Faced with adversaries developing hypersonic missiles that could potentially overwhelm U.S. defenses, the Pentagon is in a race against time to acquire technologies to counter the emerging theat.
In recent months, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been touting his nation's hypersonics arsenal, claiming that no foreign power has the means to defeat it. Meanwhile, China has been aggressively testing its own offensive weapons, according to U.S. officials.
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 told the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on emerging threats and capabilities at a recent hearing.
"We, today, do not... have defenses against those systems," he noted. "It is among my very highest priorities to erase that disadvantage."
Air Force Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, director of the Missile Defense Agency, has also been sounding the alarm.
"Based on what we have seen others demonstrate, there's no question that it's only a matter of time before it's operationalized," he said during a recent breakfast on Capitol Hill hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
"The question will be what have we done to prepare ourselves to mitigate or eliminate that threat five, six, seven years from now when it shows up?" he added. "We've got... to get started now, work with industry and deploy the capability" to counter enemy attacks.
Hypersonic weapons travel at speeds of Mach 5 or higher, but it's their maneuverability that poses the greatest challenge to defensive systems, noted Tom Karako, director of the missile defense project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"It's where they travel and how they travel" that makes it difficult to stop them, he said.
Hypersonics may begin their flight on a ballistic trajectory but then change course unexpectedly, he explained.
"Instead of operating by freefall they may do a maneuver and then come back down at a high angle and then... glide" through the atmosphere, he said.
By staying inside the atmosphere rather than going into outer space, the missiles would be flying at a lower altitude than where many U.S. interceptors are designed to shoot them down. Additionally, hypersonics can steer like a cruise missile during...