Every so often, a new kind of weapon comes along that fundamentally shifts the way humans conduct warfare: bows extended the range of the battlefield, airplanes created air support, and the atomic bomb made “total war” too terrible to conduct with the regularity of conventional warfare. Increasingly, hypersonic missile platforms are beginning to look like just such a weapon — which makes it even more concerning that the United States finds itself years behind nations like China and Russia in the development of such platforms.
To qualify as a hypersonic missile, a platform must be able maintain speeds more than Mach 5, or around 3,836 miles per hour; as compared to supersonic, which requires sustained speeds above Mach 1, which is just shy of 770 miles per hour. Many of America’s workhorse ballistic missiles, like the Tomahawk for example, are subsonic, which means they travel at below Mach 1, but in exchange, are usually rather maneuverable.
Hypersonic missiles travel at such incredible speeds, in fact, that American defense officials are concerned that our existing ballistic missile defense systems aren’t up to the task of identifying, tracking, and intercepting them — making them a nearly indefensible weapon. By all accounts, the only hurdle China may have trouble overcoming if they chose to sink a Nimitz or Ford class aircraft carrier within a thousand miles or so of their shores would be an accurate targeting apparatus because nothing in America’s stable of offensive or defensive weapons would be able to down an inbound hypersonic DF-21D anti-ship missile fed with solid targeting data. Questions remain about how effective China’s targeting network may be (data would almost certainly have to be collected by a combination of satellite, aircraft and even ship based sensors), but they’ve had their hypersonic ship killer in service since 2010. So, chances are they’ve worked most of the kinks out. Russia also recently announced their own new hypersonic platform, the Kinzhal — meaning both of America’s primarily diplomatic opponents now have weapons the most powerful military in the world could not reliably counter.
While numerous endeavors are already underway to find ways to offset this capability gap, perhaps the most important of them are multiple endeavors to field an American hypersonic platform as well — giving the United States its own “indefensible” weapon to aim back at potential opponents. The problem is, after nearly two decades of counter-insurgency warfare, America’s military really got caught with their pants down in the hypersonic arena. At best, the U.S. won’t even be testing a comparable platform for early operational capability until 2022.
The U.S. may not have seen this new threat coming, but what it lacks in foresight it can often make up for with resources. In a document released by the U.S. Air Force on Monday, the branch justified the decision to award nearly a billion dollars to Lockheed Martin after what many consider to be inappropriately limited competition. The branch considered only five companies capable of delivering such a weapon, considered only three bids, and chose to go with the same company that produced the F-22 and F-35 (both to the tune of significant cost overruns) in a decision that came far faster than many government contracts — but while some cry foul that the bidding process didn’t progress with its usual pace, the Air Force has made it clear that they don’t want to waste any more time than they have to playing catch up.
The heavily redacted document alludes to two different hypersonic weapons, but reading between the lines, it seems the U.S. government is taking a two-tier approach to rapidly putting hypersonic weapons into use. The first is the brute force method: a solid fueled conventional ballistic missile based entirely on existing missile technology that uses a curved trajectory to achieve incredible speeds in a manner similar to the arc of an ICBM. This is likely the fastest, cheapest route to putting a hypersonic missile to use, and it’s the method employed by both China and Russia’s current platforms.
The second involves the use of scramjet propulsion, which is a lighter, more powerful, and more efficient engine design that is currently under development for both missiles and aircraft like the SR-72 program. This type of system will take longer to develop and field, but will likely be the face of hypersonic weapons of the future.
“Our goal is rapid development and fielding of the HCSW [Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW)] system, and this contract is the first step in achieving that goal,” said John Snyder, vice president of Air Force Strategic Programs at Lockheed Martin. “Design, development, production, integration and test experts from across Lockheed Martin will partner with the Air Force to achieve early operational capability and deliver the system to our warfighters. We are incredibly proud to be leading this effort.”
Lockheed Martin is expected to field air-launched versions of their conventional hypersonic missile within four years.
Featured image: This F-22A Raptor #03-4058 from the 27th Fighter Squadron “Fighting Eagles” located at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, fires an AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) and an AIM-9M sidewinder heat-seeking air-to-air missile at an BQM-34P “Fire-bee” subscale aerial target drone over the Gulf of Mexico during a Combat Archer mission. The unit was deployed to Tyndall AFB, Florida to support the Air-to-Air Weapons System Evaluation Program hosted by the 83rd Fighter Weapons Squadron also located at Tyndall. | U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Michael Ammons