The Pentagon let up on the gas on its effort to build a nationwide missile shield following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. What had begun as President Ronald Reagan’s push to render Moscow’s nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete” shrank to a more modest defense designed to shoot down one or two missiles bearing down on the United States from a rogue state.
But the Defense Department has just resumed pursuing Reagan’s dream following President Trump’s January 17 visit to the Pentagon, where he vowed to “ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States—anywhere, anytime, anyplace.”
Once again, the United States. is on the hunt for the elusive silver bullet. It would be almost quaint, if it weren’t so costly—and impossible.
“For those not old enough to remember, missile defense sounds a lot like the Cold War’s missile and bomber gaps, used by the U.S. national-security establishment to cow the public and crowbar more money into the Pentagon.
Of course, the United States never abandoned missile defenses. The Soviet Union’s disintegration simply offered a convenient excuse to scale back the program critics had quickly dubbed “Star Wars,” for its goal of deploying missile-killing lasers and other high-tech heavenly arms. Instead, it became a much thinner screen designed to handle the minor-league threats posed by North Korea and Iran. Nonetheless, the United States has spent nearly $300 billion on missile defense since Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative 36 years ago.
Those Iranian and North Korean missiles were yesterday’s threats. They’re launched from known sites and follow predictable arcs to their targets. Even so, no nation—including the United States—has ever been able to develop a reliable nationwide missile defense. Having failed the first time around, the government is launching a new effort against an even tougher threat. “Russia and China are developing advanced cruise missiles and hypersonic missile capabilities that can travel at exceptional speeds with unpredictable flight paths that challenge existing defensive systems,” the Defense Department said in its Missile Defense Review, released the same day President Trump visited the Pentagon. “These are challenging realities of the emerging missile threat environment that U.S. missile defense policy, strategy, and capabilities must address.”
Translation: Hold on to your wallet.
There are two basic kinds of hypersonic weapons, which travel between 5 and 25 times the speed of sound. One is a boost-glide version that is lobbed into space aboard a rocket. Then it separates from the rocket and glides to its target, maneuvering to thwart defenses. It can “bounce” off the denser air at lower altitude, extending its range and make it even tougher to destroy. The second type is basically a low-flying scramjet cruise missile (utilizing supersonic air flow throughout the engine) launched from an aircraft and capable of flying beneath or around existing missile defenses.
The deviltry of hypersonic weapons is their marriage of speed and unpredictability. A hypersonic weapon can dodge and weave en route to its target, threatening huge swaths of territory and giving its target only a few minutes to react. Shorter-range variants could threaten U.S. troops anywhere in the world—and Navy aircraft carriers.
These are weapons potential U.S. foes might be interested in brandishing. Last March, Russian President Vladimir Putin bragged about a Russian hypersonic weapon—dubbed the Kinzhal, Russian for “Dagger”—that he said was capable of traveling 2,000 miles at 10 times the speed of sound. Several months later, China said it had successfully tested its Starry Sky 2, a hypersonic missile that flew more than 4,000 miles an hour.
Then, in December, the Russians said they had successfully tested the Avangard, a hypersonic glider capable of carrying a nuclear warhead that attacks “like a meteorite,” according to Putin.
While all such claims need to be taken with a grain of salt—and performance can vary due to weather, altitude and air density—such missiles could fly from New York to Los Angeles in about 12 minutes.
Beijing is “close to fielding hypersonic delivery systems for conventional prompt strike that can reach out thousands of kilometers from the Chinese shore and hold our carrier battle groups, or our forward-deployed forces on land…at risk,” Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin has warned. “We, today, do not…have defenses against those systems,” he noted. “It is among my very highest priorities to erase that disadvantage.”
“You’re shooting a bullet with a bullet,” Air Force General Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said. “And it gets worse when a bullet is going 13 times the speed of sound, and can maneuver.” (end of excerpt)
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