Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a national address that included talk about a number of new missile platforms the Russian military is rapidly fielding. For defense analysts, none of the missiles he discussed were particularly new, as most were actually leftover Cold War era projects the Kremlin only recently put into production — but one type of missile technology was different. While many of the platforms Putin discussed offered strategic novelty moreso than functionality, hypersonic missile platforms really do pose a threat to America’s defensive apparatus.

Russia isn’t the only nation working to field missiles that can exceed the Mach 5 barrier into “hypersonic” speeds – China has their own programs with similar aims – and both nations already have combat capable hypersonic missile applications. Among other things, this development is forcing a dramatic reimagining of how America’s aircraft carriers could be used in a conflict with either nation, as the range and sheer indefensibility of these missiles would make bringing a carrier close enough to launch sorties a suicide mission.

While the United States has worked in the past with Australia on experimental hypersonic missile platforms, it seems only now, as the threat posed by the nation’s competitors is already at hand, that the Defense Department is ready to seriously pursue the development of America’s own technological response.

Last week, Lockheed Martin — developer of both of America’s 5th generation fighters and storied defense contractor — was announced as the winner of a massive $928 Million contract with its sights set on developing a hypersonic missile platform of our own. Specifically, an air-launched hypersonic platform that could help offset the operational gap presented Russian and Chinese missiles.

“We are committed to the development of state-of-the-art hypersonic technologies, and we are excited to get to work on the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon program,” Jon Snyder, Lockheed Martin’s vice president for Air Force Strategic Programs, said in an emailed statement.

This is the second hypersonic missile program in development using Defense Department funds. Another initiative, called the Tactical Boost Glide Program, is already underway through a joint Air Force and DARPA initiative.

“The Air Force is using prototyping to explore the art of the possible and to advance these technologies to a capability as quickly as possible,” Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said.

Because America’s carrier-based aircraft have a fuel range of only around 500 miles and China’s hypersonic anti-ship missile ranges can exceed a thousand, an aircraft launched hypersonic missile could allow American fighters an opportunity to engage anti-ship missile platforms from the air, without bringing the carriers themselves within range. Once the anti-ship defenses had been neutralized, carrier strike groups could close in for a more conventional assault.

This methodology would not be all that different from the strategy currently employed when conducting air campaigns over enemy nations: first take out the air defenses, then bring the pain in the form of less stealthy bombers and the like.

In order to do so, however, America first must successfully field a missile with the speed, range and accuracy required to destroy anti-ship defenses — and quickly.

“In my opinion, today the most significant advance by our adversaries has been the Chinese development of what is now today a pretty mature system for conventional prompt strike at multi-thousand-kilometer ranges,” Mike Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said about these platforms last week.

“We will, with today’s defensive systems, not see these things coming,”

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons