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According to a new Air Force study, the US is vulnerable to future attack by hypersonic missiles from China and Russia.
An executive summary of the report stated: “China and the Russia are already flight-testing high-speed maneuvering weapons (HSMWs) that may endanger U.S. forces and the continental United States itself. These weapons operate with maneuverability that could frustrate existing missile defense constructs”.
Hypersonic missiles are high speed weapons that travel along the edge of the earth’s atmosphere at speeds above Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound. The missiles also can maneuver to avoid current missile defenses—all of which were developed to hit ballistic missiles with predictable flight paths.
The summary is the first U.S. military study to sound the alarm about an arms race quietly underway for several years to develop hypersonic missiles for both strategic nuclear weapons and conventional rapid strike systems.
Mark J. Lewis, chairman of the panel that produced the report, said the panel concluded “the United States may be facing a threat from a new class of weapons that will challenge this nation reach and power.”
Lewis urged the U.S. government to engage in a major effort to develop both offensive and defensive means to counter high-speed maneuvering weapons. He criticized what he termed the “relatively leisurely pace of disjointed hypersonics technology development” by the Pentagon.
In addition to China and Russia, other states are studying hypersonic weapons, including India. However, China’s multiple tests of a hypersonic glide vehicle dubbed DF-ZF appear to be the more advanced program, with recent testing that took place in April.
A Russian official announced in August that developing hypersonic missiles to defeat U.S. missile defenses is a high priority and that the first weapons could be fielded by 2020.
The Pentagon currently has no well-resourced program to either developing hypersonic missiles or to counter them. Congress has sought to prod the Missile Defense Agency into focusing more resources on hypersonic missiles.
According to freebeacon.com, defense contractor Lockheed Martin is studying an enhanced version of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense known as THAAD-ER, as a possible defense against hypersonic missiles.
The Air Force study said the combination of high-speeds and maneuverability increases the lethality of missiles that can be used to widen the range of attack options, and the missiles operate both within the atmosphere and in space in ways that make them much less vulnerable of conventional ballistic and cruise missile defenses.
Capt. Michael Hertzog, an Air Force spokesman said in a statement: “hypersonics are one of the game-changers that provides high-speed options for engaging time-sensitive targets. The Air Force is developing technologies for a high speed strike weapon to enable a responsive, long-range strike capability. These weapons can be employed from fighters and bombers and fly at hypersonic speeds to their intended target on the ground.”
The Air Force is developing what it calls a high-speed strike weapon that will travel at hypersonic speeds. The technology involved in the program includes work on explosives with increased effectiveness in the high temperatures produce by hypersonic speed. Other technology involves smaller warheads, advanced materials for lower weight and cost, precision navigation and control, and solid rocket motor technologies to boost performance for air-launched missiles.