The Challenge of Dealing with Hypersonic Cruise Missiles

By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

We first dealt with the challenge of the hypersonic cruise missiles in an article published April 16, 2014.

We have heard much about the anti-access, and area-denial threat which China poses to American and allied forces in the Pacific.  We have read much about new missiles such as the DF-21, which it is asserted can destroy maneuvering ships at sea to take off the board US aircraft carriers.  We have read of Pacific allies wish to deploy substantial fleets of F-35s, and then critics decide that these “short range” assets can not meet the crucial needs of warfighting in the Pacific.

We have also learned in the press that core competencies like amphibious assault have now become virtually impossible because of the A2 AD capabilities of China.

What is lost in all of this hyperbole is what the United States and its allies are doing to shape a new combat capability appropriate to the 21st century.  It may be true that a linear air power force would find it difficult to cope with such threats; a distributed S cubed force will not.

Sensors, combined with stealth combined with speed can provide a new paradigm for shaping the Pacific force necessary for the U.S. in working in the Pacific.

At heart of getting the policy agenda right is to understand that warfare is highly interactive.  Buying, building and deploying yesterday’s technologies against evolving threats is a sure fire way of being in the wrong side of the outcome.

As Lt. General Walsh, the Deputy Commanding General, Marine Corps Combat Development Command, put it succinctly in a recent presentation:

Some say that the development of modern anti-access, area denial threats make an amphibious assault impossible.  That has been said before and it was not true then and it is not true now.  The challenge is to leverage the asymmetric advantages we have in functions like ISR, precision first, and seabasing.  The challenge is to use the sea as a maneuver space in the context of the modern threat.  We don’t need to give up on the capability.  We need to think our way through the challenge.

This is especially true because persistent presence is a key fundamental of the kind of alliance and partner relationships necessary for 21st century Pacific operations, and the role of ships and maritime engagement is crucial across the spectrum of operations, including protecting the conveyer belt of goods and services passing through Pacific and Arctic waters.

What Walsh was hinting it is what we would call the S cubed evolution or revolution of capabilities.

Sensors, stealth and speed can come together to create a powerful distributed force in the Pacific, which can so complicate Chinese military planning as to enhance deterrence significantly. 

Artist conception of X-51 hypersonic cruise missile. Adding speed to the sensor and stealth enterprise is an essential element. Credit Drawing; Popular Mechanics, Jan 2007

A deployed fleet of F-35s – allied and American – in the Pacific lay down a strong stealth and sensor-enabled honeycomb of deployed kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities.  The reach of the fleet is such that a 21st century equivalent of the world war II big blue blanket can be created.

The F-35 has been built to be a fleet, not a silver bullet.  As Lt. General Schmidle, the Deputy Commandant of Aviation commented recently with regard to the flexibility and coverage, which the Bs can bring to a theater of operation like the Pacific:

I think that we’re going to find ourselves in a situation where we, the Marine Corps, are going to be able to offer much more to the joint force in terms of capability.  And as General Hostage put it to me, Marine Corps assets will be considered an integrated part of the joint force, in a way he has not thought of it before. The Air Force Commander will look at USMC or USN F-35s as part of his F-35 fleet from the perspective of the joint fight. 

And General Hostage underscored the air combat cloud role of the fifth generation aircraft operating as a fleet.

The advantage of the F-35 is the nature of the global fleet. Allied and American F-35s, whether USAF, USN, or USMC, can talk with one another and set up the distributed operational system. Such a development can allow for significant innovation in shaping the air combat cloud for distributed operations in support of the Joint Force Commander.

Other sensor capabilities will be provided by evolving robotic capabilities, under the sea, on the sea and in the air.  The concept of an operating wolf pack whereby robotic elements outside of the fleet and inside the planes themselves will make a stealth-sensors dynamic as a solid foundation for the weapons revolution.

We are currently putting 3rd and 4th generation weapons on 5th generation aircraft.  This makes little sense.  With a plane that can see significantly further than the weapons it carries can operate, the capabilities of the plane are being limited by the past, rather than enabling a new strike enterprise future.

We have written elsewhere about the core elements of the weapons revolution enabled by the F-35.

But the core capability which we wish to highlight here and link to the third S – speed – is offboarding of weapons.  Offloading of weapons will be a fundamental opportunity posed by the 5th generation aircraft. The former Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Schwartz spoke prior to his departure of F-22s training to guide Tomahawk missiles off of surface ships to their targets.

Our testing last year of an F22 in-flight, retargeting a tomahawk cruise missile that was launched from a U.S. Navy submarine, is an example of how we are moving closer to this joint pre-integration under our Air-Sea Battle concept.

This is simply the hint of things to come.

The F-35 has a 360-degree situational awareness and data delivery capability. This poses the possibility of leveraging the 360-degree space to guide weapons to their targets. Target acquisition onboard does not have to be married to weapons CARRIED on board.

This means as well that classic distinctions between tactical fighters doing close air support, or air superiority missions or air defense missions are clearly blurred.  The fleet flies and identifies targets for the various mission sets and can guide weapons to a diversity of target sets.  The reach of the fleet is the key to the operation of the fleet, not the range of individual aircraft.

Shaping a new distributed operational capability when added to the coming revolution in speed will provide the US with a range of options to deal with global threats, including any presumed advantages of the Chinese area denial strategy.

Mark Lewis, the former Chief Scientist of the Air Force and now head of IDA’s Science and Technology Policy Institute, is one the leading hypersonic experts in the world.  Lewis has underscored that a hypersonic cruise missile is the low hanging fruit of the hypersonics revolution.

In considering the impact of a high speed missile with evolutions in warheads carried by such missiles one can see the breakthrough possibilities.  We discussed with Lewis the types of warheads, which could be delivered by such, a missile.

The goal would be to marry the missile with warheads, which have the ability to get inside the electronics, the fire controls, the signals, the sensors of your opponent flying at hypersonic speeds. With a forward deployed stealth fleet doing target identification as well being available rapidly to prosecute combat advantage from the results of the strike, American and allied forces would be not only more lethal, but a much more effective deterrent force.

Hypersonic cruise missiles are part of the competitive landscape with the Russians, the Indians and the Chinese all investing in these capabilities.  We have allies like Australia and France as core players as well in shaping future capabilities.  This is not a race one wants to lose to the Chinese, notably because the roll out of the stealth fleet could make such good use of such a capability.

Clearly investments need to be made in this area or more to the point pooled to shape an effective outcome.

As Lewis underscored:

I would also draw analogies to the early work that eventually led to the development of ICBMs.  The initial resistance of the bomber community to ICBMs was significant.  General Le May originally referred to them as “firecrackers.”  But to his credit and that of the rest of the USAF leadership, they marshalled the resources and built the ICBM fleet.

I think hypersonic flight requires a very, very similar change in mindset.  The fact that I can flight at such speeds means that I can reach in quickly and that I can reach far. Hypersonic systems would give us the ability to marry surgical precision with rapidity of action.  And would also provide a measure of invulnerability in the face of enemy defenses as well.

Rather than thinking of it as a silver bullet but part of an S Cubed force, hypersonic speed could enable the forward deployed F-35 stealth fleet to guide lethality to a broad variety of targets.

Such game changing technology needs to be a high priority for DOD and NASA investments.   And certainly it can be, as money is saved from exploiting the inherent advantages of the weaponization of the F-35 fleet.  As allies develop new missiles and pay to integrate them on the global fleet, the US has access directly to such missiles and in block 4 of the software upgrade we will see MBDA, Kongsberg and Turkish missiles then available across the fleet.

This frees the US from investing in its own capabilities to mimic allied missiles for the F-35 fleet or the legacy fleet.  Investments can be concentrated on a breakthrough technology, like hypersonic cruise missiles, or increasingly faster cruise missiles with new types of warheads.

And associated with shaping new delivery vehicles is the development of new warheads as well.  New warheads can be developed for the hypersonic missile which have the ability to get inside the electronics, the fire controls, the signals, the sensors of your opponent and to do it at very high speed.

And one way to understand the potential for change is to revisit the large deck aircraft carrier and its future. Does not a hypersonic missile woven into a fleet of evolving capabilities significantly enhance the viability of the force and its lethality?

Imagine the F-35Bs and Cs provide the forward punch to the sea force and identifying forward targets along with robotic elements deployed in the water, under the water and in the, air and guiding a set of new weapons on the F-18s based on the carriers, including a hypersonic cruise missile.

What is there not to like about a maneuvering ship with a variable geometry strike force onboard? 

In short, sensors, combined with stealth combined with speed can provide a new paradigm for shaping the Pacific force necessary for the US in working in the Pacific.

As Lewis put it: “Distance only gives you tyranny if you’re clanking along at 30 knots.  If I’m flying at mach 2, mach 3, mach 5, mach 6, I don’t think distance is such a tyranny any longer.  And I think that’s what speed and range, by the way, in combination brings to the equation.”

Many of these themes will be examined in a forthcoming book (by Robbin Laird, Ed Timperlake and Richard Weitz) Rebuilding American Military Power in the Pacific: A 21st Century Strategy, to be published by Praeger Publishers later this year.

An earlier version of this piece appeared on AOL Defense.

The Air Force is working with Lockheed Martin to design a new hypersonic prototype. The service previously explored the technology with tests of the X-51A Waverider, shown here under the wing of a B-52 bomber. (U.S. Air Force graphic)