For the first time in decades, the United States’ supremacy in missile technology is at risk, as world powers compete over new technology that could entirely redefine the battlefield
For the first time in history, the United States’ oldest strategic bomber took to the air carrying the Air Force’s newest hypersonic weapon.
The B-52 bomber, in service since 1955 has a total range of 14.16km, flying as high as 15.16km. Its range, operational ceiling and heavy payload have long since made it the US Air Force’s go-to strategic bomber.
The ‘Stratofortress’ became infamous for carrying out carpet bombs in Vietnam, and for carrying US nuclear warheads during the Cold War.
In keeping with the times now, it will test experimental hypersonic weapons in the latest arms race that has gripped the world’s powers.
What’s the risk?
It’s all in the speed. Travelling at five times the speed of sound, a nuclear-equipped missile could cross the Atlantic Ocean in only two hours, and the entire Pacific in just three.
This poses major national security threats to any country that’s lagging behind in the hypersonic field, given the difficulty in shooting down incoming missiles, let alone much faster intelligent missiles. For countries like China and Russia that have already started producing tried-and-tested variants, it could mean the upper hand they need to reassert their role on the world stage.
With such speed, it could fly low and evade radar, or touch the upper atmosphere before descending on enemy targets, adding gravity-assisted acceleration to its already rapid speeds and making it too fast to shoot down.
Some hypersonic ‘glide’ variants are even more lethal. By flying into a point in space, and gliding down to the target at immense speed with no external guidance, they are able to evade defences and conceal their intended targets until seconds prior to impact. For defence planners, this means the ability to decapitate civilian and military leadership before a retaliation strike is even ordered; a key principle of deterrence in missile defence doctrine.
In hotly contested airspace, there are two solutions to ensure mission success. Stealth or standoff.
While stealth fighter jets such as the F-35 Lightning rely on near-invisible radar signatures and next-generation electronic masking technology to ensure mission success, their price tag remains far too high for most of the world’s countries.
The F-35 fighter jet currently costs between $92 million and $122 million to produce, not to mention the $406 billion spent on its development, or the additional expected $1 trillion dollars needed to maintain it throughout its 55-year programme.
For countries like Russia and China, creating their own next-generation stealth fighters wasn’t a guarantee of strategic balance. So they did the next best thing. They invested heavily in hypersonic weapons: intelligent manoeuvering missiles that could be fired by dated platforms from a distance, travelling faster than any known air or missile defence systems that currently exist.
For old non-stealth bombers like the B-52 and countless others, hypersonics are a breath of fresh air; ensuring they can still remain operationally relevant by firing from a distance and turning back without incurring casualties.
For the US, it may already be too late. To address the strategic gap, the United States Congress provided rapid prototyping authority to the Air Force to minimise red tape and ensure supremacy in the field.
Russia has already announced the deployment of its own hypersonic missile, the Kinzhal, on its fighter jets. The Kinzhal, or ‘Dagger’ is a nuclear-capable missile that has already seen extensive testing with a range of nearly 2,000km. Given that it can be fired anywhere by a fighter jet, it offers Russia unrestricted missile access to most of NATO.
The New Great Wall
It’s not just Russia. China is also playing for keeps. In 2018 alone, China tested more hypersonic weapons than the US has done in the past decade, according to an alarmed Air Force report published in February 2019.
For China, however, the hypersonic weapon is more a defensive saviour, than an offensive asset.
Since the early 1980s, Chinese defence planners have worked tirelessly at building up capabilities in what would only recently come to be known as Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD). With 22,117km of borders and shared frontiers with 14 countries, Beijing has always been concerned over the sheer difficulty of stopping invasions.
Even more difficult was the challenge of detecting and deterring smaller parties that could arrive ahead of a larger landing force for sabotage of its coastal defence networks. Inland mountainous borders were deemed of lower risk than its coasts, home to its major cities and the likeliest route of foreign aggression.
With that a new Great Wall was born, spanning Chinese coasts made up of dispersed sensors, overlapping radars, and combinations of its strategic rocket forces, defence installations and anti-aircraft guns. The final risk was aircraft carriers bringing the fight to Chinese shores and launching endless sorties of stealth fighter jets to destroy its overlapping A2/AD bubbles.
The answer? The Dong Feng 17 (DF-17) missile system, translated as ‘Fast Wind’. The system was specifically designed to overwhelm US aircraft carriers and ships. In an asymmetrical twist, the Chinese calculus of war dictated that destroying a $13 billion aircraft carrier with a volley of $20 million in missiles was a worthy investment.
With more than seven anti-ship missile brigades, not including long-range coastal installations; China counts on being able to fire 24-32 of these ‘Ship Killers’ simultaneously, firing nearly 168-244 in one volley; effectively wiping out an entire battle group. In hours, they would be able to reload for a second volley.
Where do hypersonic weapons come in? As force multipliers. As world powers extend hypersonic missiles to previous conventional missiles, the scales of power shift further in their favour. The possibility of destroying a US carrier group becomes far more likely.
For traditional superpowers like the US, this puts them in an untenable position. Swarms of intelligent, self-manoeuvering hypersonic vehicles would overwhelm defensive systems, and risk ending the technological supremacy the US has enjoyed since World War II.
The United States may have “lost [its] technical advantage in hypersonics”, “but we haven’t lost the hypersonics fight”, said Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Paul Selva.
Congress recently accepted a Department of Defense proposal for $2.6 billion in funding for hypersonic programmes in its 2020 Pentagon budget.
“Technological changes are happening at an increasing speed,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin in a speech prior to unveiling Russia’s first working hypersonic missile.
“Those who take advantage of this new technology will launch forward. Those who are unable to do that will be buried under this tide of technological progress.”