Although the U.S. reportedly tested an operational hypersonic flight vehicle in cooperation with Australia last year, statements made by Air Force Materiel Command commander, Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, on Tuesday seem to indicate that America is significantly behind both Russia and China in the race to field capable hypersonic platforms.
Hypersonic velocities, or speeds that exceed Mach 5, have gained quite a bit of public attention lately, in large part because both China and Russia already have hypersonic capable missile platforms within their arsenals. These missiles travel at speeds that significantly reduce the effectiveness of existing missile defense systems, making them a legitimate threat to America’s fleet of massive super carriers. The Navy has already begun incorporating multiple new programs into their budgeting and combat strategies, all aiming to offset the advantage these hypersonic platforms offer America’s opponents, but some have argued that the most important thing the U.S. can be doing to counter these hypersonic threats is to develop capable platforms of our own.
However, Pawlikowski characterized America’s hypersonic efforts as seemingly in their infancy — placing a significant emphasis on understanding what hypersonic velocities will do to an aircraft or missile and suggesting that plans are underway for actual flight tests “within the next couple of years.”
In contrast, China’s hypersonic DF-21D, a missile that as developed with America’s Nimitz and Ford class carriers specifically in mind, has been in service since 2010. Although questions remain regarding the targeting apparatus such a platform would require to accurately sink even such a large vessel from nearly a thousand miles away, there’s no question that the missile can travel at speeds well beyond the hypersonic barrier — with some claims placing its collision speed at nearly Mach 10. At such a velocity, the kinetic energy transfer of the impact alone would be sufficient to sink a carrier, with or without any explosive ordnance.