Boeing's X-51 hypersonic cruise missile. Photo from US Air Force

In a bid to accelerate the US’ hypersonic weapons development program, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin last month convened a high-profile meeting with the CEOs of America’s leading defense companies. 

Hypersonic weapons can travel five times the speed of sound and maneuver in flight like a cruise missile, making them harder to detect and shoot down.

Their emergence has cast new doubts on the concept of missile defense, as despite 65 years of efforts and expenditure of over US$350 billion, no missile defense system thus far developed has been effective against realistic intercontinental ballistic missile threats, let alone hypersonic missiles.

The purpose of the meeting was to stress the urgency of developing hypersonic weapons, as concerns abound that the US has already been overtaken by China and Russia. The meeting came after a slew of US hypersonic weapons test failures, while China and Russia are steadily testing and fielding such weapons.

The meeting was centered on gathering industry feedback on the impediments to speeding up development of hypersonic weapons. The CEOs also outlined several challenges in the US’ hypersonic weapons program, such as supply chain constraints, acquisition barriers, budget instability and access to test facilities.

The CEO participants emphasized that without suitable testing facilities, the US Department of Defense will struggle to adopt a “test often, fail fast and learn” development approach.

These failures have been attributed to poor design, fabrication, management and test planning as well as pre-flight testing deficiencies and a lack of rigorous government oversight.

It is expected that the US will take a few years to catch up with the hypersonic weapons made by its near-peer adversaries. It is now on a crash-course program to field prototype weapons in the coming years, to be followed ideally by more mature systems.

This photo illustration courtesy of the US Air Force shows the X-51A Waverider set to demonstrate hypersonic flight. Photo: AFP / US Air Force

However, experts say that the 2023 fiscal budget is a real test of whether the US can accelerate its hypersonic weapons program.

The February meeting came after the military services delivered budget proposals for fiscal 2023 that Secretary Austin believed did not speed up hypersonic weapons development to keep up with Chinese and Russian advances in the field.

The US Air Force’s AGM-183A Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) is slated to be the US’ first hypersonic weapon in service.

However, the weapon has been marred with test failures. In December last year, the missile failed its third test as the launch was aborted for unspecified reasons. The ARRW also failed its second test in July last year, when its rocket motor did not fire after separation from its launching B-52 bomber. The ARRW also failed its first test flight in April the same year, with the missile failing to separate from its B-52 launcher.

Other branches of the US armed forces are working on their own hypersonic weapons programs. The US Army plans to field its Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRWH) next year, with the US Army having fielded all the ground support equipment it needs for its first hypersonic missile unit. Soldiers are already training on the prototype weapon system, albeit without live rounds.

The US Navy is also planning to field its Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) hypersonic missile aboard its three Zumwalt-class destroyers. Last May, the US Navy successfully tested the CPS missile’s hypersonic booster, which shares components and subsystems with the US Army’s LRWH missile.

In contrast, China has been conducting hypersonic missile tests since 2014, and has since deployed the DF-17 in its military. Further, last July China tested  a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle, carried on a rocket, that flew through low-orbit space and circled the globe before striking within two dozen miles of its target.

A DF-17 missile is unveiled during the military parade in Tiananmen Square. Photo AFP / Greg Baker

China has also achieved several technological advances on its hypersonic weapons, such as 6G technology that solves some communication blackout problems that occur at five times the speed of sound, and a specialized hypersonic wind tunnel that allows China to identify critical engineering and technological issues before missiles go up for a test flight.

Russia first tested its Zircon hypersonic missile from a warship in January 2020, followed by three more tests in October, November, and December of that year. The Zircon has already been delivered to the Russian armed forces, with shipments to be completed in 2025. 

North Korea tested an alleged hypersonic weapon this January as part of its brinksmanship that aims to use increased tension, threats and provocations to gain political and economic concessions. Apart from these countries, France, Germany, Australia, India, and Japan are working on hypersonic weapons and Iran, Israel, and South Korea have conducted basic research on the technology.