US striving to close hypersonic weapons gap on rivals

US striving to close hypersonic weapons gap on rivals

US striving to close hypersonic weapons gap on rivals
Chinese military vehicles carrying DF-17 ballistic missiles during a parade in Beijing, Oct. 1, 2019. (AP Photo)
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In the continuous military rivalry between China and the US, a new element has gained importance in recent years: hypersonic weapons. The main reason is that hypersonic weapons are capable of reaching at least Mach 5, or approximately 6,200 km per hour. Yet, while traditional long-range missiles such as ballistic missiles can reach similar speeds, hypersonic weapons can also fly at different altitudes and trajectories. This makes these weapons very difficult to defend against with current anti-missile systems, such as the well-known Patriot, because they can fly at lower altitudes while being highly maneuverable and potentially having the ability to change targets mid-flight.

The swiftness of hypersonic weapons might also allow them to hit targets, like mobile weapons systems, that are vulnerable for only short periods. In short, both China and the US see them as a key element in their future military arsenal.

As is often the case, being able to detect and counter these innovative new weapons systems is a key element for both countries. Last week, the US Missile Defense Agency reported a significant milestone: its advanced missile-tracking satellites successfully observed their first hypersonic flight test launched from Wallops Island, Virginia. These satellites are equipped with Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor cameras. This flight marked the debut of the agency’s Hypersonic Testbed, or HTB-1, which is designed for a range of hypersonic experiments. The current satellite constellation comprises 10 satellites, with plans for future expansion to achieve global coverage.

This is part of the Missile Defense Agency’s plan to enhance its capabilities to track and intercept hypersonic missiles amid increasing threats from Russia and China. The agency’s director, Lt. Gen. Heath Collins, emphasized the urgency of this mission, with plans to fully operationalize the Glide Phase Interceptor by 2035. The agency’s strategy includes integrating space and ground-based sensors to improve tracking and interception accuracy. Meanwhile, it is exploring interim solutions to bridge the gap until the Glide Phase Interceptor is ready.

The 2024 National Defense Authorization Act mandates initial capability by 2029 and full capability by 2032, though meeting these deadlines is challenging. Collins stressed the need for innovative approaches and the potential use of existing weapons to bolster current defense systems.

Additionally, the Missile Defense Agency is awaiting a new charter, expected this summer, to restore some of the decision-making powers that were reduced in 2020. This new charter aims to streamline acquisition processes and enhance the agency’s authority to expedite the deployment of missile defense capabilities.

China and Russia have already made significant advancements in hypersonic missile technology. Both countries have tested and deployed ship-launched hypersonic weapons, giving them an edge over the US in this domain. These advancements pose a significant threat to US naval forces, especially in contested environments like the Pacific.

According to US media reports, China has made significant achievements in hypersonic technology. Notably, the DF-27 hypersonic missile can fly as far as Hawaii and penetrate US missile defenses, posing a threat to American aircraft carriers. Additionally, China has developed the Starry Sky-2, its first hypersonic vehicle, using so-called waverider technology. Waverider technology leverages an aircraft’s shock waves for improved lift.

In recent years, China has conducted more hypersonic test flights than the US, surprising competitors with its advancements. These achievements highlight Beijing’s progress in terms of hypersonic systems, which present unique challenges due to their maneuverability and high speeds.

In Ukraine, Russia has made use of hypersonic weapons, both with the Kinzhal, which is air-launched and targets ground facilities, and the Zircon, which is a naval missile with even greater speed and range. North Korea is also known to have similar programs.

At the same time, the US navy is accelerating its efforts to equip its fleet with hypersonic ship-killing missiles to narrow the firepower gap to China and Russia. The Hypersonic Air-Launched Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare program aims to deploy air-launched hypersonic anti-ship cruise missiles by 2029, with potential expansions to surface and subsurface launch platforms. This initiative, part of the broader Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare project, involves competing designs from Raytheon and Lockheed Martin and promises acquisition benefits through economies of scale.

We clearly understand that space technology is crucial in the hypersonic weapons era for its role in detection, tracking, communication, interception and strategic advantage. We are noticing a faster pace of convergence of various technologies that are becoming essential for the future of every country. In this case, space-based sensors provide early detection and continuous global coverage, which are essential for tracking hypersonic missiles. These satellites enable real-time data relay and integrated command systems, ensuring a coordinated defense response.

The US plans to enhance its capabilities to track and intercept hypersonic missiles amid increasing threats from Russia and China.

Khaled Abou Zahr

Additionally, space-based interceptors and enhanced missile defense systems offer better ways to intercept hypersonic threats. This is why space technology today drives innovation in many verticals, including propulsion, materials and guidance. All that is essential for both offensive and defensive hypersonic capabilities. It also provides situational awareness, contributing to deterrence by maintaining a strong defensive posture against potential adversaries.

The crisis in Ukraine has confirmed the strategic significance of satellite constellations, prompting China and the US to investigate speedy and affordable ways to launch many satellites. The necessity for redundancy in times of conflict is an open secret that no one talks about.

A key element is to provide the capacity to have a large number of satellites launched quickly to maintain space-based communications, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and more. And so, the capacity to swiftly replace damaged or destroyed satellites in the case of a conflict is becoming more prevalent as new weapons systems are developed, especially as hypersonic spacecraft will also appear. And on this particular point, China may have already surpassed the US.

  • Khaled Abou Zahr is the founder of SpaceQuest Ventures, a space-focused investment platform. He is CEO of EurabiaMedia and editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view