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Does the U.S. Military Have a Hypersonic Missile Problem?

Hypersonic Weapons Test
Image: Creative Commons.

Some of the United States’ Hypersonic Weapons Fail, Others Fly: During a recent flurry of hypersonic weapons testing, several hypersonic weapons projects succeeded — and one did not.

A Pentagon-developed hypersonic weapon test ended in failure, Reuters reported, citing people briefed on the test. What exactly went wrong during the test remains unclear, though Reuters explained that the Pentagon intended for the test to validate a hypersonic glide vehicle-type weapon.

Other reports maintain that the rocket lifted off from a launchpad but failed shortly thereafter, and quoted a Pentagon spokesperson who explained that “experiments and tests both successful and unsuccessful are the backbone of developing highly complex critical technologies at tremendous speed, as the department is doing with hypersonic technologies. Delivering hypersonic weapons remains a top priority and the department remains confident that it is on track to field offensive hypersonic capabilities beginning in the early 2020s.”

Rockets Here, Rockets There

Separately, the Army and Navy tested a trio of sounding rockets designed to validate some hypersonic technologies. A Navy statement on the test explains that it “demonstrated advanced hypersonic technologies, capabilities, and prototype systems in a realistic operating environment. In addition, three precision-sounding rocket launches were conducted containing hypersonic experiments from partners, including CPS, AHPO, the Joint Hypersonic Transition Office, SNL, Johns Hopkins University/Applied Physics Laboratory, MITRE, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and several defense contractors.”

“During weapon system development, precision sounding rocket launches fill a critical gap between ground testing and full system flight testing. These launches allow for frequent and regular flight testing opportunities to support rapid maturation of offensive and defensive hypersonic technologies.”

The Army-Navy test contributed to the jointly-developed Common Hypersonic Glide Body, variants of which both services will field. However, the Navy’s will be optimized for firing at sea, while the Army’s variant will likely be a containerized, mobile missile setup.

Near-peer Rivals

These most recent tests come on the heels of a Chinese hypersonic missile test, first reported by the Financial Times. During that test, a hypersonic glide body circled the earth. Though the glide body reportedly missed its target by a couple of dozen miles, the test caught many by surprise, including senior American military officials.

Despite the weapon’s impressively fast Mach 5+ speeds, one of the other major concerns was the missile’s ability to fly over the South Pole and circumvent American anti-missile defense systems, which are optimized for missiles from the northern hemisphere.

Bottom Line

Despite one of the recent test failures, hypersonic weapons remain one of the Pentagon’s top priorities. So China’s recent unexpected hypersonic missile test will likely inject a fresh sense of urgency into the United States’ program — if not exactly a Sputnik moment, it may be a significant wake-up call.

Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and Defense Writer based in Europe. He lives in Berlin and covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society.

Written By

Caleb Larson is a multiformat journalist and defense writer based in Berlin but has spent most of 2022 reporting from Ukraine. He covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, with a focus on American foreign policy and European security. Follow him on Twitter @calebmlarson.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Stefan Stackhouse

    October 23, 2021 at 10:03 am

    I’m glad someone noticed that polar orbits can go both ways. Going for the “soft underbelly” has always been a useful and productive tactic. Assuming that there is a direction from which an enemy would not or could not attack has been the downfall of more defenders than I can count.

    Maybe the US needs to make a defense that defends a greater priority, and downgrade our interventionist adventures around the globe. All that interventionism will finally be revealed to be the height of folly if our cities are reduced to cinders.

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