American Hypersonic Weapons Development Continues to Lag with Serious Problems - Congressional Research Service Report

A report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service focusing on hypersonic weapons development has highlighted a highly concerning state of affairs, as the country continues to lag several years behind China and Russia which have fielded a range of hypersonic missiles from 2019 and 2017 respectively. 

Such armaments have several applications both tactically and strategically and are viewed as key to being able to strike adversaries quickly either to reduce warning time in a first strike or to better respond to a surprise enemy first strike. 

The U.S. is working on at least eight separate hypersonic missile programs but has yet to produce a single operational weapon, with the report stressing that U.S. decision-makers should be concerned by the pace at which Russia and China’s hypersonic capabilities have advanced as well as the Pentagon’s own serious difficulties in catching up. 

It emphasized that Russia and China already “likely fielded operational hypersonic glide vehicles – potentially armed with nuclear warheads,” while American hypersonic weapons programs “are not being designed for use with a nuclear warhead” and are nowhere near reaching operational status.

According to the Congressional Research Service report, the U.S. military budget includes $3.2 billion in outlays for hypersonic weapons research alone - a very large figure which exceeds the total defense spending of the large majority of countries. 

Spending in the field notably increased after Russia unveiled a new range of hypersonic weapons systems in March 2018 including weapons such as hypersonic ballistic missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, and intercontinental-range strategic guide vehicles. 

The Pentagon, however, has not yet “established any programs of record for hypersonic weapons,” nor made “a decision to acquire” such arms, and has instead opted to continue to formulate and evaluate prototypes, system concepts, and mission sets. 

The report laments a lack of clearly defined missions for hypersonic weapons by the Pentagon, which has caused complications in developing such weapons. 

American hypersonic weapon systems in development, including the Air Force’s air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW) and a Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC), an Army-Navy Common Hypersonic Glide Body (CHGB), a Navy Intermediate Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) weapon, an Army Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) and an Operational Fires Program for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Of these only the Army’s relatively simple CHGB is anywhere near becoming operational. 

The Congressional Research Service report cites the congressional testimony of former undersecretary of defense for research and engineering,  Michael Griffin, who briefed lawmakers on hypersonic weapons and warned that the U.S. does not yet “have systems which can hold [China and Russia] at risk in a corresponding manner,” and doesn’t “have defenses against [they're] systems.” 

Hypersonic weapons are considered a potential game-changer for their ability to evade enemy defenses, which allows them to serve as effective force multiplies for targeting enemy missile defenses and radar installations from a war’s early stages to allow cheaper missile classes to get through more reliably. 

The report comes shortly after Russia for the first time deployed hypersonic missile-armed MiG-31K Foxhound strike aircraft to the Middle East - providing coverage across much of NATO's southern flank as well as the entire Mediterranean Sea for both conventional and tactical nuclear strikes. 

MiG-31Ks have also recently been deployed to expanded airbases in the Arctic where they represent perhaps the most formidable strike asset in the region.

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