The Coming of Hypersonics: How to Deal with the Challenge

By Defense.Info

Hypersonics has been a key priority for the US until the last Administration pushed the work done to that date into dormancy.

But neither the Russians nor the Chinese went to sleep while the US focused on and resource the land wars instead.

They continued to make progress on this new capability, and with the coming to power of a new Administration, the US is returning to the hypersonics realm.

The new head of Pentagon R and D clearly has highlighted both the threat and the need to focus on hypersonics research and capabilities.

“It is our adversaries, not us, who have chosen to weaponize this type of capability,” Griffin said, adding that the U.S. would not be eclipsed by Russia and China.

Griffin’s comments came on the heels of Chinese reports announcing the first successful testing of a hypersonic aircraft, a feat the U.S. has yet to accomplish.

When asked about China’s sprint to deploy this new breed of weapon, Griffin described Beijing’s efforts as “much more thoughtful” compared with Moscow’s developments.

“The Chinese have been much more thoughtful in their systems development because they are developing long-range tactical precision-guided systems that will be really influential in a conventional fight,” Griffin said. “The Chinese ability to hold our forward deployed assets at risk with very high speed and very hard to intercept precision-guided systems is something to which we have to respond,” he added.

But there is a key question: how best to pursue and deal with the hypersonic threat?

With the President’s emphasis on building a new space force through a space corps, naturally, the space element has been heightened as a key element to deal with hypersonics.

And with the appointment of Griffin and loading the Pentagon with space stalwarts, the emphasis could really be narrowly focused on space as the venue and instrument.

Sandra Erwin of Space News recently highlighted the space dimension of the hypersonics dynamic as follows:

The Pentagon’s panel of four-star generals known as the Joint Oversight Requirements Council will be briefed this fall on potential solutions to a major national security vulnerability: hypersonic weapons that fly into space at supersonic speeds and descend back down to Earth directly on top of targets.

Current sensors could track some portions of the flight but more coverage is needed for the midcourse.

China has been testing hypersonic glide vehicles successfully, and is advancing the technology at an alarming pace, warned Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin. 

The hypersonic threat brings a “new urgency” that the United States has not seen since the Cold War.

A defensive shield would require global coverage and the cost of doing that with ground radars would be prohibitive so this has to be done in space, Griffin said.

“Our response has to be a proliferated space sensor layer, possibly based off commercial space developments.”

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency is reviewing proposed concepts for a space-based sensor layer from nine companies: Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, General Atomics, Maxar, Draper Labs, Leidos, Millennium Space and Boeing.

Industry sources said the studies will include options such as constellations in low and medium orbits.

Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, who chairs the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, has asked MDA to come back with an “assessment of the sensor requirements.” What will the sensors have to be able to see? How large should the constellation of sensors be? How would sensors in space connect to command and control systems?

“Those are big hard requirements,” Selva told SpaceNews last week at a Mitchell Institute breakfast. “We asked for a systems engineering assessment for how they will link all that together.” The JROC expects to see a more concrete plan this fall.

During a roundtable with reporters last week, Griffin cautioned that the traditional approach to developing “exquisite” military satellites is not going to work.

The Pentagon already has a network of early warning heat-detecting satellites in geostationary earth orbit that can see missile launches.

The new layer of sensors will be aimed at low-flying hypersonic glide vehicles.

What’s needed: “persistent, timely global, low-latency surveillance to track and provide fire control for hypersonic threats.”

If the solution is in space, Selva suggested, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if a commercial constellation of satellites actually had some capacity? If that’s true why would we build our own?”

(SN Military Space, August 14, 2018).

But shaping enhanced sensing in space or an ability perhaps to strike before or during the early launch cycle from space is only part of what is required.

The core problem is how to defend deployed assets through effective endgame strategies leveraging  a kill web.

How does is the fleet admiral and the surface warfare officers empowered to kill incoming hypersonic threats?

To know you are going to be killed is not enough; it is to have the means, processes, procedures and information for the weapons officers on what and how to execute the kill function.

Ed Timperlake addresses this challenge in both of his pieces in this special edition focused on hypersonics;  first in his S cubed piece and secondly, in his discussion of the kill box challenge.

It is important to put the challenge in perspective.

As one leading researcher on hypersonics put it with regard to U.S. dormancy during the last Administration as well as the evolving Chinese and Russian threats:

The magnitude of the Chinese investment, the number of people they have, the facilities they are building, the ties to their academia, make it all real.  

They are flight-testing regularly, and with amazing success.

And hypersonics fits in perfectly with their doctrine.

The Chinese saw Hypersonics as an area that they could develop and surpass the US, and we made it easy for them. 

Frankly, an enemy intelligence operative couldn’t have disrupted our progress in the field more effectively than we have done to ourselves.

The USAF flew its X-51 successfully in May 2013- what have we done since then?

Instead of continuing and building on that success, we were penny wise-pound foolish; the Air Force gave away most of its money in this area to DARPA, which effectively started over from scratch.

As a result, in the year 2018 we are farther away from flying a scramjet-powered hypersonic craft than we were in 2010.

How insane is that? 

The Russians are also a threat, but in their case it is more hype than worry.

And as a senior retired USAF officer put it with regard to the Chinese program on hypersonics:

First, they have a long way to go to operationalize this vehicle.

Second, the US should already have an operational hypersonic military aircraft, but neglect by Congress and past Administrations to ensure our military was funded to capitalize on advanced technologies, and instead shifting those funds in the 90’s and 00’s to the “peace dividend;” explosive growth in entitlement spending; and strategically misguided Army occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan squandered our military technological advantage.

That misallocation of national resources is still continuing today.  

Unfortunately, it will take another catastrophe to wake up America to the need for the advanced capabilities and capacities that are required to achieve military preeminence to deter high-end warfare in the future—and to fight and win if necessary.

Featured Photo: Starry Sky 2, China’s first experimental hypersonic waverider vehicle, is launched inside a rocket on Friday. China Daily