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Military services to work together to speed hypersonic weapon development

The Pentagon in Washington, D.C. (Dreamstime/TNS)

The U.S. military’s services will work together to boost development of ultra-high speed weapons capable of penetrating the most advanced air-defense systems in the world, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said Wednesday.

Wilson, Army Secretary Mark Esper and Navy Secretary Richard Spencer signed an agreement in recent weeks to co-develop a prototype hypersonic missile, Wilson told an audience at the Washington Post. The Pentagon has worked for more than a decade to design and build hypersonic weapons capable of traveling in excess of Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound.

Wilson said she believes by working with the other military services, a prototype weapon could be tested by 2020 or 2021, significantly earlier than Pentagon officials had previously publicly said such a trial would be expected.

“We each have pieces of programs — the Army’s warhead had worked much better than the Air Force’s,” she said. “… So we are going to take an Army warhead, put it on an Air Force booster, launch it off of a B-52 [conventional bomber], while the Army is developing on the ground and the Navy wants to put it on the deck of a ship.”

The new age missiles would be extremely difficult to defend against, Wilson said. Hypersonic missiles would not only be faster but could prove more precise at longer ranges.

“It’s a difficult problem because of speed and size, but it’s also a difficult technical problem to get them to work,” she said. “The temperatures, the aerodynamics are extremely difficult technical problems.”

While the military services have worked together to develop weapons and vehicles previously, it is relatively rare, Wilson said, joking that Pentagon officials told her service secretaries are not supposed to work together so well.

Hypersonic weapons are among the Pentagon’s top development priorities, as outlined in Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ National Defense Strategy, which was released earlier this year. The new strategy places the threats posed by near-peer adversaries such as Russia, China, North Korea and Iran ahead of terrorists groups. Those threats creates the need to develop modern weaponry.

In its 2019 budget proposal, the Pentagon requested nearly $257 million for hypersonic weaponry research, a roughly 136 percent increase from its current budget.

Meanwhile, top American officials have warned the United States might be falling behind its strategic competitors Russia and China in their development.

In February, then-U.S. Pacific Command Chief Adm. Harry Harris, who has since retired from the Navy and appointed U.S. ambassador to South Korea, warned the Chinese were advancing in the hypersonic missile technology, which could hit American targets in the Pacific region, perhaps before U.S. radar systems could detect them.

“China’s hypersonic weapons development outpaces ours,” Harris told lawmakers on Capitol Hill. “We’re falling behind.”

Another top Pentagon official, Michael Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said in March that the Defense Department must do more than catch up to its adversaries on this technology.

“The United States is not yet doing all that we need to do to respond to hypersonic missile threats,” he said. “I did not take this job to reach parity with adversaries. I want to make them worry about catching up with us again.”

Russia announced this month via its state-run news agency Tass that it has developed a cruise missile capable of reaching Mach 20 and traveling more than 3,400 miles. The missile could be deployed soon, they claimed.

Pentagon officials, however, have expressed doubt about the missile’s capabilities, as well as Russian claims of other advanced weapons.

Pentagon officials have primary focused their hypersonic weapons development on cruise missiles that could be delivered by a bomber or fighter jet. However, the Army also wants to develop a land-based hypersonic missile, one of the primary programs that it has tasked its new Futures Command with developing. And the Navy wants a ship-launched version of the missile.

In April, the Air Force awarded a $928 million contract to Lockheed Martin to design, develop and test an air-launched hypersonic missile. More so, other major defense contractors, including Boeing, have stated they were working with hypersonic technology that could have military applications.


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