Are Hypersonic Weapons Completely Overhyped?

 In GDI, Russia, Land, Defense, Air

The Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2021 budget request has result­ed in a lot of reshuf­fling among next-gen­er­a­tion pro­cure­ment projects. One of the high­est pro­file can­cel­la­tions is the US Air Force’s can­cel­la­tion of the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW). The HCSW was one of the “many” hyper­son­ic weapons Trump referred to in his January state­ment fol­low­ing the Iranian coun­ter­strike. However, in the con­text of over­all mil­i­tary pro­cure­ment, the HCSW can­cel­la­tion makes sense. But it also sug­gests that per­haps hyper­son­ics are not as big of a deal as many media sources have made them out to be.

The HCSW was one of two hyper­son­ic weapons pro­grams that were ready to enter ser­vice in the near term, the other being the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, or ARRW. The two pro­grams differ sig­nif­i­cant­ly: in shape, matu­ri­ty, and hyper­son­ic char­ac­ter­is­tics. The HCSW is the U.S. Air Force’s por­tion of a shared hyper­son­ic “glide vehi­cle,” called the Common Hypersonic Glide Body (C‑HGB). As the Air Force pri­mar­i­ly employs their weapons from the air, the HCSW was a rocket motor attached to the C‑HGB, meant to be air launched.

The U.S. Army and U.S. Navy seem to be push­ing for­wards with their C‑HGB-based hyper­son­ic weapons though, under the names Long Range Hypersonic Weapon and Intermediate Range Prompt Conventional Strike, respec­tive­ly. The C‑HGB design is con­sid­ered to be the “safe” hyper­son­ic devel­op­ment project, as based on ear­li­er hyper­son­ic research. Notably, AviationWeek claims that the design of the HCSW was based in the 1970s-era Sandia Winged Energetic Re-entry Vehicle Experiment (SWERVE). Sandia’s offi­cial press releas­es about the Army’s hyper­son­ic weapons men­tion the SWERVE, but don’t delve into whether it is the direct ances­tor of the modern C‑HGB.

But the U.S. Air Force’s can­cel­la­tion of HCSW sug­gests that early, or rel­a­tive­ly con­ven­tion­al hyper­son­ic tech doesn’t fit their vision of how hyper­son­ic weapons should per­form to be truly useful on the bat­tle­field. While there are no hard num­bers as the HCSW was still being refined, most reports sug­gest that the HCSW would move at slight­ly more than Mach 5, slow for a hyper­son­ic weapon, and only half the speed of the Kh-47 “Kinzhal,” Russia’s air-deliv­ered hyper­son­ic mis­sile.

The project that remains, ARRW, is a far more advanced design, fea­tur­ing a “wedge” rather than a “cone” design. The ARRW is said to be designed to travel at speeds of up to Mach 20. If pro­duc­tion or test­ing vari­ants manage to reach those speeds, they could allow the Air Force to “leapfrog” the hyper­son­ic tech level of cur­rent Russian mis­siles. As the ARRW is said to be on track for 2022 in-ser­vice date, the cal­cu­lus seems clear: wait­ing two years for a true next-gen­er­a­tion mis­sile will prob­a­bly be worth it and con­sol­i­dat­ing fund­ing on the more advanced design will pay off. Of course, this assumes ARRW test­ing does off with­out a hitch. If delays are encoun­tered, as they have been in the past, the U.S. Air Force may regret their deci­sion to can the safer project.

Charlie Gao stud­ied Political and Computer Science at Grinnell College and is a fre­quent com­men­ta­tor on defense and nation­al secu­ri­ty issues.

Image: Defense Department.

Source: National Interest

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