Pentagon Developing Hypersonic Missiles, as Iran’s Navy Goes Supersonic

The Pentagon is stepping up its development of hypersonic missiles that move faster and more easily controlled once in flight, as America’s enemies also announce missile innovations.

The Defense One Tech Summit on Tuesday highlighted the Department of Defense’s initiative to resume the United States’ defense capabilities by moving forward with the hypersonic missile program technology.

Hypersonic missile testing resumed on March 19th at the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii kicking off the start of new enthusiasm in the Defense Department’s effort toward catching up with America’s competition in developing superior defense technologies.

Russia had announced fielding a hypersonic capability and that China is investing heavily in the technology, according to a press release last year on the Department of Defense website.

According to an Iranian Naval Officer who appeared on state television, Iran is investing in supersonic cruise missile technology to increase their combat capabilities in the Persian Gulf.

Hypersonic missiles are a technology the Defense Department must field to remain competitive with other great powers, said Mark J. Lewis, Director of Defense Research and Engineering for Modernization, at the Defense One Tech Summit on Tuesday.

The March 19 test of a hypersonic glide body at the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii is just the start for the Defense Department. After ample flight testing, the department began to move toward developing weapons from the concepts it’s been testing.

“The Army and the Navy both have very active programs as well looking at ways to develop this technology,” said Lewis. “Our key here is we want to deliver hypersonics at scale; and by that I mean, we want to go beyond the prototypes.”

Hypersonic weapons move faster than anything currently being used, giving adversaries far less time to react, and they provide a much harder target to counteract with interceptors.

A target missile was launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Kauai, Hawaii during Flight Test Standard Missile-45. The USS JOHN FINN (DDG-113) detected and tracked the target missile with its onboard AN/SPY-1 radar using the Aegis Baseline 9.C2 weapon system. Upon acquiring and tracking the target, the ship launched an SM-3 Block IIA guided missile which intercepted the target.

Hypersonic missiles are fast — very fast — and agile in a way that ballistic missiles or cruise missiles are not. He said the U.S. goal is to have the technology fielded at scale by the mid 2020s.

Michael E. White, Assistant Director for Hypersonics in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, said DOD is developing hypersonic weapons that can travel anywhere between Mach 5 and Mach 20.

“Over the next 12 months really what we will see is continued acceleration of the development of offensive hypersonic systems,” White said on Wednesday during an online panel discussion hosted by Defense One.

At one time, the United States had the lead in hypersonic research. Lewis noted the Air Force X-51 program, which last flew in 2013 and then was discontinued. It was a different world then, he said, and the decision at the time was to not invest in the technology.

U.S. researchers did the original work on hypersonics and early development. “And then, because we took our foot off the gas, other people were able to pick up on what we had done and build on our successes,” Lewis said.

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — Cadet 2nd Class Eric Hembling uses a Ludwieg Tube to measure the pressures, temperatures, and flow field of various basic geometric and hypersonic research vehicles at Mach 6 in The United States Air Force Academy’s Department of Aeronautics, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo/Joshua Armstrong)

“I think now we have leadership at all levels of the Pentagon — but coming from the front office — recognizing the importance of this technology, and realizing we need to put our foot on the proverbial gas,” Lewis said. “That’s that’s certainly what’s driving this.”

Those nations — Russia and China most obviously — recognized the importance of the technology and began their own programs.

Now, the United States must not only build an offensive capability, but also must handle the defensive portion, Lewis said. “The defensive part is absolutely critical as we go forward,” he added. “If I’m going to defend against hypersonic systems, there are a couple of key things that I need to do. The very first thing I need to do is to be able to detect a hypersonic weapon flying at me and respond quickly enough.”

Also part of the department’s efforts is the defense against adversary use of hypersonic missile threats — and that may involve space, said Navy Vice Adm. Jon Hill, director of the Missile Defense Agency. Land-, silo- or air-launched hypersonic weapons all challenge the existing U.S. sensor architecture, Hill said, and so new sensors must come online.

DOD is now working with the Space Development Agency on the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor to address tracking of hypersonics, the admiral said. That system is part of the larger national defense space architecture.

Hill said the department already has had a prototype of satellites in space for some time, and is collecting data from it.


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