altitude, maneuverable gliders.”
The Pentagon, despite Milley’s alarmism, is making big investments in terminal defenses against hypersonic missiles.
The investment in new defenses is why Milley’s fatalism is so “puzzling,” to borrow Reif’s characterization. The military acquisitions community knows it’s not impossible to develop defenses against hypersonic threats.
But anyone who thinks that they can defeat an army without a fight and without casualties by using an EMP weapon, is a fool, and then some.
Unleashing such a brazen weapon would likely leave China open to massive retaliation, reducing major Chinese metropolises to burning cinders.
Other critics say EMP weapons are expensive to deploy and therefore make no sense.
“There are other ways that adversaries can achieve some of the same outcomes, some of which would be cheaper and some of which would be less discernible,” Frank Cilluffo, director of Auburn University’s McCrary Institute for Cyber and Critical Infrastructure Security, told Live Science.
Such alternatives might include cyberattacks to take out critical infrastructure, including the electric grid, or even efforts to disrupt space-based communications or the GPS system that modern society is so reliant on.
Meanwhile, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has announced the successful free flight test of an air-breathing hypersonic cruise missile demonstrator developed by Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, The War Zone reported.
This comes more than a year after the announcement of successful captive-carry tests of this weapon, as well as a competing design from Lockheed Martin, as part of the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept program, or HAWC.
“Goals of the mission were: vehicle integration and release sequence, safe separation from the launch aircraft, booster ignition and boost, booster separation and engine ignition, and cruise,” DARPA’s press release said. “All primary test objectives were met.”
Sources: The Sun, LiveScience.com, National Interest, The War Zone, TechTimes.com