The long-awaited battlefield debut of hypersonic weapons was largely a bust. But experts say it had much more to do with who pulled the trigger than underlying problems with the technology itself.
Russia’s hypersonic Kinzhal missiles on multiple occasions have failed to hit their targets in Ukraine, in many cases having been intercepted by the tried-and-true U.S.-made Patriot missile defense batteries fielded by Ukrainian forces.
Before the attempted strikes, Moscow spent years boasting about how its hypersonic weapons program was miles ahead of the Pentagon’s and that its super-fast, maneuverable missiles could evade even the world’s most modern defense systems.
The reality, at least so far, has been very different. Kyiv’s ability to take out Russia’s Kinzhal missiles with relative ease has sparked high-stakes conversations in national security circles in the U.S. and across the globe about whether hypersonics are in fact the game-changer that analysts have predicted.
But deep inside America’s hypersonic research community, scholars insist that there is really only one lesson that can be taken from the dismal performance so far of Russia’s hypersonic arsenal.
“I think the best message I can draw is that the Russians build really crappy weapons,” said Mark Lewis, CEO of Purdue University’s Applied Research Institute, which last week launched its $41 million Hypersonics and Applied Research Facility.
Supporters say that the work that will be done at that facility, and at other institutions and research hubs across the country, will soon rebut the narrative that’s taken hold in Washington: that the U.S. is far behind Russia and China in hypersonic military technology.
Indeed, the truth appears to be much more complicated. Experts say that Russia and China do appear to be ahead in their ability to field hypersonic systems, but those systems in most cases do not appear to be ready for prime time.
U.S. researchers, on the other hand, say they’re playing the long game and aren’t dissuaded by Russia’s failings.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, does that mean that hypersonics don’t work as effectively as you’ve been saying?’ No, it doesn’t mean that at all,” Mr. Lewis said.
“It just means that the Russian systems are very limited,” he told reporters in a briefing last week. “A lot of what the Russians have been saying has been overinflated, shall we say? But … we should absolutely not look at the performance of their systems and try to draw any analogies to our systems.”
Seeking an advantage
Russia isn’t the only U.S. adversary pursuing hypersonic weapons, which can travel at least five times the speed of sound, or Mach 5. China has also made huge investments in hypersonics in the hopes that such weapons could give the communist nation an edge over the U.S. and its allies in a potential conflict in the Pacific.
Beijing has left little doubt that it sees hypersonics as a key piece of its strategy to defeat the U.S. Navy. For example, Chinese researchers just last month reportedly claimed that their country’s hypersonic weapons were capable of destroying a U.S.aircraft carrier group “with certainty.”
In the summer of 2021, China launched into space a hypersonic missile capable of carrying a nuclear payload. The test caught Pentagon leaders by surprise.
“What we saw was a very significant event of a test of a hypersonic weapon system, and it is very concerning. I don’t know if it’s quite a Sputnik moment, but I think it’s very close to that,” Joints Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley said after the Chinese test, referring to the Soviet Union’s historic 1957 satellite launch that sparked a space race between Moscow and Washington.
Even Iran has jumped into the game. Iranian officials last week presented what they said is their first domestically produced hypersonic ballistic missile, dubbed the “Fattah,” with a range of well over 800 miles.
So far, Russia is the only nation to use such a weapon in combat. Leading up to the invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin drew attention to his country’s hypersonic program with far-reaching claims about how no missile defense system on earth could defeat Moscow’s newfangled weapons.
But some specialists say it’s important to dive into the details of Russia’s program. For starters, there is a debate about whether the Kinzhal missiles used in Ukraine should even be classified as hypersonic weapons.
“The term ‘hypersonic’ is now typically used just to refer to two types of weapons that are being developed through contemporary defense programs: hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) and hypersonic cruise missiles (HCMs). The Kinzhal is neither, as it is an air-launched ballistic missile,” scholars Alexander H. Montgomery and Amy J. Nelson wrote in a recent analysis for the Brookings Institution. “Moreover, Ukraine’s ability to intercept Russia’s entire volley of six Kinzhals indicates that the missile’s alleged status as a hypersonic system is at best questionable.”
Broadly speaking, HGVs are launched from a rocket and then glide toward their target, while HCMs are powered by engines.
The Kinzhal does not neatly fit into either category. Russia claims the weapon can travel at speeds up to Mach 10 and has a range of up to 1,200 miles. Russian officials also say the weapon is capable of maneuverable flight and can be outfitted with a nuclear warhead.
“However, such claims regarding Kinzhal’s performance characteristics have not been publicly verified by U.S. intelligence agencies, and have been met with skepticism by a number of analysts,” the Congressional Research Service said in a February hypersonics report.
Russia’s other top hypersonic system, the Avangard, is of the glide vehicle variety and reportedly can reach speeds of Mach 20.
U.S. defense officials have said they plan to field operational hypersonic systems by the early-to-mid 2020s, though they stress that unlike China and Russia, the U.S. is developing non-nuclear hypersonic strike capabilities. Deep inside the Pentagon and in defense industry circles, hypersonics research is a top priority.
The Navy, Army, Air Force and the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are all pursuing separate hypersonic missile programs, according to the CRS report.
Specialists say the oft-repeated claim that the U.S. is lagging behind its enemies is an oversimplification.
“Rather than being genuinely ‘behind,’ the United States’ more cautious approach to its own programs and statements about them likely reflects its reticence to field insufficiently tested systems,” Mr. Montgomery and Ms. Nelson wrote in their Brookings analysis.
Indeed, it seems clear that the U.S. military, its private-sector partners and academic institutions such as Purdue are focused on producing the highest-quality hypersonic products, not just getting something to the assembly line and onto the battlefield as soon as possible.
At Purdue, the Hypersonics and Applied Research Facility will be a central part of the broader American initiative. The 65,000-square-foot building is home to two cutting-edge wind tunnels, the university said in a press release, with those tunnels helping to recreate a host of scenarios in which hypersonic vehicles and weapons may operate. Those scenarios include spacecraft re-entry or missile flight through the atmosphere, the university said, and replicating the engine conditions needed for extremely high-speed propulsion.
The facility’s hypersonic pulse reflected shock/expansion tunnel, or HYPULSE, will allow for flight simulations at speeds up to Mach 40.
Experts say the work being done at the facility and in the broader hypersonics domain is reminiscent of the early days of the U.S. space program.
“It feels like the 1960s all over again,” former NASA Administrator Dan Goldin said this week at a Purdue press conference unveiling the school’s new facility.
“But more than that … I got to see something that didn’t exist in the ‘60s, and that is comprehensive test facilities for all aspects of hypersonics,” he said. “From materials to computing, to testing and to reusable vehicles … we will not only be able to build better hypersonic vehicles, but we’ll do it much faster for much less money because of the integration of all these functions I saw.”
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