After nearly two decades of focusing specifically on counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency warfare, the United States now finds itself in a difficult position. Despite having the largest defense budget on the globe, nation level competitors, specifically Russia and China, have begun fielding weapons technologies the United States simply can’t currently match. America, it would seem, allowed itself to be so bogged down in the conflicts it was fighting, it forgot to keep an eye to the horizon and to the wars that could be coming.
While the United States is still the clear leader in a number of important defense enterprises, China and Russia have been watching American forces operating all over the world in recent years and developed weapons systems specifically intended to counter America’s traditional ways of conducting business — most notably, in the development of hypersonic missile technologies. These missile platforms travel at consistent speeds in excess of Mach 5, making them virtually impossible to intercept using the modern missile defense systems employed by U.S. forces. China’s hypersonic DF-21D, for instance, was purpose-built to destroy America’s Nimitz and Ford class supercarriers — the nation’s most potent form of rapid force projection. America’s carrier-based aircraft all have an operational range of around 500 miles (meaning they can engage a target as far as 500 miles away before having to turn back to make the return flight). China’s hypersonic DF-21D, however, has an operational range of nearly 1,000 miles. As a result, American carriers could not come close enough to Chinese shores to launch any sort of attack without risking the loss of the carrier itself; prompting a slew of new programs within the U.S. Navy aimed at extending the fuel range of their fighters.
Of course, finding a way to mitigate the threat presented by this new technology is really only half of the game when it comes to diplomatic posturing. Like the constantly evolving nuclear landscape, these new weapons require a two-fold approach: first, finding a way to minimize the threat posed by the new weapon (as the Navy is working to do), and second, finding a way to match the new capabilities being presented by the opponent. By the Air Force’s own admission, the United States is far behind both China and Russia in the hypersonic missile race, with early flight testing of the first American platform not expected for another two years — but in this technology race, the United States has one significant secret weapon: a whole boatload of money.
Lockheed Martin, the developer of both of America’s famed (and expensive) fifth-generation fighters, the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, has already been awarded one contract through the Pentagon to close the high-velocity gap between America’s missile systems and those being fielded by its competitors. However, both Russia and China have recently made announcements regarding the development of new hypersonic platforms, and this time, the U.S. doesn’t plan to be left behind. Despite the first contract awarded to Lockheed being worth nearly a billion dollars, the U.S. Air Force announced this week that they have now awarded the same company a second contract, this time to the tune of $480 million.
It’s the hope of the Air Force that research and development that’s going into the first platform can be applied to the second, allowing America to rapidly develop not one, but two hypersonic flight vehicles in as short a time as possible. However, Air Force officials noted that the $480 million figure may only be temporary — a final price will be determined based on the programs needs within 180 days.
Based on the nature of the challenge presented by hypersonic technologies, it seems feasible, then, that the United States may be able to get these weapons into development well before it’s able to devise a way to defend against these missiles. While previous Air Force statements suggested a hypersonic platform wouldn’t see flight testing until 2020 at the earliest, more recent estimates now place both of the Lockheed developed programs in service by 2021, only a year or so after Russia’s and China’s are expected to become fully operational.
“We are going to go fast and leverage the best technology available to get hypersonic capability to the warfighter as soon as possible,” said Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson earlier this week.
Featured image: The X-51 hypersonic test vehicle. |