The U.S. Needs a Hypersonic Capability Now
Arthur HermanDec. 6, 2021 6:42 pm ET
Eighty years ago, imperial Japan used a technology first developed by the U.S. and the U.K.—carrier-based bombing and torpedo attacks—to cripple the American Navy at Pearl Harbor. Americans must now wonder whether China is setting the stage for another devastating attack on American forces using another U.S.-pioneered technology: hypersonic missiles.
China’s July 2021 test of a hypersonic missile was literally a shot “around the world,” according to Gen. John Hyten, the departing vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “It went around the world, dropped off a hypersonic glide vehicle that glided all the way back to China, that impacted a target in China,” he told CBS News. When asked why China was developing this advanced technology, Gen. Hyten replied, “They look like a first-use weapon. That’s what those weapons look like to me.”
Hypersonic weapons don’t follow a single trajectory like ballistic missiles. They can twist and turn on their way to a target, while their incredibly high speeds—above Mach 5, or a mile a second—make it impossible for existing land- and space-based systems to detect a hypersonic attack until very late in the missile’s flight path. It also isn’t clear whether current U.S. command-and-control systems can process data fast enough to respond to a head-on hypersonic threat.
China tested a second nuclear-capable missile carrying a hypersonic glide vehicle on Aug. 13. This means that Beijing is surging ahead with a technology against which the U.S. has very limited capability for defense or detection.
The shame is that the U.S. has been the primary developer of hypersonic vehicles, going back to the X-15 program in the 1960s. According to Mike Griffin, a former undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, the U.S. effectively shut down its hypersonic effort in the mid-2010s—while China made hypersonics a Manhattan Project-level priority. As a result, Gen. Hyten told the website BreakingDefense.com in October, China has performed “hundreds” of tests of hypersonic weapons in the past five years, while the U.S. has conducted nine.
The U.S. Army isn’t expected to field hypersonic weapons before 2023. Meanwhile, the Missile Defense Agency hopes to provide a hypersonic missile defense capability by the mid- to late 2020s. This may be too late to deal with and deter a Chinese capability that will only grow. The Pentagon warns that China’s nuclear arsenal will reach 1,000 warheads by the end of the decade. If those weapons can be delivered via hypersonic systems, we are looking at a devastating threat to the American homeland.
The U.S. and U.K. pioneered the use of carrier-based attacks during World War I, but by 1941 the American Navy was still largely reliant on its legacy battleships, which proved all too vulnerable to Japanese bombers. In 1925, Army Col. Billy Mitchell had been court-martialed and driven out of the service for publicly accusing military leaders of ignoring the vulnerability of battleships to bomber attacks. Fortunately, today’s hypersonic threat from China is obvious to everyone, giving the U.S. time to develop some options.
Instead of waiting for the Pentagon to develop a satellite network to detect hypersonic launches—which could take the rest of the decade—the U.S. must quickly deploy a defensive network of existing unmanned platforms to intercept hypersonic vehicles before they reach their targets. The American military has never made peace with unmanned vehicles as the inevitable future of air power. The time has come.
The U.S. must also work with allies to develop a hypersonic capability that will take the initiative away from China and Russia. One of those allies, ironically, is Japan, which is developing a hypersonic missile for use against Chinese aircraft carriers. An agreement among the U.S., U.K., Australia, Japan, and India on hypersonics—along the lines of the recent Aukus agreement on nuclear submarines—will send the proper signal to Beijing and stimulate innovation and strategic thinking on both sides of the Pacific.
One of the tragic errors that led to Pearl Harbor was U.S. isolation from other democratic allies. The U.K. and France, especially, could have been strong partners against the threats posed by advanced military technology being developed in Japan and Germany. Eighty years after that terrible day, let’s resolve not to make the same mistake.
Mr. Herman is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and author, most recently, of “The Viking Heart: How Scandinavians Conquered the World.”
China’s hypersonic missile test demonstrates the next major war will utilize cyber attacks and unmanned vehicles striking from afar. So far the Biden administration is ignoring the warning signs. Images: EPA/Shutterstock/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition