The Pentagon has made is abundantly clear that it wishes the United States to begin flying hypersonic missiles by 2020. While the United States military has said repeatedly that these missiles would only carry conventional warheads, Russia and China appear to be interested in fastening nuclear warheads to their own hypersonic missiles which could force the United States’ hand.
Missiles flying at 3,500 miles per hour
While traditional ballistic missiles reach hypersonic speeds, they are not maneuverable and are forced out of the Earth’s atmosphere. This isn’t the case with the planned next-gen hypersonic missiles currently under development by a number of defense contractors. The missiles being designed would, according to the Pentagon, allow for fast in-theater conventional strikes at targets in a rapid manner once launched by airplane, on the ground or by boat/submarine.
Presently, contractors are looking at two distinctly different means by which to get missiles to reach the imagined speeds: ‘scramjet’ and ‘boost glide.’
The scramjet hypersonic missile reaches its maximum speed by flooding the engine with fuel and air as its flying to accelerate rapidly. The boost glide missile would ride a reenrty vehicle to the upper reaches of the Earth’s atmosphere where it would skip into space to speed up.
“Hypersonic weapons can be more survivable because of the extreme speed and high altitude. They would be hard to stop,” said J.R. Smith, director of Raytheon’s Advanced Land Warfare Systems.
Raytheon has been given $20 million by The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA) to work on the Raytheon Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC), and the Raytheon/Lockheed Tactical Boost Glide. DARPA also gave Lockheed $24 million to work on its Lockheed Martin Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 program as well as the above joint project with Raytheon.
“At this point, our hypersonics program is really a technology development program, purely focused on conventional” payloads, said Stephen Welby, assistant defense secretary for research and engineering.
“There’s nothing in the budget” for arming hypersonics with nuclear weapons Welby said when speaking at the National Defense Industrial Association last week.
That’s all well and good but Washington alleges that both China and Russia are looking at hypersonic missiles to deliver nuclear payloads. Quite simply, the United States will surely arm its hypersonics with nuclear payloads as well, which would be a U-turn on present policy but also necessary as a deterrent.
Whether the United States tells the world that it has hypersonic missiles with nuclear payloads is another animal altogether.
Hypersonic missiles still a ways away
Speaking at the same association meeting, David Walker, the U.S. Air Force deputy assistant secretary for science, technology and engineering, spoke of the long-term plans for hypersonics.
“It’s 2020 for the missile, 2030 … until you get into something that’s refurbishable’ and probably 2040 until you get into something that’s a totally reusable type of capability.”
The conventional uses of the missile are manifold. The military could attack hardened targets quickly without risking pilots nor planes if a missile can cross countries in mere minutes.
“Our goal is to make sure the Air Force has the knowledge in 2020 or over the next five years to be able to make acquisition decisions using this technology,” Kenneth Davidson, manager of the hypersonic materials development at the Air Force Research Laboratory recently told military.com in an interview.
“You could then attack defensive targets, those heavily defended or the time-critical targets in a very timely manner — if it’s a moving target, before it can move,” Davidson continued.
The problem is that other countries would have no way of knowing if the inbound missile, that is too fast for airplanes or present missile defense systems to shoot down, is carrying a conventional package or a nuclear one beyond assurances from the “enemy.”
And this is how a potential nuclear counterstrike could end up being launched. A conventional payload on one missile that triggers a nuclear attack from another. And then the dominoes just keep falling on the way to a nuclear winter and massive death toll.
The U.S. Air Force has already achieved 3,800 miles per hour (hypersonic flight) with its X-51A WaveRider flying off the coast of Southern California. The X-51A WaveRider flew at Mach 5.1 for three minutes under the power of its scramjet engine.
And the Air Force has made it clear, that ultimately these planes will carry bombs and missiles.
“We are the Air Force. What do we want to do with this technology? We want to weaponize it,’ said Ryan Helbach, an official with the Air Force Research Laboratory.
“The follow-on program to this is the High Speed Strike Weapon effort. It’s taking a lot of the lessons learned and the technology and moving to a weapons acquisition.”
No fear mongering here, but this is scary.