Washington has focused funds on Iraq and Afghanistan and taken its eye off the ball in terms of hypersonic weapons, says US official.

A test launch of a hypersonic missile at the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii, in March 2021.
A test launch of a hypersonic missile at the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii, in March 2021. (AFP)

The United States and China are engaged in an arms race to develop the most lethal hypersonic weapons, the US Air Force secretary has said, as Beijing and Washington build and test more and more of the high-speed next-generation arms.

"There is an arms race, not necessarily for increased numbers, but for increased quality," Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told Reuters news agency during an interview in his Pentagon office on Tuesday.

"It's an arms race that has been going on for quite some time. The Chinese have been at it very aggressively."

In October, the top US military officer, General Mark Milley, confirmed a Chinese hypersonic weapons test that military experts say appears to show Beijing's pursuit of an Earth-orbiting system designed to evade American missile defences.

This year the Pentagon has held several hypersonic weapons tests with mixed success. 

In October, the Navy successfully tested a booster rocket motor that would be used to power a launch vehicle carrying a hypersonic weapon aloft.

Hypersonic weapons travel in the upper atmosphere at speeds of more than five times the speed of sound, or about 6,200 kilometres per hour.

READ MORE: The new arms race for hypersonic weapons

US military focused funds on Iraq, Afghanistan

Kendall noted that while the US military has focused funds on Iraq and Afghanistan, it has taken its eye off the ball in terms of hypersonic weapons. 

"This isn't saying we've done nothing, but we haven't done enough," he said.

As the Pentagon enters the 2023 annual budget cycle, Kendall hopes to raise funds with the retirement of older and expensive-to-maintain systems in favor of new systems, including hypersonic development programs.

"I love the A-10. The C-130 is a great aircraft that's been very capable and very effective for a lot of missions. The MQ-9s have been very effective for counterterrorism and so on. They're still useful, but none of these things scare China," Kendall said, referring to a more than 40-year-old combat aircraft, a plane for carrying cargo, and widely used drones, respectively.

Defence contractors tout their hypersonic arms plans

Defence contractors hope to capitalise on the shift to hypersonic weapons not only by building them but also by developing new detection and defeat mechanisms.

Arms makers Lockheed Martin Corp, Northrop Grumman Corp, and Raytheon Technologies Corp have all touted their hypersonic weapons programmes to investors as world focus shifted to the new arms race for an emerging class of weapon.

Still, the Pentagon wants defence contractors to cut the ultimate cost of hypersonic weapons, the head of research and development has said, as the next generation of super-fast missiles being developed currently costs tens of millions per unit.

READ MORE: Russia deploys first hypersonic nuclear-capable missiles

Source: Reuters