China out-pacing U.S. in hypersonic missiles, Defense Intelligence Agency warns


China’s military is deploying ultra-high-speed missiles at a rate that poses an increasing threat of nuclear and conventional attacks on the United States, a senior Defense Intelligence Agency official told Congress on Friday.

Paul F. Freisthler, chief scientist at DIA, testified that Beijing has aggressively developed and fielded multiple types of hypersonic missiles, including gliders and “scramjet”-powered cruise missiles that maneuver to targets at more than five times the speed of sound to avoid detection.

The Pentagon is pushing to catch up but the U.S. homeland is currently vulnerable to a sudden attack from the missiles that can strike with little or no warning.

“Over the past two decades, China has dramatically advanced its development of conventional and nuclear-armed hypersonic missile technologies and capabilities, through intense and focused investment, development, testing and deployments,” Mr. Freisthler told the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee Friday.

Subcommittee Chairman Doug Lamborn, Colorado Republican, said the current status of the race to develop and deploy hypersonic arsenals is troubling.

“We are behind, and I am concerned we are not doing enough to close the gap as our adversaries continue to test and develop new capabilities at a much faster rate,” he said.

One indicator of the size of the Chinese hypersonic missile program is the military’s construction of some 21 wind tunnels, including three used for testing missiles with speeds of up to Mach 12, or more than 9,200 miles per hour, the DIA analyst said.

The Pentagon, Energy Department and NASA have more than 20 wind tunnels. But 14 of those sites were built in the 1970s and may be obsolete for testing and building hypersonics.

The Air Force and several U.S. universities are building new wind tunnels capable of testing missiles with speeds of up to Mach 6, or more than 4,600 miles per hour, an indication that may be the speed of future U.S. maneuvering missiles.

China’s medium-range DF-17 missile is equipped with a hypersonic strike vehicle with a range of at least 1,000 miles, “enabling it to reach U.S. military forces in the western Pacific,” Mr. Freisthler said.

China also is building an intercontinental-range ballistic missile with a hypersonic payload, including a missile tested in July 2021 that circled the globe before striking a surface target, he added.

“China also is actively pursuing high-speed engine, or ‘scramjet,’ technologies which have applications in hypersonic cruise missiles, and has used the Lingyun Mach 6+ scramjet test bed to research thermal-resistant components and hypersonic cruise missile technologies, which would further expand its hypersonic weapons capabilities,” Mr. Freisthler said.

Russia threat

China isn’t the only U.S. rival making strides in the technology.

Russia also deployed three hypersonic missiles recently, called Kinzhal and Tsircon, and a variant of the SS-19 ballistic missile that can fly at Mach 20 or over 15,000 miles an hour.

The Kremlin this week fired an estimated six Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic missiles in a wave of 81 long-range missile and drone attacks that hit critical Ukrainian infrastructure and killed at least 11 civilians in cities across the country. 

Russia intends to expand its strategic hypersonic missile arsenal in the coming years by deploying multiple hypersonic glide vehicles such as its new Sarmat ICBM. It is also building another air-launched hypersonic, long-range missile called the Kh-95, he said.

Earlier this week, Air Force Gen. Anthony Cotton, commander of the Strategic Command, testified that the Sarmat will provide some orbital hypersonic missile capability following the July 2021 Chinese test of what the military calls a fractional orbital bombardment system, or FOBS.

Mr. Freisthler said while both China and Russia have operational hypersonic weapons, China leads Russia in both numbers of weapons and supporting infrastructure.

“Amid the backdrop of strategic competition, the events of the past several years demonstrate in no uncertain terms that our competitors are developing capabilities aimed to hold the U.S. homeland at risk,” he said.

Mr. Lamborn said at Friday’s hearing that the United States led development of hypersonic technology in the 1980s but “decided not to pursue hypersonic weapons.”

Instead of following the United States’ unilateral restraint, both China and Russia moved in the opposite direction and field increasingly sophisticated and numerous hypersonic weapons, the Colorado Republican said.

“As a result, our adversaries have the advantage and their hypersonic capabilities provide them novel ways to hold our homeland and our deployed forces at risk,” Mr. Lamborn said.

President Biden on March 1 ordered use of the Defense Production Act to speed up production of what a Federal Register notice said would help build “airbreathing engines, advanced avionics position navigation and guidance systems, and constituent materials for hypersonic systems.”

Hypersonic missiles were identified by the president as essential to U.S. national defense.

Military and defense officials faced questions from lawmakers on the deterrent value of U.S. planned hypersonic missiles, which will not be outfitted with nuclear warheads.

Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, said vague testimony from the officials indicated operational plans for using new hypersonic weapons have not yet been worked out.

Mr. Moulton said Gen. Cotton testified earlier of hypersonic missiles that “we need them because Russia and China have them” and will be stabilizing arms when parity is reached.

Because U.S. hypersonics will not be nuclear-armed, “we’re not even going to reach parity,” he said.

“So, it seems to be there is a fundamental disconnect,” Mr. Moulton added. “Not only that, it does seem like we’re quite far behind.”

Michael White, the Pentagon’s hypersonic missile director in the office of critical technologies, defended the non-nuclear policy for the high-speed weapons.

“These are conventional weapons that can have strategic effects,” Mr. White said, adding that the speed, maneuverability and range of the missiles can offer potentially unique attack capabilities.

The DIA’s Mr. Freisthler said hypersonic weapons are designed to evade U.S. sensors and missile defense systems and “pose an increasing and complex threat due to the availability of both nuclear and conventional capabilities, challenging flight profiles, and maneuverability.”

But developing hypersonic missiles also present multiple technical challenges. They require special materials to protect them during flight from friction with air. Also, advanced communications and guidance systems are needed.

Services testify    

The DIA scientist testified at a hearing on hypersonic missiles along with three senior Air Force, Army and Navy officials and two Pentagon policymakers involved in hypersonic missile development.

The Army will deploy a road-mobile and C-17 transportable battery of its hypersonic missile, the Long Range Hypersonic Weapon, before October, said Army Lt. Gen. Robert Rasch, director of the service’s hypersonic missile program.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Donna D. Shipton, said her service is working rapidly on an air-launched, ground attack missile called the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon.

“We do see that it is probably a high value but low volume addition to our wider weapons mix,” she said, noting that the missile will be deployed on jet fighters around 2027.

And Vice Adm. Johnny Wolf, director of Navy strategic systems, said his service’s  hypersonic missile is known as conventional prompt strike and is also being developed with the Army. The missile will be deployed on Zumwalt-class destroyers and Virginia-class submarines, he said.

The Pentagon’s fiscal 2023 budget request for hypersonic work was $4.7 billion. Congress added more than $200 million to the request in the final budget. President Biden’s just-released fiscal 2024 defense budget request of $886 billion included new funding for hypersonics.

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