Military superiority? Everything is changing

For hundreds of years, the open ocean has been the mainstay of military superiority. With massive warships and flotillas, distant countries can roam the planet exerting pressure, security and offence seemingly at will. The U.S. has 11 aircraft carriers, more than the number and capability of all the other nations combined. China, for example, has only two — same as Italy and the U.K. Russia, France, India, Spain and Thailand all have one. The U.S. has 53 attack submarines, 14 ballistic submarines and four guided-missile submarines — a total of 71 in active duty that we admit to. Russia has 33; the U.K., 11; France, 10; China, 3; and India, 2. Again, the U.S. balance of naval power is overwhelming.

So, if you are an adversary or, let’s say, want to strengthen your position not as an adversary but at least leverage power to redress the influence with foreign trading partners — since our naval superiority or capability is often used as a State Department trading chip in trade discussions — you need a way to modify the U.S. advantage on the open ocean. If you don’t have the budget to build more aircraft carriers and train the airmen and women to man those complex systems and build and supply the support fleets necessary to protect the flattops — let alone manage the submarine nuclear technology and personnel expertise — you start, naturally, thinking of weapons to defeat that superiority.

All of which brings us to offensive hypersonic weapon systems. Russia has five known offensive hypersonic weapon programs whereas China is developing an expansive hypersonic technology base and already has at least one system deployed. Same with France and Japan… The speed, maneuverability and flight characteristics of hypersonic weapons makes them challenging to detect, track and intercept — all of which reduces the warning time and therefore chance of interception. In short, they’re very fast, hard to spot, and harder to target in time.

During the Falklands War, the Argentinians deployed French Exocet Missiles against the British fleet, sinking the HMS Sheffield. Since that cheap, supersonic, ground-hugging, missile proved capable, all nations have begun expanding on that weapon’s characteristics. Another feature of these hypersonic missiles is that they can use intel in real time to track moving targets — and no large ship at sea sits still. They have internal tracking as well as satellite links for updates.

Unlike the Exocet, which was powered like a jet plane, the newer, faster, hypersonic missiles use Ramjet and Scramjet (supersonic-combustion ramjet) technology. The U.S. is, of course, developing even faster versions, as is Russia, going for Mach 20+ missiles by 2030. Yes, Mach 20. Some of these, already demonstrated like the Russian Avangard and Kinzhal missiles, may need to be initially launched by an intercontinental ballistic missile to attain sufficient speed to ignite the Scramjet engine to Mach 27. The Russians already have a Mach 6 version that can be dropped from a conventional plane called GZUR. Meanwhile, the Chinese have only one confirmed missile, the DF-17, announced as being intended for “precision strikes against medium- and close-range targets.” 

U.S. Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, commander of U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, stated that China is testing an intercontinental HGV (hypersonic glide vehicle — once dropped from a plane, it powers up above 100,000 feet, separates the bomb portion that then skips along the upper atmosphere until directed to glide down to target).

The U.S. is reported to be playing catchup with these weapons systems, but that may not be true. The Boeing X-51 Waverider Scramjet has been flying since 2013 with a top speed of 3,853 mph. And the Common-Hypersonic Glide Body, or C-HGB, was launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii, on March 19 at 10:30 p.m. local time. Speed? No one will say but tracking stopped above Mach 5 for security reasons, I presume. 

“This test builds on the success we had with Flight Experiment 1 in October 2017, in which our C-HGB achieved sustained hypersonic glide at our target distances,” said Vice Adm. Johnny Wolfe, the Navy’s director of Strategic Systems Programs. (His outfit is leading the design of the C-HGB.) That’s according to Defense News (March 20, 2020). “The Army wants a mobile land-based capability fielded around 2023. That means the service will likely choose manufacturers to build hypersonic missiles in a year or two. The Navy wants its ship-launched capability fielded in 2023 followed by a submarine-launched missile in 2024, and the Air Force wants to field its air-launched version in 2022.” 

If they are setting dates, that means the system is already being built and deployed, just not admitted to publicly.


Writer Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.

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