HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- How to deal with hypersonic glider weapons is posing a major challenge for defense officials tasked with ensuring the US is safe from missile attacks. The question of what to do about it loomed large at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium.
The threat came up in almost every speech from the Missile Defense Agency director to the Army's acquisition chief to the US Strategic Command commander over the course of the first two days of the show.
"Hyper-glide vehicle research and development are also challenging our planning calculus," STRATCOM commander Adm. Cecil Haney said at the symposium's first day. "The ability to find, fix and track and hold … these types of capabilities are becoming increasingly more difficult. Hyper-glide vehicle technology can complicate our sensing and our defensive approaches."
The vehicle's flight altitude limits radar detection range and high speed shortens timelines from detection to impact. And the weapons are designed to be highly maneuverable in the air and highly precise on impact.
Hyper-glide vehicles have a different profile in the air than a ballistic missile, which most of the US defense capability is designed to detect. Haney said, the weapon "moves at a good clip" – most hyper-sonic weapons are anticipated to be clocked at Mach 5 or higher – and some of these vehicles can maneuver in unpredictable ways even at the end of its flight path to the intended target.
"We have to think about it and look at it in different ways so that, again, we are maximizing sensing to be able to understand what exactly is it going at so we can then look at how do we take it out," Haney said.
The US, Russia, China and India are all reportedly developing hypersonic weapons.
Russia is one of the most technologically advanced nations when it comes to missile technology development and officials there have acknowledged they are developing a hypersonic vehicle for the purpose of penetrating missile defense, according to Mark Clark, the director of the Missiles and Space Intelligence Center.
"Russian press claims Russia successfully tested a hypersonic vehicle on an SS-19 intercontinental ballistic missile in April this year," he said.
The Chinese have conducted six tests of a hypersonic missile in just under two years, according to a recent report from a Carnegie Moscow Center fellow Vladimir Dvorkin. He also notes that a test of the missile showed good maneuverability.
The hypersonics conundrum "not only poses a kinetic reach problem for us with interceptors but the sensor problem we will have regionally and worldwide because of that threat if the threat evolves," MDA Director Vice Adm. James Syring said. "It becomes a much more challenging sensor problem, maybe, than an interceptor problem."
Syring sees the "ultimate" solution to this problem in space "in terms of persistent tracking, discrimination for missile defense in particular, [it's] important against this threat."
Army Acquisition Chief Katrina McFarland echoed Syring stating via video conference at the symposium Wednesday, "We have a real challenge right now dimensionally in the hypersonic weapons area. That reduced shooter-to-target timeline is our greatest problem because of how we do our command-and-control as well as how do we integrate our systems to be able to engage on fast-moving targets."
The Army is looking at some improvements in its sensor and interceptor technologies "that give us a longer or a more balanced, if you would, opportunity to engage from threat detection and cue to actually launch and engage," McFarland said, but added, "that to me personally is one of our most challenging areas" and will be one of the biggest areas the Defense Department tackles in the next few years.
McFarland said her comments were not to say that the US is not dominant in its hypersonic capability, but said it was "critical" the US "remain dominant."
Therefore, the Army, and across the Defense Department, "we have done some real deep dives and scrubs," she said, "to find what alternatives we have and we've embraced them and so I think in the near term we are set to move forward with what alternatives we are pursuing."
McFarland did not detail those alternatives at the symposium, but said "it's going to be really working with industry and with the intellectual, operational and development side to find the best fits where and how we want to approach this, what new technologies, but also new techniques [exist] to be more agile."
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.