WASHINGTON ― As China and Russia threaten to overtake the U.S. with new technologies, development of hypersonic capabilities is the “highest technical priority” for Michael Griffin, the Pentagon’s new undersecretary of defense for research and engineering.

“I’m sorry for everybody out there who champion some other high priority, some technical thing; it’s not that I disagree with those. But there has to be a first, and hypersonics is my first,” Griffin said at the McAleese/Credit Suisse conference Tuesday, in his first public comments since taking office 10 days ago.

The department will be looking to invest more in both offensive hypersonics capabilities and ways to defend against the threat, with new budget items likely to appear in the fiscal 2020 budget, Griffin said, adding that the goal is to leapfrog the work that China and Russia are doing in the hypersonic realm.

“I didn’t take this job so that we could regain parity with our adversaries. As I’ve taken to saying: ‘I want to see their hand and raise them one. I want to make them worry about catching up with us again,’ ” he said. “Any American, any ally or partner that we have who doesn’t see it that way, I don’t have time for you.”

The necessity, in Griffin’s mind, comes from the way hypersonic weapons can put at risk America’s ability to project power.

“When the Chinese can deploy [a] tactical or regional hypersonic system, they hold at risk our carrier battle groups. They hold our entire surface fleet at risk. They hold at risk our forward-deployed forces and land-based forces,” Griffin said.

“Without our ability to defend and without at least an equal response capability on the offensive side, then what we have done is we have allowed a situation to exist where our deployed forces are held at risk and we cannot do the same for them,” he continued. “And so our only response is either to let them have their way or to go nuclear. And that should be an unacceptable situation for the United States.”

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency budget for hypersonic weapons has increased steadily over the last two years, but more funding would inevitably be welcomed by supporters of the technology.

In FY17, Congress appropriated $85.5 million for hypersonics. That went up to $108.6 million in the FY18 request, a 27 percent increase.

And for the recently released FY19 request, the figure shoots up to $256.7 million — a whopping 136 percent increase, but still a fairly low figure by Pentagon standards.

In terms of hypersonic development, Griffin will have allies inside the Pentagon.

Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, the director of the Missile Defense Agency, said the pace at which Russia and China are “researching, developing, testing, delivering weapons systems” requires his agency to take the hypersonic threat seriously.

And Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has also expressed concern over where the U.S. is on hypersonic technology development, although he noted that gap is not yet fatal.

“We have lost our technical advantage in hypersonics,” Selva said Jan. 30. “We haven’t lost the hypersonics fight.”

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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