23 October 2019

A new test in the arms race – Hypersonic Weapons

Mircea Mocanu

With the New START treaty to be signed in 2021, the global strategic balance in the field of ballistics is put to the test. Even before this, states which owned ballistic missiles sought to achieve asymmetry in their advantage, through technological solutions which are not included in weapons control treaties. Among these solutions there is one which stands out, which US Senator Angus King compares to the longbow, the weapon which helped the English defeat a French army four times its size at Agincourt in 1415 (of course, there was also the mud caused by intense rain). We are talking about hypersonic missiles, the poster-invention of the current ballistic scene. These platforms can reach speeds of over Mach 5, and are at the same time manoeuvrable, a combination which instantly gained the attention of military planners in the great powers. At speeds of over 10,000 km/h, they create a plasma shield which makes radars useless and are guided by an infrared sensor, a technology that current security systems seem inadequate to deal with. This the land of a new arms race: the field of hypersonic weapons.

Image source: Mediafax

Historical evolutions favoured Russia’s progress

The Soviet Union was interested in the idea of constructing a strategic bomber which could achieve hypersonic speeds ever since Stalin. But the use of airplanes for transporting a load to the target was abandoned in favour of the ballistic missile solution, an idea which was reinvigorated during the Strategic Defense Initiative period, launched by US President Ronald Reagan, a program better known as “Star Wars”. Then, after the USSR and communism collapsed, investments in the area were scaled back greatly.

The situation changed, however, after the end of the Cold War and 9/11, after which the US massively reoriented its strategical concerns towards states that were hostile to counteracting the terrorist threat. In that period, post-Soviet Russia granted some attention to its own terrorists (the Chechens), but also powerfully revigorated its conventional weaponry programs, focusing on nuclear weapons and target transport vectors.

Therefore, in 2017, the TASS news agency announced the successful test of the anti-ship Zirkon missile, launched from the land, which would have reached a Mach 8 speed and a range of 400 km, with future tests to include launching from a ship. Switching from the operational to the strategic level, President Vladimir Putin announced the completion of the Avangard missile in March 2018, with a range of 6,000 km, which makes it intercontinental. The news agency reported that “this glider is capable of achieving hypersonic speeds in the dense layers of the atmosphere and steer on a trajectory even while changing its flight altitude, thus managing to bypass any anti-missile shield”. According to the director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Gen. Lt. Robert Ashley, Jr., the Avangard “glider” can be carried to its destination by the Sarmat ballistic missile, from where it will begin its decent at hypersonic speeds.

At the same time, in the idea of launching from air platforms (Mig-31), Russia also announced the completion of the Kinzhal missile, with a range of about 1,500 – 2,000 km, capable of transporting a nuclear load of 480 kg to its target.

China is recovering ground fast

With a start delayed by the reduced level of economic and technological development, authorities in Beijing have recovered the distance through enormous efforts. According to the Pentagon’s Technological Research Sub-Secretary Michael Griffin, China is closing in on the moment in which it will have operational hypersonic systems with a range of thousands of miles, as of 2019.

In May, Jane’s magazine published a report (“China’s Advanced Weapons Systems”) which states that hypersonic vehicles are an important area of development for the People’s Liberation Army, and the Pentagon’s 2019 report to the US Congress specifies the budget increases which make significant developments possible in this field. Beijing’s defence budget grows on a year-to-year with 6%, and will reach USD250 billion by 2022. The report states that, “based on credible economic projections and a constant attention for defence, China will remain, alongside the United States, the state with the highest military budgets in the Indian-Pacific region”.

If the technological achievements announced by Moscow show capabilities in an extended field, from a theatre of operation to an intercontinental level, it seems that Beijing is approaching a more limited vision, meant to only ensure control in the Far East, up to the second row of Pacific isles, which would include Guam. This operational concept is perceived by the Pentagon as attempting to penetrate US anti-missile defence in East Asia, and therefore threatens US bases controlled by the Indian-Pacific Command and any warships which are carrying out mission in the Western Pacific Ocean. According to the author of the report published in Jane’s, “China will have a weapons system with the potential to destabilize and probably remodel the dynamic of regional and global security”.

Following a failed test in August 2014, all of Beijing’s tests with the hypersonic DF-ZF vehicle were successful and added China to the list of hypersonic technology owners. At the same, China is developing the medium-range ballistic missile Dongfeng-17, capable of raising the hypersonic glider to the altitude needed to launch it to its target. The missile is predicted to achieve initial operational capability in 2020, with a range of between 1,800 – 2,000 km.

For ground testing, China is using an aerodynamic tunnel which allows tests up to Mach 9 and will construct a more performant tunnel, for speeds up to Mach 25.

The veracity of public information in the field of hypersonic technology

Military analysts are receiving the reports on technological successes from China and Russia with caution, as these powers have an inclination towards propaganda in the field of security and have registered advances in information operations. At the same time, analysis impose caution in formulating policies and strategies to counteract threats from Moscow and Beijing, because these countries can provoke serious incidents by using prototypes or products which have not been subjected to conclusive tests.

The technological effort is seriously taken into consideration, however, even if the results are still at an experimental stage, and there are doubts on whether these new weapons can be made operational. On the other hand, even the weapons which are presented for propaganda reasons can be used as an argument during negotiations, or rather blackmail, only by the perspective of them becoming operational. In Russia’s case, tradition shows that resounding technological successes are followed through by delays of the next stages for operationalizing advanced weapons and a decrease in the entire program’s scope of ambition.

If the actual level attained in the development of hypersonic weapons should be taken with a grain of salt, the provocations are certain, and decision factors need to consider serious measures to counteract them.

There is also the issue of mass production

The spectacular achievements announced by Russia and China refer to technologic and experimental successes, which were achieved with outstanding financial and engineering efforts. But there is a long way to go until these prototypes will go from a technological process in a laboratory to industry, and then to mass production and operationalizing the new weapons.

Massive endowment with such weapons could have Russia face a new race in type of the one generated by the Star Wars, which ended in the collapse of the Soviet Union. The 2019 Economic Freedom Index, published by the Heritage Foundation, highlights the fact that the low price of oil, Western sanctions for the illegal annexation of Crimea and spending to reinvigorate the armed forces have considerably thinned Russia’s finances. That is why Moscow insists to already use the boost in image granted by these achievements before it needs to launch a missile in an actual conflict situation or tests which are performed transparently.

Financially, China has a better situation, and could manufacture much more advanced weapons than Russia, if its industrial base could allow for the mass production of its experimental technological successes, which is not certain.

As for mass production, the third competitor in the hypersonic race, the United States, has announced solid intentions, taking into account the fact that producing thousands of hypersonic weapons or defence system against them requires an entire industrial base. According former US Deputy Secretary of State Patrick Shanahan, the Pentagon will seek to instil a competition between two and three specialized manufacturers. To this end, Michael Griffin said in a December 2018 meeting with representatives of the US weapons’ industry that “the industry will receive a clear message from the Department of Defense on how to proceed with developing offensive and defensive, hypersonic weapon systems, and we trust that you will answer accordingly”. As of mid-2019, companies such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Boeing, Pratt & Whitney are already committed to the development of hypersonic weapons.

US efforts to develop hypersonic weapons

The Pentagon requested the US Congress USD2.6 billion for hypersonic technologies in the 2020 budget and will almost double its investments in the field over the following five years (from USD6 billion to 11.2 billion). In his statement to the Congress, Michael Griffin mentioned that the Pentagon intends to “carry out approximately 40 test flights” in the following years, in order to accelerate the timetable for these technologies with several years from initial plans.

The considered operational concept is dual, just as is the case with Russia’s programs. On one side, there is a “hypersonic glider” launched from intercontinental ballistic missiles against hard skin targets, strategically. On the other, development has started for medium range hypersonic missiles – Tactical boost-glide (TBG) and a hypersonic air-breathing weapon concept (HAWC), to be launched from aircraft, warships or ground platforms, in missions against soft skin targets. For the ground tactical field, hypersonic weapons are designed to strike objectives deep into the frontline, from “future cannon”-type artillery systems in Anti Access Area Denial (A2AD) situations and against mixed targets, be it super-protected infrastructure or important infrastructure in the theatre of operations. As in the case of the conventional environment, this type of artillery would create “windows of opportunity” to be exploited by joint forces.

The technological difficulties mostly concerned the production of materials and propulsion systems which will function with precision and safety at temperatures in the thousands of degrees. That is why redundancy must be covered in the project phase and numerous tests are necessary, with re-designs and important adjustments following each such test.

The Pentagon’s efforts continue the activity carried out the DARPA research agency since 2003, when the US Navy was carrying out hypersonic tests at the Point Mug sea firing range in California, and experimented the auto-propulsion “scramjet” technology. DARPA Director Steven Walker stated in May 2019 that “technologically… we were at the vanguard of the hypersonic field. But I think that some of our competitors transferred the technology into military capabilities faster than we did”.

The hypersonic projects of the US military

Although three categories of armed forces are separately carrying out development projects for hypersonic weapons, they cooperate based on a memorandum on drafting, developing, testing and manufacturing these weapons.

Among the Air Forces, Director S. Walker states that two prototype hypersonic vehicles will achieve flight by the end of 2019, and Raytheon announced at the end of July that the final draft for the TBG vehicle was ready. The TBG prototype will be taken over and  made operational as an Advanced Response Rapid Weapon (ARRW) by Lockheed Martin, which received a USD480 million contract in August 2018. An option equipped only with sensors (AGM-183A) was flighty tested in at the Edwards Air Base in California this June. The ARRW hypersonic weapon is planned to become operational in 2022.

The US Navy is developing three hypersonic projects: a TBG, a conventional rapid strike weapon and an ARRW, having contracts with Lockheed Martin in this regard worth USD2.5 billion. At the same time, the US Navy is developing a specialized complex for testing vehicles launched from the air in the Mojave Desert, and is studying the project of a testing complex for vehicles launched underwater.

At the same time, the US Army is developing tactical hypersonic missiles named OpFires, which can penetrate any anti-air defence in the tactical field. The US Army’s ambition is to provide battery-based hypersonic weapons until 2023, two years faster than initially planned. The Army requested a budget of US228 million to this purpose for 2020, with an additional 130 million for the hypersonic weapon prototype. The US Army will also develop a complementary system named “long-range strategic cannon”, as well land transport and launch vehicles for hypersonic weapons.

Several conclusions and analogies

Developments in the hypersonic weapons field are natural in the current global political context, because it offers the solution to immediately transfer the country which possesses such weapons on a superior level of military power, similar to the status of nuclear power. The importance of these weapons are granted by three elements: 1) they are an antidote against ballistic nuclear weapons, which they can destroy taking into account the operational speed; 2) they pierce anti-missile defence and make some formidable fighting platforms vulnerable, such as airplane carriers; 3) they are not forbidden by any international treaty (for those who are still sensible to this apparently obsolete aspect).

As for the operational concept, we need to take into account the cost/efficiency ratio, more specifically the use of hypersonic weapons against targets which could justify their cost. Even if there are projects for the operational and tactical level, the strategic one is the priority, logically, although it is shown way less to the public…

In the “hypersonic race”, if Russia and China have an advantage (possibly) at the moment, time works in favour of the US, who have the financial and industrial resources necessary to recover the gap and massively equip the Pentagon’s armed forces with this weapon of the future. At the same time, US financial power and the solidity of its defence industry seem to favour the US retaking the lead position in this race, especially in the “America first” political context.

There is another argument in favour of the United States: if in other fields, including the military, closer ties between Russia and China are not excluded, a weapon from the most recent prohibitive technology is still shielded from the perspective of a strategic cooperation between Moscow and Beijing. Their enemy seems to be a common one, the US, so military cooperation would be logical. But other interests still differ substantially, and Russia, with increasing economic problems, is also found on the routes of the new “silk roads”, where China’s economic expansionism swallows everything in its path.

Therefore, a hypersonic arms race could have the same course as the Star Wars initiative, which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, left “without air” to continue to the race.

In a race with three competitors, the issues are, of course, more complicated.

Translated by Ionut Preda