The U.S. Army has just announced it will test its Mach-5 “hypersonic” strike missile—for the second time—in August.
If the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon works as designed, the ground combat branch could gain the ability to hit any spot on Earth with a devastating non-nuclear explosive—and with just a few hours’ notice.
AHW is such a potentially powerful new capability that the Navy could also acquire it, according to Army Gen. David Mann, head of the service’s Space and Missile Defense Command.
It all depends on the August test. “Based upon the results that come from that test, we’ll go ahead and … work closely with Office of the Secretary of Defense as to what they would like us to do, what the next steps are,” Mann told Congress.
The Pentagon has been trying for years to develop Mach-5 or faster munitions. So far the Army has had the most luck. The ground combat branch test-fired AHW for the first time in November 2011.
The test proved that America “is well along the path to solving many of the problems associated with sustained hypersonic flight,” said John Stillion, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment think tank.
The weapon launched from Hawaii atop a three-stage rocket and glided more than 2,000 miles to a test range in the Marshall Islands. The journey lasted only 30 minutes and “met all flight test objectives,” according to Debra Wymer, director of Space and Missile Defense Command’s technical center.
Army trackers recorded 800 gigabytes of data, Wymer reported.
By contrast, the Air Force has tried several time to get its Mach-20 Hypersonic Test Vehicle glider to work—without much success. Such high speeds impart awful stresses on a vehicle, requiring cutting-edge materials and design.
The flying branch also has the much slower X-51 hypersonic test munition, which boosts atop a rocket then fires a scramjet engine to sustain a speed of Mach 4.
The Air Force got the Boeing-made X-51 to work for the first time in May 2013, but the Navy might prefer the arguably less-complex approach the Army is taking. Congress appropriated $60 million to the Pentagon’s various hypersonics programs in 2014—and the military wants $70 million for 2015. Mann stressed that AHW is on schedule and within budget.
If the Pentagon decides to weaponize AHW and Congress pays for it, there are a number of ways it could deploy.
The Army could launch the new missile from silos in the U.S. The Navy could fire it from submarines or, less likely, surface ships. The fringe-science Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was looking into a surface-launched hypersonic missile but cancelled the effort in 2011.
Either way, AHW flies a distinctive trajectory that Wymer claimed differentiates it from nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. The munition’s signature arc is supposed to prevent countries such as China and Russia from confusing a hypersonic launch for an atomic first strike.
A decade ago, the Pentagon imagined a hypersonic weapon as a way of hitting elusive terrorists before they could hide. In 2012, the White House specifically endorsed a “conventional prompt strike option from submarines” as a way of maintaining the military’s “freedom of action” against enemies determined to “frustrate access advantages.”
Translated into plain English, that means the U.S. wants an unbeatable missile that can smash Iranian and Chinese defenses. Submarines clearly are the best launchers—they can sneak close to enemy shores undetected. Since the Army has the best hypersonic weapon, the Navy might just have to find a way to fit it aboard subs.
Not coincidentally, the Navy recently approved production of a new kind of attack submarine that has four, seven-foot-diameter vertical missile tubes. The tubes could carry packs of Tomahawk cruise missiles … or some future hypersonic munition based on AHW.
“The U.S. has been launching missiles from submarines for decades and is familiar with, and has overcome, the technical challenges likely to arise,” Stillion pointed out.
Washington might be ahead in hypersonics development, but it’s not alone. Moscow and Beijing are working on their own Mach-5 weapons. Missile attacks could get a whole lot faster, and deadlier, for all the world’s top powers.