The Hype in Hypersonic

The Financial Times, a British paper that covers more than financial matters, last weekend ran an article about China’s hypersonic missile program that could significantly accelerate the global arms race.

According to the report, this past August, China successfully tested a projectile that traveled at a speed five times faster than the speed of sound (Mach 5), in a low orbit all the way around the globe. Toward the end of the flight, it released a nuclear-capable craft which then glided toward its target.

Beijing denied this, saying that it was merely a “routine spacecraft experiment.” Believe them at your own risk.

Retired U.S. Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CBS News the Chinese test was “an important surprise … because it demonstrates the capability to have a very long-reach hypersonic weapon that could cause a lot of damage without us being able to do anything about it.”

The incident came two weeks after Russia, long known to be playing around with the same technology, claimed it shot a hypersonic missile from a submarine (first time ever). President Vladimir Putin claimed that the new weapon is “absolutely invulnerable to any air or missile defense system.”

To make matters worse, the Pentagon has admitted in recent days to a series of three failed hypersonic tests — a regular trifecta of technological prowess.

Anyone with déjà vu capabilities will recall the launching on October 4, 1957 by Soviet Russia of Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite. With the apocalyptic coverage of the news media, Americans were thrown into a virtual panic.

Then-Senate majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson deployed his gift for colorful language to inform his fellow Americans that it would enable Russia to drop “bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks onto cars from freeway overpasses.”

President Dwight Eisenhower, who knew as much as anybody about such things, was less impressed, saying that “so far as the satellite itself is concerned, that does not raise my apprehensions, not one iota.” Sputnik, he explained was a space technology, not a weapon, and no cause for panic, though he acknowledged that the U.S. had some catching-up to do.

Eisenhower’s levelheadedness notwithstanding, Sputnik marked a turning point in the Cold War, starting the so-called “race for space,” in which the U.S. focused manically on developing its scientific and technological resources. Eventually, it beat the Russians to the Moon.

The Russian and Chinese hypersonic tests are very possibly another Sputnik moment. Information about what exactly they have is incomplete, but senior defense officials are taking it seriously.

“The Pentagon has declared hypersonics its No. 1 technical priority. But the official in charge of the program recently acknowledged that the U.S. is playing catch-up with both Russia and China,” according to CBS News.

Michael Gallagher, a Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, told the Financial Times that this should be a “call to action,” warning that “the People’s Liberation Army now has an increasingly credible capability to undermine our missile defenses and threaten the American homeland.”

Gallagher didn’t elaborate on what kind of action he has in mind, but presumably something along the lines of injecting more billions of dollars into U.S. hypersonic technology.

But it’s not at all clear that alarm is warranted. There’s a lot of hype in hypersonic — helped along by images of missiles soaring into the atmosphere from undersea launchers and talk of capabilities that could render America defenseless.

A reading of some of the expert opinion leads in a different direction.

Scientific American had this to say: “Our studies indicate that hypersonic weapons may have advantages in certain scenarios, but by no means do they constitute a revolution. Many of the claims about them are exaggerated or simply false.”

Fred Kaplan, a noted historian of nuclear weapons policy, says that “the alarms are overblown.”

More specifically, Kaplan dispelled some of the hypersonics awe by pointing that “regular ICBMs travel at 23 times the speed of sound. In other words, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which have been around for 60 years, are also hypersonic missiles.”

Thus, as far as speed is concerned, it’s nothing new.

What is new, then? The hypersonics reportedly possess a maneuverability that ICBMs don’t.

“Hypersonic weapons would fly deep within the atmosphere most of the time, using lift generated by airflow to weave around and try to evade interceptors. Approaching at such low altitudes, these weapons would avoid detection by ground-based radar systems until close to their target, making them more difficult to stop,” according to Scientific American.

But even then, the current hypersonic doesn’t come close to an ICBM for accuracy — within a 10th of a mile. The “successful” Chinese shot was said to have missed its target by 24 miles.

So what should the United States do in response to this new threat?

The first thing to do is to stay calm. The hypersonic weapons may not even exist; if they do exist, they may not be any more of a threat than ICBMs, which have been around for about 60 years. So if you’re going to lose sleep over the hypersonic threat, you have a lot of catching up to do.

Probably, there is no need to do more than the Pentagon is already doing — developing the weapons at a steady pace, while keeping tabs on the other guys.

The aerospace engineers are no doubt scrutinizing the failed tests, but maybe they need somebody looking over their shoulders, demanding improved performance. Consistency is a good thing, but not that kind. And better the other side should be playing catch-up, not America.