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US is behind China, Russia in hypersonic weapons race, Space Force No. 2 general says

U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. David Thompson, Vice Commander of Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 17, 2018. (U.S. Air Force photo by Dave Grim)
November 23, 2021

The U.S. has “a lot of catching up to do” in terms of hypersonic weapon technology and it must do it “very quickly” in order to keep up with China and Russia, vice chief of space operations for the U.S. Space Force Gen. David Thompson said in an interview on Saturday.

In an interview for the Halifax International Security Forum, Thompson said, the U.S. and its allies are “still the best in the world” in terms of space technology, but that China’s technology in particular has advanced at a greater pace than the U.S. and, in terms of hypersonic weapons, the U.S. has actually fallen behind. “We’re not as advanced as the Chinese or the Russians in terms of hypersonic programs.”

Thompson faced questions about the strategic competition for hypersonic weapons in light of a recently revealed Chinese hypersonic weapon test that took place over the summer and saw the Chinese hypersonic system launch into space and orbit five times around the Earth. Days after details about China’s hypersonic weapon test became public, the U.S. had to scrub one of its own hypersonic missile tests over a booster system failure.

Thompson said the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force are all working on hypersonic weapon programs, but the programs are not as advanced as those under development in China and Russia.

“The Chinese have had an incredibly aggressive hypersonic program for several years,” Thompson added.

Thompson said the hypersonic capabilities being pioneered by China also have the characteristics of a “first use” weapon, meaning China could use such a hypersonic weapon to carry out a surprise attack rather than to retaliate for an enemy hypersonic weapon attack.

The Space Force general said a “first use” weapon presents a particular concern because “for years we’ve operated on the principle of reliable strategic warning of a ballistic missile attack . . . the ability to warn against an attack. You can do that in a battlefield sense, you can do it in a regional sense and we’ve done it for years in an intercontinental sense.”

Thompson continued, explaining that past iterations of ballistic missiles have launched warheads into space and then, at the top of their trajectory, those warheads have separated and fallen back to earth under the influence of gravity. “If you can detect that rocket, you know where it’s coming from, the direction that it’s launched, you know the type of rocket it is, you can predict where that warhead is going to land.”

“What a hypersonic missile does is it changes that game entirely,” Thompson continued.

Now, hypersonic weapons can maneuver in orbit and change directions, adding a degree of unpredictability to their intended targets. “You no longer have that predictability” because maneuvering hypersonic weapons can be difficult to track and to predict their intended targets.