Hypersonic systems are among the highest priorities in the Defense Department’s modernization strategy to ensure continued U.S. battlefield dominance, said the Principal Director for Hypersonics in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering.
Michael E. White said hypersonics involve systems that fly at speeds near and above Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound. But it’s not just about speed; DoD couples these speeds with aerodynamically-controlled vehicles to enable long-range flight with maneuverability that’s unpredictable to an adversary in the upper reaches of the atmosphere between 80,000 and 200,000 feet.
“It’s a combination of speed, maneuverability, and altitude that enables the defeat of heavily defended, high-value targets,” he added.
“[Hypersonics] capability is so important [that] the 2017 National Defense Strategy establishes [DoD’s] need to deter and, if necessary, defeat our great-power competitors, China and Russia,” White said. “And for more than a decade, these great-power competitors have been rapidly developing highly capable systems that challenge our domain dominance on the tactical battlefield.”
Such systems include anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles and hypersonic missiles developed to threaten our carriers in the second island chain, which stretches from Japan through the Mariana Islands and Micronesia in the western Pacific Ocean.
“China and Russia have also fielded high-end, integrated air-missile defense systems to challenge our aircraft out hundreds of miles. Their anti-satellite systems aim to degrade our capabilities in space and on land, and their attack cruise, ballistic, and hypersonic missiles put our troops, ports, and airfields at risk,” he said.
These systems, White noted, present a significant challenge to traditional U.S. weapon systems.
White also said the adversaries have increasingly focused on systems that dramatically compress the timelines and the timescale of a tactical battlefield. These systems — including ballistic missiles, ballistic missiles with maneuvering reentry vehicles, and vehicles that are increasingly hypersonic in nature — give adversaries the ability to hold our forces at risk from hundreds, even thousands, of miles away, with flight times that are measured in minutes.
“Conversely, the United States’ portfolio of traditional, tactical strike weapons includes sea-launched subsonic cruise missiles, air-launched subsonic cruise missiles, and platforms to deliver those air-launched subsonic cruise missiles that are either subsonic or, at best, low supersonic,” he said.
“These systems will take on the order of 10 times longer to fly long-range strike missions when compared to the adversary’s high-speed systems,” White said. “It presents a battlefield asymmetry and timescale that we simply cannot allow to stand.”
“To address these challenges, the DoD developed the Hypersonics Modernization Strategy that accelerates the development and delivery of transformational warfighting capabilities based on hypersonic systems,” he said.