As China and Russia make new advances in hypersonic weapons technology, the US is increasingly focused on developing counter-hypersonic technologies to address the emerging threat.
In a US Department of Defense (DOD) press interview last week, US Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks rejected the notion that the US is falling behind in the development and fielding of hypersonic weapons.
She also stated that looking at emerging hypersonic weapons technologies from China, Russia and the US as an arms race can be misleading.
Hicks noted that the US has several concepts on how to defend against and when to use hypersonic weapons, emphasizing that the US focuses on developing the capabilities it needs for warfare rather than a tit-for-tat technology match against its near-peer adversaries.
Hicks also stressed that the US has a different perspective on hypersonics than China and Russia. She noted that Russia has used hypersonic weapons with no noticeable effect on the course of the Ukraine war, hinting at the possibly overhyped implications of such weapons on future conflicts.
Hicks also stated that the US is deeply invested in developing counter-hypersonics, emphasizing the need for countermeasures against adversaries who could deploy hypersonic capabilities.
Apart from developing counter-hypersonic technologies, Hicks mentioned that the US has made promising progress in several hypersonic programs and is now formulating its employment strategy.
However, despite these substantial investments, the US Naval Institute (USNI) points out that the Pentagon, for its 2023 budget, requested US$4.7 billion for hypersonic weapons research, compared to just $225.5 million for hypersonic defense.
Despite this lopsided spending between offensive hypersonic weapons and defensive hypersonic measures, multiple US sources corroborate Hicks’ views on hypersonics, challenging the wisdom behind the US’ current direction in developing such weapons.
In a 2022 Defense News article, Stephen Losey notes that a growing cohort of US experts is pushing for additional resources to build extra sensors, satellites and other technologies to defend against hypersonic weapons.
Losey cites US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall asking pointed questions about the role hypersonic weapons should play in the US arsenal and whether these weapons are worth their hefty price tag. Kendall notes that hypersonics may be one way to penetrate air defense networks, but they are not the only way.
Cost concerns are a significant issue. For example, in a 2022 Sandboxx article, Alex Hollings notes that the hypersonic weapons the US Air Force (USAF) has in development cost $106 million each while those of the US Navy (USN) run at $89.6 million per unit. He notes the cheapest US hypersonic weapon costs $40 million per round.
He goes on to compare these costs to that of a USAF F-35A fighter at $78 million – showing that one expendable hypersonic weapon comes close to or exceeds the costs of one of the US’ most capable combat aircraft. Hollings points out that the high costs of hypersonics make it difficult, if not impossible, to amass a substantial stockpile of the weapons.
Hollings also notes that cheaper missiles can accomplish many things hypersonics can at a lower cost. For example, he mentions that the US can get 50 Tomahawk subsonic cruise missiles for the price of one hypersonic and that existing air defenses could not even guarantee complete protection against much slower and older cruise and ballistic missiles.
Although he says that today’s technology cannot intercept hypersonics flying at Mach 5 or even faster, he points out that large volumes of low-cost weapons can accomplish what one high-end hypersonic can in many scenarios, with low-cost weapons readily available at present.
Hollings also points out that hypersonics are not necessarily “faster” than conventional ballistic missiles, which fly in a ballistic arc towards their targets and reach hypersonic speeds in their terminal phase.
Today’s missile defenses rely on calculating a point of intercept from a ballistic missile’s arc, assuming defenders can quickly make such calculations and interceptions.
However, hypersonic weapons negate that predictability by using maneuverable glide vehicles that can pursue an unpredictable flight path toward their targets. Asia Times has previously reported that ballistic missiles could be fired at highly-lofted trajectories, negating missile defenses through sheer speed in the same way much costlier hypersonics do.
Also, hypersonics may marginally impact the existing calculus of nuclear deterrence between the world’s major nuclear powers.
Hollings notes that if US missile defenses could not stop a full-scale nuclear attack involving hundreds of conventional ballistic missiles, there would be little sense for an attacker to mount nuclear warheads on more costly hypersonic missiles, which would make no difference in the outcome.
He also mentions that this logic would be the same if the US were to unleash a full-scale nuclear attack on its adversaries, saying that this may be why the US is not eager to match China and Russia’s hypersonic arsenals.
In addition to these cost constraints, the US might have a different doctrine for hypersonic weapons compared to China and Russia, which aim to use them as a strategic deterrent.
In a separate 2022 article in Air Force Magazine, Kendall mentions that the US does not have the same targets for its hypersonics as China and emphasizes that the US needs to think of cost-effective weapons to engage those targets.
Moreover, in Defense News, Kendall notes that current hypersonic technology is suited for hitting fixed targets. Still, the US requires capabilities against moving targets, such as warships in the South China Sea or armored fighting vehicle formations in Ukraine.
Asia Times has previously noted that the US may still be figuring out where these new weapons fit into its overall military doctrine. While the US may envision a conventional tactical role for its hypersonics, China and Russia see them as part of their strategic nuclear deterrents.