The Navy’s Newest Nemesis: Hypersonic Weapons

By Jon Isaac

Introduction

In January 2019, Chinese Communist Party leaders announced that the newest iteration of their DF-17 missile system was being designed to overwhelm and sink U.S. aircraft carriers and surface combatants stationed in the West Pacific. According to official statements from the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF), a targeted salvo of eight hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) set aloft by DF-17s would swamp a surface vessel’s close-in point defenses and annihilate it through incredible transfers of kinetic energy. This type of inflammatory language is not new and Chinese officials have been known to exaggerate the capabilities of their military. However, discussion of the DF-17 and similar weapon systems as conventional, theater-level assets, rather than the strategic nuclear capabilities generally associated with hypersonic missiles, poses a set of very serious and immediate threats to decision-makers in Washington.

Rather than continue the popular trend of treating hypersonic weapons primarily as delivery mechanisms for nuclear warheads aimed at strategic targets, China has been quick to utilize the technology to augment its theater-level Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) capabilities. Such developments suggest that the most critical threat posed by hypersonic weapons is not strategic, but tactical, operational, and conventional. A focus on hypersonic weapons as operational threats is not a novel concept, though it merits further review as near-peer adversaries continue to develop hypersonic capabilities. Michael Griffin, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, argued recently that the “tactical capability that these sorts of weapons bring to theater conflicts or regional conflicts” is at the core of the hypersonic threat.

Most service branches seem to have adopted a view similar to Griffin’s, with the Army, Air Force, and Navy all independently developing hypersonic platforms intended for a myriad of tactical and operational purposes. For the Navy, however, hypersonics could represent a tectonic shift in weapons technology on par with the decline of battleships and the rise of the aircraft carrier during the Second World War. Indeed, Russia and China’s development and deployment of hypersonic weapons could challenge the decades-long assumption that U.S. naval assets can operate with complete freedom of movement and comparatively little legitimate threat to their survivability. While anti-ship cruise missiles or attack aircraft can be countered through point defense batteries, electronic countermeasures, or even directed energy systems, conventionally armed hypersonic weapons could likely render existing defenses ineffective. As such, with the focus on conventional hypersonics on the rise, the operational impacts of hypersonic weapons systems on the US Navy merit analysis and could prompt a series of doctrinal shifts which could then enhance surface survivability in the hypersonic era. Before engaging in any such analysis, however, one must first grapple with the concept of hypersonics as a whole.

What is a Hypersonic Weapon?

Hypersonic missiles and glide projectiles are those which travel at least Mach 5, or five times faster than the speed of sound. In round numbers, this equates to a speed of about a mile a second. For comparison, even the quickest modern fighters generally top out around Mach 2, with only specialized aircraft capable of reaching Mach 3. Once an airframe reaches Mach 4, 5, and beyond, specialized technologies like supersonic combustion ramjets, or SCRAMJETs, must be used to carve through the air. Unlike traditional jet engines, SCRAMJETs use no moving parts or machinery to direct and combust air, thereby making them incredibly efficient at plowing an airframe through the sky at incredibly high speeds.

Though manned hypersonic flight has occurred in the past, most notably with USAF Major Robert White’s 1961 flight in the NASA X-15, today the technology is most promising when used to propel unmanned vehicles and missiles. Presently, most high-profile hypersonic weapons utilize either SCRAMJET propulsion, as is the case with hypersonic cruise missiles, or are unpowered glide vehicles which are propelled to extreme altitudes by ballistic missile systems, only to turn back towards the surface and glide at extreme speeds towards their targets on a non-ballistic trajectory. This distinction is important, as both hypersonic cruise missiles (HCM) and hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV) are being touted as globally destabilizing weapons systems.

Put simply, hypersonic missiles are dangerously fast. So fast, in fact, that they are relatively impervious to currently fielded missile defense technology. Theater level missile defense systems like Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries and the Patriot point-defense missile systems are designed to counter ballistic weapons which fly on relatively predictable speeds and flight trajectories. Conversely, hypersonic cruise missiles and glide vehicles can move erratically and at such incredible speeds so as to render existing defenses mostly irrelevant.

The value of such capability has not gone unnoticed by adversaries. Russia, for example, successfully tested a hypersonic glide vehicle known as Avangard just this past December. The weapon, they claim, is capable of reaching terminal glide speeds of almost 27 times the speed of sound. The validity of that speed claim has been disputed by a number of experts and defense media outlets, but one thing is known for sure – the weapon exists and the weapon works. Meanwhile, China spent most of 2018 conducting more hypersonic weapons tests than the United States has conducted in the past decade. America’s adversaries have funneled enough resources and manpower into developing hypersonic weapons to raise some eyebrows in Washington, not the least of which include the United States Navy. 

What Does This Mean for the Navy?

Since the end of the Second World War, the U.S. Navy has been able to operate with relative impunity throughout the world’s oceans. At the center of American postwar maritime dominance is the aircraft carrier. While hulking battleships of old held the status of capital ships in U.S. fleets, aircraft carriers rose to prominence as the crown jewel of American power projection. As a result, aircraft carrier battle groups have stood at the cornerstone of American power projection strategy in the late 20th and early 21st centuries and have been able to impose their will (and firepower) upon almost any target on the globe. Much in line with the Mahanian fleet doctrines which helped to drive America to victory in the Pacific, modern surface warfare strategies have seen the Navy organize its fleets and surface action groups around a prime directive, protect the aircraft carrier. To date, this strategy has proven successful (albeit with no serious tests in actual combat), with submarine screens, active electronic warfare measures, air defense umbrellas, and AEGIS-equipped surface assets acting as an impenetrable wall behind which America’s flattops are safe from any potential foe.

What happens, then, when new technologies render virtually all existing missile defense and point defense assets ineffective? What happens when the very foundation of modern American maritime dominance, the aircraft carrier battle group, is held at risk by missiles and high-trajectory, high-speed kinetic glide vehicles which are, as admitted by the Pentagon, extremely challenging to existing missile defenses?

This is the fundamental problem with which the Navy must now address. It must be noted, however, that this type of threat against the carrier battle group is not entirely new to the surface warfare community. For example, China’s decades-long development efforts and eventual deployment of Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCM) and Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBM) as core to its A2/AD network brought into question the viability of the carrier battle group and questioned whether the hulking warships had a future in a modern battlespace. For the past decade, analysts debated the ramifications of Chinese anti-ship missile capabilities, with increased debate on the topic springing about within the Obama-era Air-Sea Battle concept. A primary feature of the Chinese threat is the reality that increased ASCM and ASBM capabilities may force American carrier battlegroups further out to sea to avoid closing range between themselves and anti-ship missile batteries on shore. In response, analysts have prescribed everything from increased escort vessels to the newly-awarded MQ-25 Stingray Carrier-Based Aerial-Refueling System (CBARS) as ways to increase carrier survivability. These prescriptions have offered a diverse set of solutions, with the former hoping to deny ASCM/ASMB strikes through conventional air defense and the latter ensuring carrier battle group effectiveness by increasing the reach of conventional strike fighters. In short, threats to the carrier battle group are not new. What makes hypersonics different?

Unlike conventional ASCMs, ASBMs, and other A2/AD threats, there is currently no technological counter to the hypersonic threat. Existing joint efforts between the service branches and DARPA, like the recently announced Glide Breaker program, have endeavored to come up with a viable defense to stop hypersonic weapons from bypassing existing missile defense networks. Unfortunately, no immediately viable kinetic counter-hypersonic technologies have been identified or developed. To make matters worse, top defense officials in the Pentagon’s technology development offices have diagnosed that even existing radar systems would be unable to adequately track and identify a hypersonic threat, to say nothing of prosecuting or defeating such a threat.

The news is not all bad, however. For example, space based sensor arrays have been touted by DOD officials as viable means for “warning, launch detection, surveillance, acquisition, [and] tracking” of hypersonic threats. Similarly, despite the technological challenges, offices like the DOD’s Missile Defense Agency and DARPA have charged ahead at examining high-saturation kinetic projectiles and even directed energy weapons as potential means for destroying hypersonics on a strategic level. While these efforts are all well and good, however, their technological immaturity and prohibitive cost betray the lack of capability to protect American naval assets from hypersonics in the next few years.

Clearly, then, to address the hypersonic threat in the immediate short-term, the Navy cannot rely on technological development and the traditional edge offered by American technological dominance. Instead of looking to laboratories and development houses for hardware tools to counter the threat of hypersonic weapons, the Navy must look to its own assets and shift traditional surface warfare doctrines to ensure survivability. Three doctrinal shifts stand out as potential options for responding to the theater-based use of conventional hypersonics, each with varying levels of plausibility and effectiveness.

Potential Fleet Options

First, a decreased reliance on the concentrated “porcupine” structure of a carrier battle group in favor of distributed use of destroyers, cruisers, smaller LHD flattops, and even LPD transport docks could provide adversaries with such a widely spread set of targets so as to make concentrated hypersonic attack, like the “eight salvo” mission as described by Chinese authorities, unfeasible. By disaggregating targets around carrier battle groups, the Navy could deny its adversaries the ability to reach the concentration levels of hypersonic firepower needed to effectively eliminate the target. This shift is not without its faults. The notion of networked and distributed surface operations is not a new one and blunders in attempting to implement this type of fleet structure in the past have been the bane of the surface Navy. Moreover, the act of distributing and decreasing the density of American warships in a surface action group or carrier battle group could limit the power projection capabilities of such a force, thereby hindering one of the Navy’s core missions.

A second option posits that further utilization of unmanned undersea assets and existing nuclear-powered submarines may prove to be an effective way to address some of the shortcomings brought about by a more vulnerable carrier battle group. For example, increased development and deployment of guided missile submarines, be they conventional boats like the Navy’s modified Ohio-class SSGNs or emerging unmanned options like Boeing’s Orca/Echo Voyager XLUUV platform, would provide the Navy with several far-forward domain capabilities. Such assets would allow the Navy to field missile strike and reconnaissance assets closer to adversary coastlines without bringing surface assets into the effective reach of hypersonic weapons. While submarines will never be able to field their own independent combat air wing or project visible American power in the same way a carrier can, they could engage in some of the maritime patrol and missile strike projection operations previously led by carrier battle groups. Again, this is not an impervious solution since many of the key operations shouldered by aircraft carriers are unique to their incredible deterrence and firepower projection capabilities.

Finally, DARPA and the Department of the Navy have highlighted increased conventional missile deterrence and conventional disruption operations as potential routes for driving adversaries to “think twice” in the use of their hypersonic missiles in the first place. As argued by Robert Farley, a professor at the Army War College in Carlisle, PA, there are an incredibly complex series of decisions and steps which must go off without a hitch for an adversary to successfully conduct a strike against a carrier battle group. “Disrupting any single one,” Farley writes, “can slow or entirely avoid the attack.” As such, the Navy could structure its fleet doctrines and operational focuses to counter the myriad of technologies which support a hypersonic strike, rather than attempt to counter the hypersonic weapon itself. For example, targeted jamming of missile guidance nodes around the region or destruction of the aircraft and satellites which are required to guide such a weapon to its target. This notion spreads beyond merely Navy-commanded operations, with cyber-attacks on networked hypersonic systems standing as a possible counter to their launch and targeting.

Like with previous suggestions, this “full spectrum” approach to preventing hypersonic targeting or strike of a traditional surface group is not without its flaws. For example, preemptively engaging in any such attacks or jamming operations could escalate a tactical or immediate political situation. Though it could decrease the likelihood of a successful hypersonic strike, thereby freeing up American carrier battle groups to do what they do best, it could just as easily prove pyrrhic should the situation escalate out of control.

Still, there is no single doctrinal answer to the hypersonic threat. Instead, the Navy must be willing to evolve from the sacred and historically effective Mahanian capital-ship doctrine which it has adhered to in the past and adopt surface organization tactics which decrease the likelihood of a hypersonic attack in the first place and minimize the potential effectiveness of such an attack should it take place.

Conclusion

For the past few months, press sources have been flooding the internet with stories about impervious hypersonic weapons which could deliver nuclear warheads onto targets in the American homeland quickly and with no warning. While the hypersonic nuclear threat is a valid one, focusing on it betrays the real threat posed by conventional hypersonic systems which are not subject to the deterrent effects of the American nuclear triad. Conventional operational use of hypersonic weapons could render existing naval surface asset structures ineffective. Rather than rely on the historically dominant American tech sector, however, the Navy must address the short-term threats posed by hypersonics through evolution of warfighting doctrine, tactics, and fleet organization. Just as aviation development brought a close to the age of the battleship, hypersonic weapons could bring to end the age of the traditional carrier battle group.

Jon Isaac is a pseudonym for a developing security analyst.

Featured Image: Ground crew members make the final checks to the X-51A Waverider scramjet, which is affixed to an Edwards B-52H Stratofortress before being flown over the Pacific Ocean and launched June 13, 2011. (Photo by Bob Ferguson/Boeing)

12 thoughts on “The Navy’s Newest Nemesis: Hypersonic Weapons”

  1. Seriously. This is just ridiculous. The means to stop enemy hypersonic weapons were well-known even in late 1950s; they were called “nuclear-tipped surface-to-air missiles”. Just put a small – kiloton-scale – nuclear warhead on your standard “Standard” missile (sorry for the pun), and it would be the solution to hypersonic weapon. It wouldn’t matter than nuclear “Standard” still could not correctly home on enemy hypersonic missile; the area effect of the nuclear blast (on high altitude, mainly in therms of neutron radiation) would be more than enough to correct any possible mistake of missile.

  2. Sorry, don’t buy the hype and all the touting of hypersonics, because nearly everything repeated in this post and all the defense media about them is wrong and completely misleading.

    First of all, and this is really critical to understand, but never ever gets mentioned in all these breathless media analyses, is the following:

    Hypersonics by definition are immensely easy to detect, track and destroy, because by traveling at hypersonic airspeeds in the atmosphere, they are easily detected and tracked by IR sensors throughout their entire flight profile, whether by ground based, air based, or space based IR sensors. They literally “light up the sky” because the air friction at hypersonic speeds drastically heats up the skin of the vehicle.

    This is something we’ve known for many decades. Even at high supersonic speed, such as the Mach 3.3 top speed of the SR-71 Blackbird, the skin heats up so much due to air friction that it cannot be made of ordinary aluminum, which loses much of its structural strength. Hence the airframe skins on SR-71 are made of titanium. Which does not prevent it from heating up, it just has a higher structural strength at those high skin temps.

    So in other words, HGVs CANNOT BE MADE STEALTHY. They just can’t. And anything we can sense and track can be destroyed.

    And another byproduct of the extreme airspeeds of hypersonics is that they cannot use IR imaging stealthy sensors, meaning they must rely solely on radar target tracking, which therefore makes them easily susceptible to radar jamming, and which also makes them easy to track on passive radar sensors.

    Secondly, we’ve been successfully intercepting hypersonics for decades, going all the way back to the Patriot PAC-3. It is no big deal to intercept a hypersonic reentry vehicle or missile. We’ve been hitting bullets with bulllets for a very long time now – we know how to do it with today’s anti-missile missiles, and we are constantly getting better and better at it.

    But, the touters of HGVs say that unlike BM reentry vehicles, these “glide vehicles” are maneuverable. Well, BM reentry vehicles are maneuverable too, and they maneuver. Second, the notion is that somehow these HGVs are juking all over the place wildly maneuvering, but that is simply not true. Traveling at hypersonic airspeeds simply precludes such radical air maneuvers, or the vehicles would simply disintegrate due to massive G forces.

    This is not to say that hypersonics are useless, but where’s the beef? Nobody has even demonstrated yet that any of them actually work – they are all vaporware as of today. And given the extreme weakness of NOT BEING STEALTHY, it is far easier to defeat an HGV than it is a wavetop-skimming stealthy cruise missile.

    Personally, I believe the huge hullaballo over hypersonics is driven by the media and defense contractors and uniiformed personnel who want another vast field of defense expenditures with which to build big empires.

    1. This post demonstrates very little grasp of the physical principles in play with hypersonic glide vehicles. “Hitting a bullet with a bullet” is an analogy that implies hitting something coming directly at you on a predictable path. This is not the case at all with an HGV.

      A more appropriate way to envision how this works might be two players on a soccer field. The attacking player is trying to get around the defender and put the ball through the net, the defending player is trying to catch him and kick the balk away before he can do that. Anti-ballistic missiles like the THAAD, Arrow, and so on are capable of reaching maximum speeds in the neighborhood of Mach 10, less than half the speed of a weapon like the Avangard.

      In what world do you imagine a defensive player who can only run half as fast as his opponent is going to be able to stop him from scoring, when the attacker is able to use the entire width of the field to just maneuver around him? The soccer field is in fact a limiting way to visualize this, in the real world there are no sidelines (except for the borders of neutral nations) and no rule that says the offense can’t go all the way around if it wants to and kick a goal from behind the net.

      Your dismissal of maneuvering capability as insignificant is another misconception; to return to the soccer field analogy, what you’re arguing against is the idea of the player with the ball doing some fancy footwork and juking around the defender right at the last second when he’s about to be caught.

      What you are not understanding is that the ability to maneuver will ensure the defending player is never able to come that close to him in the first place. If the attacking player comes across the field in a wide arc to reach the goal, and he’s able to run twice as fast as the defense even when he’s running on a curve and the defender in a straight line, there is simply no way the defender will be able to catch him.

      Hypersonic glide vehicles can literally fly rings around all existing interceptors, and the capability gap between HGVs and land-based defensive missiles is never going to close because of the nature of how these systems work. A defensive missile burns up fuel to build speed; a hypersonic glide vehicle glides. A defensive missile burns up additional fuel when it has to make corrections to its course; a hypersonic glide vehicle does not. By approaching on an unpredictable series of wide turns, an HGV forces any interceptor fired at it to follow each of these zigs and zags, burning up more fuel each time and thus reducing its remaining range. At a certain point the interceptor is going to fall out of the sky after burning up all its fuel and the glider will be able to continue to its target unimpeded – if it wasn’t able to just steer right around the interceptor to start with, which in all likelihood it would, because again, it has a two- to threefold advantage in speed over it.

      All this makes area defense against such a weapon virtually impossible. The only chance of intercepting a maneuvering kill vehicle moving at Mach 20+ with a much slower missile of your own is a hail mary shot in the last few seconds of its flight, when it has to come at the target in a straight line. Unless your defensive missiles are either a part of the target or parked right on top of it, you won’t even have a chance to make that shot. And when you’re looking at a window of only a few seconds to perform all the necessary calculations to hit a target flying at over Mach 20 and to launch your own missile, the odds of succeeding are minuscule to say the best.

    2. Seems a rather lengthy reply I left either glitched or failed to make it past moderation. At any rate, your post demonstrates a basic lack of understanding of the physical principles at play. “Hitting a bullet with a bullet” is a misleading analogy because it implies hitting an object moving directly toward you on a predictable course. This is not the case at all with a hypersonic glide vehicle.

      A more appropriate way to imagine this might be as two players on a soccer field; an attacking player trying to reach the goal and put the ball through the net, and a defending player trying to catch the attacker and kick the ball away from him before he can do that.

      The Avangard, the attacking player in this scenario, has a maximum speed of over Mach 20, maybe even as high as Mach 27. Existing ABM systems like the THAAD and the Arrow 3 have a top speed of only Mach 9 or 10. Think about this. How, on an open field, is a defender ever going to catch an offensive player who can run more than twice as fast as him?

      An HGV is not limited to approaching the target in a straight line. It can take wide turns and come at it from any angle. Take that soccer field and remove all the sidelines (the only boundaries an HGV’s flight would have are the borders of neutral nations). Without these, the attacking player can even run past the goal and shoot the ball into the net from behind.

      You say there’s no way an HGV could make sharp enough turns to dodge an incoming missile, but you miss the point. To bring this back to the soccer analogy, you are picturing the attacking player doing some fancy footwork and juking the defender at the last second right before he gets caught. This is missing the point because the HGV’s ability to maneuver, along with its advantage in speed, ensures that no interceptor missile would be able to come that close in the first place.

      An offensive player with twice the speed of the defender and the ability to move in any direction he chooses will simply run rings around him. Not tight rings, but very wide ones. If he can run in a curve twice as fast as the defender can in a straight line, it’s mathematically impossible for the defender to ever chase him down.

      Because the HGV’s path cannot be predicted, any interceptor that gets launched at it is forced to try and match every turn that it makes. Here’s the other key thing to remember: the interceptor is burning fuel in order to build up speed and to make all those turns. The HGV is gliding. Even a series of slow, gentle curves by the HGV are going to force its interceptor to burn a lot of extra fuel and thereby reduce its range.

      All this means that area defense against an HGV attack is virtually impossible using any current or developmental systems. They just aren’t fast enough, not even close. The only chance of downing one at all is a Hail Mary shot in the last few seconds, when there is no more time for the HGV to maneuver – if the target of the attack happens to have its own defensive missiles, or a launcher for them happens to be parked right on top of it. Even if that is the case, there’s only a few seconds to make all the necessary calculations and time that launch perfectly – the odds of that are not good, to say the least.

      1. The USA does possess a rocket (can be made into a missile) capable of shooting down Avangard flying at Mach 20 to 27 if not the MILITARY launch vehicle to carry it.

        LauncherOne rocket flies at Mach 20. Yes, it’s massive. Yes, it’s huge. Yes, it requires a 747 to carry it, and yes it costs $10-$12 million dollars each. And yes it can get into space with a burn time of three minutes. But LauncherOne rocket CAN fly at 20 times the speed of sound and it just needs a semi trailer to carry it to the 747. A modified 747 can probably carry four. Stratolaunch can probably carry more with a load of 500 tons.

        Obviously the physical process of loading a LauncherOne rocket takes a lot of time and by that time, the HGV might have already hit. But if you want a commercial ground launched interceptor option for cheap, buy LauncherOne rocket whereas the Ground Based Interceptor and Kill Vehicle cost $75M each = woo!

        Plausible?

  3. There are counters to hypersonics that I can think of, which obviously cost time, money, effort, and political will. For one, buy the IDF Air Defense System from Iron Dome to Arrow 3 (or 4). Arrow 2 and 3 are hypersonic and should be better performance than the Patriot and THAAD. Also produce the THAAD-ER for even better range and speed. Then there are USAF, USN, and perhaps even USCG counters that are readily available or could be produced and less bulky and expensive than Arrow, and I don’t mean SHORADs.

    However, no enemy missile or fighter has ever intercepted a SR-71 cruising at Mach 3.3+. Many tried and failed as Ben Rich’s “Skunk Works” book stated. So a hypersonic traveling at Mach 3 to 5 would be very hard to intercept because the current Mach 2+ countering SAMs would have to chase it and a slight hypersonic maneuver would send the attacking missile on a longer intercept course. A countering SAM would have to have much greater speed and range to intercept hypersonics, such as the IDF Arrows. However, I believe there exists counters to hypersonics now that could be used effectively as not everything intercept requires a SAM.

    1. The Arrow 3 has a top speed of around Mach 9, and like other existing ABM systems is designed for midcourse interception, not for hitting an ICBM in its terminal phase, when it will be reaching a maximum speed of around Mach 20.

      A hypersonic glide vehicle like the Avangard is a massive step forward because the midcourse phase ends much earlier and farther away from the target; far enough that no existing midcourse interceptor is going to have the range to hit the missile before it releases the HGV.

      An ICBM coming straight down at Mach 20+ in its terminal descent is already too difficult to hit with existing systems; a maneuvering reentry vehicle coming down on an unpredictable trajectory at equal or greater speeds? Forget it.

      1. Would you think that the 747 Airborne Laser (ABL) (or C-5 or C-17 ABL) would work IF the laser system was NOT the toxic slew of chemicals but state-of-the-art solid electronics and transistors used today?

        I’m not talking about destroying a huge ICBM with multiple reentry warheads and decoys, but a much smaller hypersonic glide vehicle like Avangard? And I’m not thinking about destroying it at boost phase in dangerous A2AD airspace, but for CONUS air defense with friendly fighter escorts like protecting a port or coast from Mach 20+ hypersonics or before separation.

        If you research 747 ABL, the laser range on that is mighty impressive (almost 300-600 miles) against ICBM targets. Imagine the defense against hypersonics or cruise missiles which are just one or a few targets and much smaller for burn through.

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