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US hypersonic weapons trail those of competitors

16th September 2021 - 12:45 GMT | by David Walsh in Washington DC


The USAF launched its AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (AARW) programme in 2018. (Lockheed Martin)

China and Russia are leading the way in terms of fielding hypersonic missiles.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has cautioned that Chinese and Russian recent advances in hypersonic missile technology may tempt them to challenge the US in contested regions, potentially circumscribing allies’ manoeuvre space and spheres of influence.

CRS, citing experts, noted this important because Russia’s hypersonic missiles became operational in December 2019 and China’s last year. The US, conversely, is not expected to field any until 2022-23 at the earliest.

This strategic imbalance is concentrating minds stateside and abroad. Peer competitors’ hypersonic missiles are far more dangerous and roughly seven times faster than ballistic missiles.

The weapons are also manoeuvrable in flight. Dauntingly, some Chinese models are claimed able to jump oceans and continents. These traits, high-ranking Pentagon officials acknowledged, put them beyond the capabilities of Western anti-missile defences. Even tracking them from space is near impossible.

Among hostile operational hypersonic missiles are China’s Starry Sky-2, SF-ZF and DF-17, and Russia’s Avangard. Typically, these nemeses field hypersonic glide vehicles. Altogether, they are deemed fearsomely capable, accurate tools, particularly if launched in multiples against slow-moving targets like aircraft carriers. Warheads are conventional or nuclear.

The US has not been idle. As part of the Pentagon’s conventional global strike programme, noted the CRS report, the US has ‘actively pursued’ manoeuvrable hypersonic-weapon developments with Mach 5+ speeds since the early 2000s.

The core problem is that adversaries’ R&D undertakings are more concerted, and their programmes and systems considerably more mature than the West’s. How worrisome the disparity is depends on whom you ask.

The DoD’s hypersonics lead Mike White is upbeat. The $3.8 billion hypersonic budget proposal for 2022 (18% over FY2021’s) was a ‘milestone’, he said at a Washington think-tank in June, its ‘accelerated buying strategy’ helping move the strategic needle.

Earmarked monies let the US ‘really [quicken] the fielding of capability … in numbers, once [the weapons systems] are developed.’

China unveiled the DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle in a 2019 parade in Beijing. (Gordon Arthur)

But there is frustration over lags. The DoD point man in his remarks told industry partner Lockheed Martin to get cracking on delivering a key capability. White referred to the USAF’s vaunted hypersonic boost-glide missile, the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (AARW). Launched in 2018, the $480 million programme would enjoy rapid prototyping’, Lockheed then promised.

However, this July a second ARRW flight test failed when the motor did not ignite.

The General Accountability Office – which has faulted the project for delays and cost overruns – said in March that AARW might achieve a ‘residual operational capability’ with fielding in late FY2022.

For now, though, gains for the weapon look piecemeal. The USAF recently disclosed it had successfully detonated an ARRW missile warhead.

The US Army, its development office said, hopes by year end to have made serious progress on a long- and a medium-range hypersonic glide weapon. The first employs the rocket booster-powered Army-Navy Common Hypersonic Glide Body.

There are dozens of hypersonic stakeholders and initiatives (including a US-Australian project) and much R&D, prototyping and limited testing. Primary goals centre on agility, range and Mach 5+ speeds of around 5,630km/h.

Of the nation’s hypersonic progress overall, however, the GAO observed, ‘…No hypersonic efforts are in production.’ Nor, significantly, has the Pentagon any hypersonic programmes of record.

Daniel Goure, a former senior Pentagon official and defence analyst, told Shephard that to foes the most ‘angst-producing’ American development is likely the joint Army-Navy hypersonic glide vehicle. Last year it was test-flown across the ocean without mishap. ‘They are,’ added Goure, ‘deployable on multiple platforms, mobile army vehicles and attack submarines, in particular.’

For its part the ARRW ‘if [proven], could be deployed in large numbers, which would give the Russians and Chinese fits’.

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