by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
Of all the out-there military projects under development, hypersonic weapons might be some of the deadliest.
Tearing through the sky at more than five times the speed of sound, America’s experimental scramjet-powered cruise missiles can travel at ballistic-missile speeds but strike with much greater accuracy.
Hypersonic weapons are something of a craze at the Pentagon—and a sweaty fever dream for foreign capitals that might be on the receiving end of such missiles in the far-off future. Fortunately for those capitals, the weapons are still under development, and have a spotty test record.
Nonetheless, the United States still wants to field such weapons in the 2020s—part of the Prompt Global Strike effort to attack anywhere on earth in less than an hour, at incredibly long ranges.
In Moscow, generals are scratching their heads about what to do.
There’s a reason why hypersonic weapons keep Kremlin officials awake at night.
For one, Russia’s modern air-defense weapons are deterrent against long-range American bombers armed with conventional weapons traveling at supersonic and subsonic speeds. These warplanes must penetrate defended Russian air space before attacking their targets—which places pilots in incredible danger.
But hypersonic missiles—launched at distances far beyond the range of Russia’s ability to shoot back—could smash radars, air bases … and nuclear weapons before they ever leave their silos.
Moscow has announced its developing hypersonic missiles of its own. And to be sure, Russia has decades of experience designing advanced rocket and aircraft engines. But the science and engineering may be beyond the Kremlin’s reach. Soviet-era hypersonic research came to an abrupt halt in the 1990s and has only recently picked up steam.
Another problem is that Russia is vulnerable to hypersonic attack—or at least the Kremlin thinks it is.
A big reason has to do with structure. The Russian military has three services—the army, navy and air force. There’s also three semi-independent branches.
There’s a branch for elite VDV airborne troops, and a branch for the Strategic Missile Forces, responsible for Russia’s intercontinental ballistic missiles. The third and final branch—the Aerospace Defense Forces—defends Russia’s air space and manages military satellites, air-defense missiles and radars.
This kind of structure makes a certain sort of sense. Russian air space is really, really big—and size is a good reason to break up a military organization into smaller, more manageable parts.
But then who is in charge of defending Russia from air attack? The air force? The Aerospace Defense Forces? Both are. That mean there’s two different command structures for the same job—and two competing organizations for funding and new equipment.
The Kremlin fears that hypersonic weapons can exploit and weaken this gap—by targeting command and control centers beyond the reach of conventional, supersonic missiles.
One future scenario—described in Russian military journals during the past year—could be a sudden strike decapitating the country’s air-defense headquarters and networks. Then the air force finds it doesn’t have the computer networks and organization to easily assume control.
The different branches do work together, but also more slowly—in theory—than a single, unified command.
Hypersonic missiles move fast.
But there may be changes on the way. In early December, the state-owned news agency Itar-Tass reported—based on a single, unnamed source in the Ministry of Defense—that the Kremlin plans to restructure the armed forces.
According to the report, the Kremlin will abolish its air force and the Aerospace Defense Forces in 2015, and combine them into a new branch called the Aerospace Forces.
It sounds hard to believe. The Russian air force, air defense and space forces merging into a single service?
The Ministry of Defense promptly swatted down this report. But then on Dec. 19, Red Star—an official Russian military newspaper—announced that the Kremlin considers it “an important task” to create an Aerospace Force in 2015.
Red Star buried the notice in a list of topics discussed at a meeting between Gen. Sergey Shoigu—Russia’s defense minister—and Pres. Vladimir Putin. The two met the day before at the high-tech National Defense Control Center in Moscow, which went operational on Dec. 1 and looks like the nerve center from Battlestar Galactica.
The announcement did not include further details.
But we know Putin and his top general are discussing the plan. The result may be a Russian air force that looks a lot like … the U.S. Air Force.