News out today that the U.S. Army successfully tested what is being called, “the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon.” The reports are, at some points, conflicting, but the essence is captured by AFP in this report:
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon on Thursday held a successful test flight of a flying bomb that travels faster than the speed of sound and will give military planners the ability to strike targets anywhere in the world in less than a hour.
Launched by rocket from Hawaii at 1130 GMT, the “Advanced Hypersonic Weapon,” or AHW, glided through the upper atmosphere over the Pacific “at hypersonic speed” before hitting its target on the Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands, a Pentagon statement said.
Kwajalein is about 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) southwest of Hawaii. The Pentagon did not say what top speeds were reached by the vehicle, which unlike a ballistic missile is maneuverable.
Scientists classify hypersonic speeds as those that exceed Mach 5 — or five times the speed of sound — 3,728 miles (6,000 kilometers) an hour.
The test aimed to gather data on “aerodynamics, navigation, guidance and control, and thermal protection technologies,” said Lieutenant Colonel Melinda Morgan, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
Wired has additional details:
For a test of a hypersonic weapon flying at eight times the speed of sound and nailing a target thousands of miles away, this was a relatively simple demonstration. But it worked, and now the military is a small step closer to its dream of hitting a target anywhere on Earth in less than an hour.
The last time the Pentagon test-fired a hypersonic missile, back in August, it live-tweeted the event — until the thing crashed into the Pacific Ocean. This time around, it kept the test relatively quiet. The results were much better.
To be fair, this was also an easier test to pass. Darpa’s Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 — the one that splashed unsuccessfully in the Pacific — was supposed to fly 4,100 miles. The Army’s Advanced Hypersonic Weapon went about 60 percent as far, 2,400 miles from Hawaii to its target by the Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific. Darpa’s hypersonic glider had a radical, wedge-like shape: a Mach 20 slice of deep dish pizza, basically. The Army’s vehicle relies on a decades-old, conventionally conical design. It’s designed to fly 6,100 miles per hour, or a mere eight times the speed of sound.
But even though the test might have been relatively easy, the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon effort could wind up playing a key role in the military’s so-called “Prompt Global Strike” effort to almost instantly whack targets half a world away. A glider like it would be strapped to a missile, and sent hurtling at rogue state’s nuclear silo or a terrorist’s biological weapon cache before it’s too late.
At first, the Prompt Global Strike involved retrofitting nuclear missiles with conventional warheads; the problem was, the new weapon could’ve easily been mistaken for a doomsday one. Which meant a Prompt Global Strike could’ve invited a nuclear retaliation. No wonder Congress refused to pay for the project.
So instead, the Pentagon focused on developing superfast weapons that would mostly scream through the air, instead of drop from space like a nuclear warhead. Those hypersonic gliders may cut down on the geopolitical difficulties, but introduced all sorts of technical ones. We don’t know much about the fluid dynamics involved when something shoots through the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. And there really aren’t any wind tunnels capable of replicating those often-strange interactions.
And Digital Journal reports this interesting tidbit:
According to AP, Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan, Pentagon spokeswoman, said the missile was launched at about 11:30 a.m. from Hawaii. Daily Mail reports the weapon glided westwards through the upper atmosphere over the Pacific and reached Kwajalein Atoll in Marshall Islands, about 2,500 miles away, in less than half an hour. The test follows U.S. Air Force announcement that it has taken delivery of eight 15-ton bombs called Massive Ordnance Penetrator “buster bombs” that can blow 200ft of concrete.
(What was Digital Journal trying to say here? That AHW’s could be used in conjunction with MOP’s to take out nuclear silos or, perhaps, Iranian nuclear research facilities? Hmmmmm.)
This development should stir our thinking in possibly profound ways.
First, there is still quite a bit of mystery surrounding this subject. It is not entirely clear just what the Army launched. Was it a missile that boosted some other type of craft into the upper atmosphere? Is an AHW more of a missile itself or more of drone or craft of some kind that can carry munitions and deliver them to the target at incredible speeds? There is some confusion about the actual speed of the AHW. At the very least it can travel more than Mach 5 or 3,728 miles per hour. According to the article in Wired, the AHW can travel over 8 times the speed of sound or more than 6,000 miles per hour. And the Air Force’s HVT-2 apparently achieved speeds of an unbelievable 20 times the speed of sound which is roughly equivalent to over 14,000 miles per hour. It is not clear from the articles what, exactly this particular AHW looks like. How does it achieve such fantastic speeds. All questions that the Chinese are no doubt studying (and spying on) very intensely.
Still, it seems to be a bit of a misnomer to call this a “weapon” or as AFP refers to it as a “flying bomb.” This is a delivery vehicle. To call it a “flying bomb” seems almost a deliberate obfuscation designed to disguise its potential effects. And those effects may very well be game-changing.
The article talks about the aim of the Army’s Global Strike Program as being the delivery of “conventional weapons” to any place on the globe, but presumably there is no technical limitation to conventional weapons. A nuclear payload could be substituted just as easily. And there is the rub. According to the article in Wired, the design of the hypersonic platform had to be altered, for geopolitical reasons, so as not to be mistaken for a nuclear missile. But this seems to beg the question. Hypersonic delivery systems tipped with nuclear weapons, regardless of the shape or shell, breed the ultimate insecurity. They do not travel into space but rather glide along the upper atmosphere, so the ability to intercept in the long, slow, initial boost phase is eliminated. Does this raise the possibility that a first-strike nuclear attack could be unstoppable and, therefore, successful?
Consider, for example, that an AHW launched from Seoul, South Korea could travel the roughly 121 miles to Pyongyang, North Korea in a mere 108 seconds at Mach 5 and possibly as fast as 54 seconds at Mach 8. At Mach 20, the strike time is virtually instantaneous. There is simply no time for any defensive system to shoot down or intercept incoming AHW’s at these speeds.
What does a delivery system with this kind of fantastic speed and range portend?
One item to contemplate is the extent to which such a capability renders other weapon systems or platforms (or even branches) obsolete. None of the various articles report the cost of a single AHW, but it appears that the platform is an unmanned drone of sorts that can be navigated remotely or pre-programmed to its target. As such, assuming that the cost of an AHW is less than the various, manned bombers (and we must always include the cost of training, housing and paying the human pilots), is it possible that we are looking at the end (or at least the severe re-definition) of the U.S. Air Force? Do we need a separate branch to preside over what seems at first blush to be the equivalent of hypersonic artillery?
There is no doubt that modern warfare is moving toward unmanned systems. With the mass production of AHW’s, it is conceivable, at least, that entire bomber fleets and even missile systems could be discarded. An AHW that can travel more than five times the speed of sound does not require any, expensive stealth technology.
Clearly one of the critical questions to be answered is whether there is any defense against attack by an AHW. Are they traveling at such high speeds that there is simply too little time for either human or electronic systems to respond effectively? If so, the entire concept of a Navy consisting of large ships of any kind becomes suspect. Once the technology spreads to China, for instance, hypersonic weapons would seem to make an aircraft carrier a proverbial sitting duck.
Could it be that the Army and Navy (and, of course, Marines) simply have their own complement of AHW’s to use in lieu of piloted bombers? If a Marine Captain in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, for instance, could call in his own, devastating barrage with pinpoint accuracy from the Marine base at Okinawa, Japan (a distance of 3,423 miles) with 10 minute delivery time, the need for expensive bombers with expensive pilots with expensive logistics with limited fuel to stay on station may be nonexistent.
And speaking of bases, does the rise of hypersonic platforms render much of the thinking on military basing obsolete? With the exception of bases that are designed to put American ground forces in place, much of the strategy for basing rights involves the requirement to have naval and air assets close enough to trouble spots to quickly deliver ships and planes. With a bristling arsenal of AHW’s, it would seem possible to have overwhelming firepower without risk to a human pilot delivered with pinpoint accuracy to any location on the globe in less than one hour. And, with the example of North Korea, a devastating barrage could be delivered in seconds.
Perhaps the most troubling question to ponder is whether this new technology renders the U.S. defenseless. Not in the immediate future, of course, but eventually this technology will spread to other nations. What possible doctrines could be developed to counter the threat of hypersonic attack by near peers such as China or the Russians? Even third-rate countries like Iran and North Korea pose substantial risks with single-shot EMP attacks.
Finally, does an AHW system allow the U.S. to construct a more potent military capability on the cheap? Assuming that AHW’s can be successfully developed and adapted to a variety of tasks, could the U.S. dramatically scale back its spending on expensive naval forces and air forces and re-direct spending to enhancing ground units that carry with them the tremendous punch of AHW’s? Perhaps we are seeing the sunset of the age of large armies, navies and air forces. The art of war may be changing yet again and it may be our fiscal salvation to adapt to this new world sooner than later.