America led in hypersonic technology. Then other countries sped past.
By David IgnatiusColumnist
Yesterday at 8:00 p.m. EST
Why did the Pentagon fall so far behind China and Russia in developing hypersonic missiles, when the United States had an early lead in this technology? The answer helps explain why it’s so hard to modernize the magnificent monstrosity that is the U.S. military.
Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten tried to explain this paradox to a group of defense writers back in October, when he was preparing to retire as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A fundamental problem, he said, was the military’s aversion to failure. Early tests of cruise missiles that could fly at speeds of Mach 20 — 20 times the speed of sound — weren’t successful. As a result, the technology became toxic.
Hypersonics are “the threat of the future,” Hyten said. That’s not just because they can fly so fast but also because their trajectory is so unpredictable. When tracking a ballistic missile, U.S. surveillance systems can predict soon after launch where it will land. But a low-flying, hypersonic cruise missile can zig and zag, avoiding detection and targeting and posing an eerie, perhaps unstoppable danger.
The Pentagon began studying hypersonic technology way back in the early 1960s. In 2003, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) began a program to design a hypersonic weapons platform, and it conducted two tests of its prototype Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 a few years later. But in both tests, the missiles lost communication with their controllers soon after launch.
Here’s how Hyten explained it: “We were developing hypersonics ahead of everybody in the world, and the first test failed. The first test of everything fails. So … we have two years of investigation … then we launch again and it fails. … We canceled the program, and we stopped. Then others start building hypersonics … and they start moving fast, so we start the programs again.”
Hyten reckoned that in the past five years, the United States has conducted nine hypersonic tests. In that same time, he said, the Chinese have done hundreds. The bottom line: “Single digits vs. hundreds is not a good place.”
The Pentagon has “a lot of catching up to do,” Gen. David D. Thompson, vice chief of space operations, said at the Halifax International Security Forum in November. He cautioned that the U.S. military is “not as advanced as the Chinese or the Russians in terms of hypersonic programs.”
Inevitably, when you rush to play catch-up, you make more mistakes. The Air Force tested an air-launched hypersonic missile last year, in April, July and December. All three tests failed; in two of the experiments, the missiles never left the wings of the B-52H bombers that were carrying them, according to an article in the War Zone. Another test, of a rocket-launched hypersonic missile, also failed in October when the booster didn’t work.
Michael White, the Pentagon’s principal director for hypersonics, says the military needs to keep pushing, despite these frustrating reversals. “We were a world leader in hypersonics,” he told me in a recent interview. “What we’ve not been able to do is put all the resources we need on the table.” After initial failures, he said, researchers would be scolded by risk-averse senior officials and told to “go back to your laboratories.” As a result, he said, “we keep being late.”
“The department has a lot of inertia,” agreed Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall in an interview last month. A lesson of the early DARPA experiments was that “when you try to do hard things, you’ve got to stick with them.”
Kendall argues that hypersonics don’t change the baseline of nuclear deterrence, which remains mutually assured destruction. But because of their speed and unpredictability, they do complicate decision-making. Their real importance, he says, may be in delivering conventional weapons. Still, he warned: “It isn’t obvious that the right response to someone else doing hypersonics is that we should be doing hypersonics.” The missiles are very expensive, and they may not deliver enough bang for the buck.
Kendall and White refer to the gap between development of prototypes and actual production as the “valley of death.” That’s where the early hypersonics experiments collapsed, and it has been a kill zone for many other innovative ideas. Kendall argues that the Pentagon must decide what technologies could be crucial, and then roll the dice, failure be damned — being “willing to gamble that things that we’re not comfortable with yet operationally will get to where they’re going to be very valuable operationally.”
For a Pentagon that prizes success, learning to live with failure isn’t easy. But to modernize a military that’s overstuffed with legacy weapons such as fighter jets and aircraft carriers, it’s essential.