The Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV) along with space is at the very center of great power competition with China and Russia, that is defining this Administration’s leadership, innovation, efficiency, research, and development to field faster and with dominance this weapon system, along with a defensive system to defeat it. A great power strategic and regional arms race has sparked and exists on this weapons class, that is unrestricted on nuclear or non-nuclear payloads, ranges, and launch platforms including undersea, surface ships, on land, in air, and likely in the future space. HGVs are a force to be reckoned with, a game changer that is undeniable, undefendable, and undefeatable as of today. A weapon developed to be unpredictable and to beat the mathematical, algorithmic, and predictable ballistic missile trajectories that the United States has demonstrated it can defeat. A weapon that can hold regions and continents at strategic risk in the ultimate Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2/AD) capability.
The race to HGVs is similar to the paradigms in the 1950s and 60s with the development of a new undefendable weapon system, the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), and great power competition between the United States of America and the Soviet Union. Today, none of the great powers (China, Russia, and the U.S.) have operationally deployed the HGV ability with a proven capability to deliver a weapon from launch to reentry. With this new HGV technology, that can have a range up to a few thousand miles and travel in excess of Mach 25, skipping across the atmosphere and maneuvering to deliver a weapon payload is a generational leap and force multiplier. This new technology requires two new developments, which also hold the keys to defeat this system:
- a flight vehicle that can be stabilized in these conditions and speeds, a cone and a wing shape are the emerging designs.
- a thermo skin around these new platforms that can absorb or deflect the heat generated at those speeds to prevent the destruction of the vehicle during flight.
Getting to these fast Mach speeds can be done with current rocket engine technology, including ramjet technology, that leverage existing booster stacks launched from ground, sea, underwater, and air platforms to attain an apogee and then accelerate through skimming, skipping, and bouncing off the high atmosphere to much greater Mach speeds before re-entry into their final and very quick terminal phase of flight to hit the target.
Having a defensive HGV capability would most likely focus on the skipping portion of the HGV flight phase, to disrupt the airflow and penetrate the thermal skin and which has the most battlespace for engagement. Defenses in the boost phase will be very challenging due to the diversity and mobility of launch platforms, especially with submarine and aircraft platforms as well as the quick burn time. Terminal phase defenses is also extremely challenging because of the very high Mach speeds in a very short period of time, which would require knowing ahead of time where the HGV was targeting and having a high-speed gun or form of electrical rail gun to potentially intercept. Regardless of which phase of flight, HGV defenses will have to locate, track, target, and process all of this information quickly because of the high speed of HGVs. If you cannot see it, you cannot negate it. With short rocket burn times from mobile, diverse launch platforms, and due to the curvature of the earth, there are simply not enough land- and sea-based sensors to be able to provide globally persistent birth to death tracking coverage against HGVs. This formidable challenge is the driving force behind the Administration’s push for a deployed constellation of space-based discrimination sensors, that will be developed by the new Space Development Agency under the new Space Force and the new Space Combatant Command. As the United States develops, tests, and proves out its own HGVs and learn its inherent strengths and weaknesses of flight, the United States must also embed in this process, the development of HGV defense for technology breakthroughs and efficiency to further its rapid deployment.
As of today, China has the lead with over ten demonstration tests of the HGVs in the last five years. Its seven DF-ZF tests, two DF-17 and one Starry Sky-2 test sets the pace and high mark of development testing. Russia is second with five tests of Tsirkon missile in the last four years. Russia has also tested the Kinzhal missile at least three times and launched it 12 times from a MiG-31 fighter jet. Late last year, Russia also announced a successful flight test for its Avangard HGV, which is planned to be fitted onto their SS-19 Stiletto and SS-X-30 Sarmat ICBMs. Behind China and Russia, and the least experienced in development testing, is the United States with only three flight tests: in 2011, in 2014 (a failure terminated on the launch pad), and in 2017.
In the 1950s the United States made the development of an ICBM a national priority and Space flight to compete and dominate against the Soviet Union. The President’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 budget request makes the development, testing, and fielding of a hypersonic weapon and HGV defense a top priority to compete with Russia and China. With that priority comes resources and a change of culture in development and testing to have the fortitude and courage to fail fast, learn fast, and adjust fast to rapidly deploy a sound capability from a collaborative and cooperative multi-industry governmental team. This cooperative and collaborative team must too be efficient with its limited resources and work towards a common HGV platform across the military services in joint testing, joint development, and joint rapid deployment. The United States has rapidly developed, failed fast, learned fast, and deployed very successful with unyielding determination and achieved technically superior systems in the past with its ICBM force, its Gemini/Apollo race to the Moon, and the SR-71 programs to name a few.
The arms race in the 1950s and 60s led to strategic arms control agreements we still abide by today with the New START. We should too be aware of a path forward to a future arms control agreement between the three competing powers to limit these HGVs where there are no international rules as of today. To put the United States in the best position to sustain its status quo is to rapidly develop HGV defenses.