The U.S. is competing with Russia and China to make weapons faster than ever before.
The United States, Russia and China are waging a secret arms race that could soon usher in a new generation of high-speed weapons never before seen in warfare.
In one test, a missile built by Boeing flew more than 230 miles in just four minutes. In another, a prototype designed by Lockheed Martin blasted off like a rocket and streaked back through the atmosphere at more than 20 times the speed of sound. China has reportedly tested its version over a lake in Inner Mongolia. And in February, Russia joined the fray when it tested a model that intelligence experts assert could be designed to carry a nuclear warhead.
Such hypersonic weapons, intended to attack targets many times faster than the speed of sound — before a defender could even react — have become the newest hope for military commanders seeking to gain an edge over potential adversaries. While most details and the level of funding remains classified, some predict they could be perfected within the next five years.
Critics both inside and outside of the military fear these futuristic missiles could be dangerously destabilizing, but Congress is pushing to accelerate development of these weapons. The missiles could render obsolete even the most advanced missiles defenses and provide a new means to deliver nuclear warheads, prompting some to call for an outright ban.
“We’re just doing it because maybe we can, and because others can too, and people are deluded that it represents some kind of major advance that we can exploit to keep the Chinese or Russian menace at bay,” said physicist Mark Gubrud, a professor in the Curriculum of Peace, War and Defense at the University of North Carolina.
“I think serious strategic thought leads to the conclusion that we would be much better off using our narrow lead to induce others to join us in a moratorium and banning these things,” he said.
Those who are are sounding the alarm, including some members of the military itself, will have to turn the tide of growing enthusiasm. As one senior Pentagon weapons scientist recently assured Congress, hypersonic weapons “will provide us an advantage in a contested environment in the future.” A top missile-builder, Raytheon, calls hypersonic weapons “the new frontier of the missile business.” And new legislation working its way through Congress, which seems firmly on board, urges the Pentagon to step up development, including seeking new ways to defend against hypersonic missiles.
The supposed difficulty of defeating a hypersonic attack is central to its appeal. For example, American commanders worried that an adversary could keep American warships or aircraft well away from contested areas like the idea of launching an attack from thousands of miles away.
“That’s really the future,” Steven Walker, deputy director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, told the Senate Appropriations Committee this spring.