War in Ukraine is backdrop to US push for hypersonic weapons

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PORTLAND, Maine — Lagging behind Russia in developing hypersonic weapons, the U.S. Navy is racing to deploy its first, with installation on a warship beginning as early as late next year.

The United States is in a race with Russia and China to develop these weapons, which travel at speeds approaching ballistic missiles but are difficult to shoot down due to their maneuverability.

The Russian military says it has already deployed hypersonic missiles, saying Saturday and Sunday it deployed them against targets in Ukraine marking the weapon’s first use in combat. The Pentagon could not confirm that a hypersonic weapon was used in the attacks.

The US military is accelerating development to catch up.

The US weapon would launch like a ballistic missile and release a hypersonic hover vehicle that would reach speeds seven to eight times faster than the speed of sound before hitting the target.

In Maine, General Dynamics subsidiary Bath Iron Works has begun engineering and design work on the modifications needed to install the weapon system on three Zumwalt-class destroyers.

Work would begin at an as-yet-unnamed shipyard in the fiscal year that begins in October 2023, the Navy said.

Hypersonic weapons are defined as anything that travels above Mach 5, five times faster than the speed of sound. That’s about 3,800 mph (6,100 km/h). Intercontinental ballistic missiles far exceed this threshold but travel on a predictable trajectory, allowing them to be intercepted.

The new weapons are manageable.

Existing missile defense systems, including the Navy’s Aegis system, would struggle to intercept such objects because maneuverability makes their movement unpredictable and speed leaves little time to react.

Russia claims it has ballistic missiles capable of deploying hypersonic glider vehicles as well as a hypersonic cruise missile.

The US is ‘just trying to catch up’ because it hasn’t invested in new technology, with only a fraction of the 10,000 people who worked on the program in the 1980s, the representative said American Jim Cooper, a Tennessee Democrat who chairs a subcommittee that monitors the program.

“If we want to pursue parity, we will have to support this effort with more money, time and talent than we currently are,” he said.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine serves as the backdrop as the Pentagon releases its budget proposal that sets out its goals for hypersonic and other weapons systems later this month.

The three Zumwalt-class stealth destroyers that will be fitted with the new weapons have plenty of space to accommodate them – thanks to a design failure that works to the Navy’s advantage in this case.

The ships were built around a gun system that was supposed to use rocket-propelled, GPS-guided projectiles to pound targets 145 kilometers away. But these projectiles proved too expensive and the Navy canceled the system, leaving each of the ships with a useless loading system and a pair of 155mm guns hidden in angled turrets.

Upgrading the three ships will likely cost more than $1 billion, but will give new capability to technology-laden electric-powered ships that have already cost the Navy $23.5 billion to design and build, said Bryan Clark, defense analyst at the Hudson Institute.

“Engineering isn’t that hard. It will just take time and money to get there,” Clark said.

The Navy intends to deploy the weapons on destroyers in Exercise 2025 and on Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarines in Exercise 2028, the Navy said.

The destroyers would be based in the Pacific Ocean, where they would have a deterrent effect on China, if it grew bolder with Russia’s attack on Ukraine and considered attacking Taiwan, Clark said.

The US focus on hypersonic weapons represents a pivot after hesitating in the past due to technological hurdles. Opponents, meanwhile, continued research and development.

Russia fired a salvo of Zircon hypersonic cruise missiles in late December, heralding the completion of weapons testing.

But Russia may be exaggerating the ability of these superweapons to compensate for weakness in other areas, said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute.

At the moment, Russia does not have many weapons, and their effectiveness is unclear, he said.

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