For years, the Pentagon has dreamed and worked to build what it has called Prompt Global Strike, The idea is simple: to build a hypersonic weapon that can destroy targets anywhere on earth within an hour of getting targeting data and permission to launch. The technology and the physics are not simple; nor are they cheap. On Oct. 30 the Navy Strategic Systems Program tested an Intermediate Range Conventional Prompt Strike test. But China presses ahead with a vigorous hypersonic program, and Russia is trying hard too. Rep. Rob Wittman, chair off the tellingly-named House Armed Services subcommittee for seapower and power projection, argues in this op-ed that America must forge ahead. Read on. The Editor.
Last week, President Trump signed into law the Bipartisan Budget Act, which empowers the military to address critical national defense needs. Our military has been operating under harmful stop-gap spending bills (continuing resolutions) for over 1,000 days. However, there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel – providing a clear path forward for stable funding. This two-year budget agreement ensures our Armed Forces will have the resources they need to carry out their missions. This legislation lifts the outdated budget caps, ends dangerous sequestration through 2019, and finally puts us back on a path to fixing our current readiness crisis.
One capability that demands our attention in this new budget environment is hypersonic weapons. A hypersonic weapon is one that travels faster than Mach 5 — 5,000-25,000 km/hr, or about one mile to five miles per second. These new types of weapons are classified as either hypersonic glide vehicles or hypersonic cruise missiles. Both types have great speed and maneuverability, enabling these weapons to penetrate most missile defenses, compress timelines, and complicate the decision-making process of a nation under attack.
On January 30th, I received a classified brief on hypersonic weapon development from the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics’ office. This briefing highlighted recent progress in hypersonic weapon development and provided lawmakers an opportunity to further understand and ask questions regarding progress and future plans. It is apparent that the need to keep persistent focus on development and steady investment in this area is vital.
Since the conclusion of the Cold War, the United States has held an uncontested long-range strike advantage through Tomahawk cruise missiles, long-range bombers, and carrier-based aircraft. Having these capabilities has allowed the United States to confidently enter contested regions, prepare the battle-space for further military action, and accomplish strategic goals without having to put boots on the ground. Reinforcing our traditional diplomatic tools, our long-range strike capability permitted negotiating from a position of strength.
However, in recent years both Russia and China have developed long-range standoff weapons which create large denied environments which reduces our strategic advantage. China flighted tested their hypersonic glide vehicle, the DF-17, in November and expects to reach Initial Operating Capability in 2020. Russia has developed the 3M22 Zircon hypersonic cruise missile which could be tested this year. Both weapons are designed to travel great distances at blistering speeds to defeat all military defense systems and could conceivably be fitted with a nuclear warhead. These missiles could be used to strike mobile targets like ships and land-based launchers.
Due to the high costs for development and the daunting technical challenges, few nations can afford to conduct significant hypersonic research and development.
In order to regain the upper hand, the U.S. must pursue a two-tiered approach – stress existing international agreements that help prevent proliferation and boost our own robust technological investment.
The United States military has been developing hypersonic technology since 2003. The Department of Defense is currently testing a system that could deliver a conventional warhead anywhere in the world in a little as an hour. In November 2017, the Navy tested a submarine launched variant and if successful, this would serve as an ideal launch platform because of its stealth and survivability. The Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, highlighted in the 2018 National Defense Strategy that rapid technological advancement is changing the character of war. These and other hypersonic developments like the Navy’s railgun and hypervelocity projectile, currently being developed within my congressional district at Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) Dahlgren, are technologies that will enable us to fight and win the wars of the future. I look forward to hearing about further developments and how the Pentagon will meet the National Defense Authorization Act-mandated capability deadline of 2022.
We must do more. While Russia, China, and the United States are known to be developing hypersonic capabilities, countries like France and India may not be far behind. There are several pacts that address development and proliferation of missile technologies throughout the world, including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). These and other agreements are essential and need to be constantly reexamined and enforced appropriately.
Congress plays a vital role in ensuring that our Nation has the resources it needs to operate effectively and to fulfill critical missions. We cannot be complacent. Through effective development and acquisition of hypersonics, we can give our decision makers what they need to meet the challenges of today and prepare for the threats of tomorrow.