The United States Navy is moving forward with plans to develop a hypersonic weapon that meets the requirements set forth by the Pentagon for what has been called a “conventional prompt global strike mission.” Notably, this new missile platform is being developed for deployment on both surface vessels and aboard submarines, as the Navy seeks to meet the Pentagon’s goal of enabling the U.S. military to strike any target, anywhere in the world in under an hour.

The endeavor to offer U.S. commanders that kind of rapid response capability has become a force-wide initiative, with each branch developing and fielding hypersonic weapons with that specific aim. The United States currently finds itself well behind the likes of both the Russian and Chinese military in terms of hypersonic technologies, largely as a result of America’s focus on counter-insurgency and anti-terrorism warfare for the better part of two decades. It is currently expected that both nations will have hypersonic missiles in their arsenals for years before American platforms reach deployment, but the U.S. has already begun funneling billions into closing this capability gap sooner than projected.

“We have a program, we are funded, and we’re moving forward with that capability, which is going to be tremendous to allow our Navy to continue to have the access they need, whether it be from submarines or from surface ships,” Vice Adm. Johnny Wolfe said at the annual Naval Submarine League symposium earlier this month.

Wolfe pointed out that the Navy’s new weapon is currently so early in its development that the decision has yet to be made regarding exactly what platforms this new missile will be fired from, and as a result, the new missile’s program office within its Strategic Systems Programs (SSP) is moving forward using its most difficult and stringent requirements as a baseline: creating a hypersonic weapon that can be fired from a submerged submarine.

The risks associated with a missile launch are greatly exacerbated when the launch takes place beneath the surface of the ocean. Most sub-launched missiles, like the Lockheed Martin Trident II D-5 employed in America’s Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines, are expelled from the sub by first flash-vaporizing a tank of water using an explosive charge. The massive amounts of steam produced actually fling the 120,000-pound missile not only out of the submarine but past the ocean’s surface and into the air. Once the missile is airborne thanks to the steam-assist, its first rocket stage must ignite at exactly the right instant to carry the massive missile aloft and to its target.

Artist’s rendering of a submarine launched ballistic missile. (US Navy)

This process involves much greater risk than firing from a surface vessel or land-based launch apparatus, and as such, the tolerances are tighter. Because the Navy isn’t sure what types of ships will field this new platform, the program aims to ensure all ships feasibly could — greatly improving the branch’s chances at meeting the Pentagon’s one-hour strike goal.

“From a Navy perspective, we’re developing the booster that our hypersonic glide body will go on, and we’re doing it though in such a way that we’re taking the most stringent requirement — which is underwater launch — and so as we develop it we will do it in such a way that as the bigger Navy comes through what platform or platforms they actually want to deploy this on, the launcher and the glide body will be able to survive any of those environments,” Wolfe explained.

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