STUTTGART, Germany — The global race to build hypersonic capabilities is only getting hotter, as several NATO members — including the United States, France and the U.K. — develop their own technology along with competitors Russia and China.
NATO is considering how it might best contribute to the hypersonics cause. It’s unlikely that a cruise missile or glide vehicle will emerge straight out of Brussels in the near future, but it appears senior alliance leaders and analysts migth stitch together the efforts of 30 member nations.
Hypersonic technology was deemed one of seven major emerging and disruptive technologies at the 2019 defense ministers meeting, per NATO’s March 2020 report “Science & Technology Trends 2020-2040.” The declaration came as an increasing number of countries with highly developed research and development capabilities as well as big defense budgets sprint to field their own capabilities ahead of their adversaries.
Though hypersonic technology is considered a disruptor, “the process where hypersonic technology is coming from is not, per se, a disruptive environment,” said David van Weel, NATO’s assistant secretary general for emerging security threats.
“It is not something that’s being done by small startups [or] university labs,” van Weel said in an interview with Defense News. “It is still a game of classical defense actors, or state actors investing in technology.”
The U.S. Defense Department has several programs in development across its armed services, including a hypersonic missile battery for the Army and multiple missile efforts being led by the Air Force and the Missile Development Agency. In recent years, the United Kingdom, France, Japan and Australia have initiated new hypersonic research programs, while Russia and China have each recently announced successful tests and development.
For now, any future hypersonic platform development is more likely to come from NATO members’ existing air and missile defense communities as well as major industry partners, van Weel noted. Eventually, NATO will develop a strategy regarding how it should specifically address hypersonic technology. “But we’re just not there yet,” he said.
It makes sense for the alliance to connect with smaller, innovative companies and with academic institutions within its member nations, and support their individual technological efforts, said Nicholas Nelson, a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington.
NATO could play a larger role in a “coordinating function” for its members, pulling together the disparate projects happening across borders, Nelson said. It can also take a special focus in drawing out contributions from smaller states that may be incapable of launching their own hypersonic weapons programs, but may still boast high-tech sectors or manufacturing capabilities that can better enable those systems.
That includes technology areas such as modeling and simulation, sophisticated analytical tools, miniaturization, energy storage, and novel material manufacturing like 3D printing. The alliance’s science and technology trends report highlighted all of these areas as key to harnessing hypersonic technology over the next decade.
“NATO is really uniquely placed to work across its members to identify these efforts, communicate priorities and how they fit into ongoing programs or efforts,” Nelson said.
For now, the alliance has several ways it could react to an adversary reaching full operational capability of hypersonic missiles, van Weel said. NATO could start its own multinational development program, which would include contributions from individual member states combined into “the NATO toolbox.”
The alliance could also focus more on countermeasures, he added, or instead on a combination of offensive and defensive hypersonic capabilities that could be used as threat deterrents.
Developing counter-hypersonic systems is an area prime for innovation and alliance focus, Nelson noted. One of NATO’s key objectives is to ensure interoperability, and its members need “interlocking” air and missile defense systems to counter hypersonic threats, he explained.
The alliance could do well in this role by actively encouraging and supporting the development of emerging and disruptive technologies that contribute to hypersonics as well as capabilities “that can track, target, and/or finish” incoming threats moving at Mach 5-plus speed, he said.
Beyond building cruise missiles, sensors and glide vehicles, NATO could also support and coordinate testing efforts, he added.
Hypersonic test bed aircraft are less expensive to develop than the actual weapons and could be a better fit for NATO’s more limited budget structure while providing critical flight research and testing data.
“They’re really true dual-use capabilities because they enable both R&D and experimentation across defense uses, but also civil and commercial use cases,” Nelson said.
Per NATO’s science and technology trends report, any hypersonics program within a NATO nation should include efforts to work out interoperability issues — due to the capability disparity among allies — and command-and-control issues associated with integrated tactical warning and threat assessment systems.
A NATO hypersonic strategy, whenever it is crafted and endorsed by defense ministers, would go a long way toward ensuring all of the member nations are “reading from the same sheet of music,” Nelson said.
Will NATO ever have a role to play in contributing to hypersonic cruise missile or glide vehicle development? Does it make more sense to focus the headquarters’ efforts on ancillary, enabling technologies? “The jury’s still out,” van Weel said.
“In the meantime, the scientific world, the private sector, and also the air and missile defense communities here at NATO will engage further on the topic,” he continued. “But where it will end up is difficult to tell now.”
Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.