China and Russia's intention to pursue hypersonic weapons lit a fire under the U.S. military, forcing it to re-invigorate its own programs.
But just how far the two rivals have come in their own programs and whether or not they can penetrate the United States' missile defenses is a matter of debate. Are they behind? Have they caught up? Or are they ahead of the United States when it comes to this disruptive technology?
The answers are opaque, experts said.
When the United States began to shift its attention to counterrorism missions after the Cold War, Russia and China used it as an opportunity to bolster their air and missile portfolios, said Tom Karako, director of the missile defense project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"The Cold War ended, and we kind of patted ourselves on the back. And we said, Aha, we've got air superiority,'" he said at the Hudson Institute. But Russia and China had begun to adapt, and they've begun to adapt especially with a spectrum of air and missile threats, he added.
Since then, the two countries have taken steps to invest in the research and development of hypersonic weapons as they face great power competition with the United States. These platforms can reach speeds of March 5 or higher while maintaining their maneuverability, making them a strategic asset in missile defense.
China is already close to fielding hypersonic systems that can go thousands of miles beyond its shores to hit U.S. carriers and forward-deployed forces, according to Michael Griffin, the Pentagon's undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. He noted that the United States does not have systems to counter these weapons.
"Should they choose to employ them, we would be, today, at a disadvantage," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee's subcommittee on emerging threats and capabilities in testimony last year. "It is among my very highest priorities to erase that disadvantage, creating our own systems to hold them at risk and to provide defense."
The push to outpace the United States in weapons development is also reflected in Beijing's defense budget. China's military budget has doubled in the last decade, Griffin told the House Armed Services Committee's subcommittee on intelligence and emerging threats and capabilities in prepared testimony in March.
According to the Defense Department's 2019 annual report to Congress, "Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China 2019," China's military budget is expected to increase by an annual average of 6 percent, shooting it up to $260 billion by 2022. However, a lack of accounting transparency makes it difficult to pinpoint how much of its spending is specifically geared toward hypersonic weapons...