America’s Greatest Defense Vulnerability

Recent testimony from General John Hyten (USAF) and Commander of the United States Strategic Command before the United States Committee on Armed Services gives us a very clear look at where the Defense Department feels that it is vulnerable.  Let’s look at some of the highlights of his testimony followed by a recent news story from Tass, Russia’s largest news agency.

Here are the pertinent highlights of General Hyten’s testimony.  He opens by outlining the capabilities of the United States Strategic Command or USSTRATCOM:

USSTRATCOM is a global warfighting command, setting the conditions across the globe as the ultimate guarantor of national and allied security. Our forces and capabilities underpin and enable all other Joint Force operations.

USSTRATCOM is globally dispersed from the depths of the ocean, on land, in the air, across cyber, and into space, with a matching breadth of mission areas. The men and women of this command are responsible for Strategic Deterrence, Nuclear Operations, Space Operations, Joint Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations, Global Strike, Missile Defense, Analysis and Targeting, and Cyberspace Operations (until USCYBERCOM is elevated). Nearly 184,000 Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Civilians support the USSTRATCOM mission, providing an umbrella of security for the United States and its allies every day. These critical capabilities are an integral part of our combat operations and enable warfighters across all domains to preserve the peace and when called upon, dominate in conflict and win.

He notes that USSTRATCOM’s priorities are as follows:

1.) provide a strategic deterrence.

2.) if deterrence fails, USSTRATCOM is prepared to deliver a decisive response.

He continues by looking at the challenges facing USSTRATCOM, particularly those challenges based on the behaviours of China in the Indo-Pacific region and Russia in Ukraine and the Middle East  He notes that both nations are developing hypersonic-glide vehicle capabilities which will provide both nations with the leading edge technology that will allow them to defeat America’s ballistic missile defences.

While the United States relies heavily on the threat of its nuclear triad (land-based nuclear missiles, strategic aircraft equipped with nuclear bombs and missiles and nuclear missile-armed submarines) as shown here (with costs for 2016 included):

…to ensure its global dominance, as I noted above, the development of hypersonic weapons could be a game-changer and one that concerns USSTRATCOM’s leadership as shown in this excerpt from General Hyten’s testimony:

Adversary anti-access / area denial strategies are challenging traditional U.S. approaches to power projection. Advancements in adversary integrated air defense systems and offensive missiles inhibit our ability to maneuver within the battlespace. Additionally, our strategic competitors are investing significant resources in hypersonic weapon research and development with the goal of deploying hypersonic strike weapons in the next few years. The Department is pursuing hypersonic capabilities along several lines of effort, but we need to prioritize and accelerate development if we are to field our own capability in the near term.

New long-range, survivable, lethal, and time-sensitive strike capabilities, such as a hypersonic Conventional Prompt Strike or CPS weapon, will allow the U.S. to achieve its military objectives in these environments. This new weapon class prevents adversaries from exploiting time and distance and provides additional response options below the nuclear threshold. The Navy’s successful CPS flight test last October demonstrated the technical maturity required to field an effective hypersonic strike solution within the near future. As our competitors continue to move fast in this area, we must retake the initiative and commit the necessary resources to develop and field hypersonic conventional weapons.” (my bold)

With that background, let’s look at the recent announcement from TASS:

The Husky-class fifth-generation lead nuclear-powered submarine armed with Zircon hypersonic missiles is expected to be built by 2027, a source in the Russian defense sector told TASS on Thursday.

The Husky has been included in the state armament program for 2018-2027. There are plans to start the experimental design work on the construction of submarines of this class from 2023 and deliver the lead vessel by the end of 2027,” the source said.  “Zircon hypersonic anti-ship missiles will become the main armament of the newest multipurpose submarine,” the source added.

The future submarine’s performance characteristics have been classified. According to open sources, the Husky will feature a two-hull design traditional for the Russian Navy and displace 12,000 tonnes. The submarine will be furnished with the most advanced combat information and control system, a sonar and a system of integration into the unified information space of the Russian Armed Forces.

The universal missile system with the Zircon hypersonic missile (it develops a speed of Mach 5-6) has been developed by the Research and Production Association of Machine-Building and is undergoing trials now. The Zircon hypersonic missiles are expected to be mounted on airborne and seaborne carriers.

In addition to the report from TASS, here’s a pertinent excerpt from President Vladimir Putin’s annual Address to the Federal Assembly in early March 2018:

Countries with high research potential and advanced technology are known to be actively developing so-called hypersonic weapons. The speed of sound is usually measured in Mach numbers in honour of Austrian scientist Ernst Mach who is known for his research in this field. One Mach is equal to 1,062 kilometres per hour at an altitude of 11 kilometres. The speed of sound is Mach 1, speeds between Mach 1 and Mach 5 is called supersonic, and hypersonic is above Mach 5. Of course, this kind of weapon provides substantial advantages in an armed conflict. Military experts believe that it would be extremely powerful, and that its speed makes it invulnerable to current missile and air defence systems, since interceptor missiles are, simply put, not fast enough. In this regard, it is quite understandable why the leading armies of the world seek to possess such an ideal weapon.

Friends, Russia already has such a weapon.

The most important stage in the development of modern weapons systems was the creation of a high-precision hypersonic aircraft missile system; as you already know for sure, it is the only one of its kind in the world. Its tests have been successfully completed, and, moreover, on December 1 of last year, these systems began their trial service at the airfields of the Southern Military District.

The unique flight characteristics of the high-speed carrier aircraft allow the missile to be delivered to the point of discharge within minutes. The missile flying at a hypersonic speed, 10 times faster than the speed of sound, can also manoeuvre at all phases of its flight trajectory, which also allows it to overcome all existing and, I think, prospective anti-aircraft and anti-missile defence systems, delivering nuclear and conventional warheads in a range of over 2,000 kilometres. We called this system Kinzhal (Dagger). (bolds mine)

Later in his speech, Putin goes on to note that Russia is making “…the necessary efforts to neutralize the threats posed by the deployment of the U.S. global missile defense system“.  With Russia’s new hypersonic weapons capabilities, they will, in the near future, be able to launch high precision weapons that can hit targets on other continents and have the ability to adjust both their altitude and course during their flight at speeds of up to Mach 20.  It is this maneuverability that has put Russia on the forefront of defeating America’s missile defense systems.

As we can see, the United States has relied on the heavy fist of its traditional nuclear triad to ensure its role in the old, unipolar world.  It is this focus that has led to a key vulnerability.  With both Russia and China working on hypersonic technology and with Russia’s hypersonic weapons delivery-ready in “the near future”, the Pentagon will surely go begging hat in hand for even more of Main Street’s hard-earned tax dollars.  In fact, this is what has happened to spending on hypersonic research over the past three fiscal years according to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA:

 

…and the U.S. Air Force has recently signed an indefinite quantity – indefinite quantity deal with Lockheed Martin, America’s favourite defense contractor, for up to $928 million to kickstart the development of a prototype for America’s Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon program.

We’re off and spending away!

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