COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The head of U.S. Strategic Command would not say whether the United States has seen evidence of Russia’s “invincible” hypersonic missile, but the U.S. military has observed both Russia and China operating hypersonic missiles of varied capabilities, he confirmed Tuesday.
“I won’t give you any specifics about the means we use to watch that. I won’t give you any of the technical specifics about the capabilities of those missiles,” Gen. John Hyten told reporters at the Space Symposium. “But I can tell you that we have observed both Russia and China testing hypersonic capabilities.”
Hyten’s comments come after Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed in March that Russia had successfully tested a new “invincible” hypersonic missile that could travel at speeds in excess of Mach 10 — twice the Mach 5 speed that qualifies an air vehicle as hypersonic — and with a range of more than 2,000 kilometers.
The Kinzhal hypersonic cruise missile, which will be able to be equipped with both a nuclear and conventional warhead, can “overcome all existing and, I think, prospective anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense systems,” Putin said then.
Whether that missile is in its developmental stages or actually undergoing operational tests, Hyten wouldn’t say. But it was obvious he took Putin’s claims very seriously.
“You should believe Vladimir Putin about everything he said he’s working on,” Hyten said.
“Now, the operational status of a lot of those capabilities…that’s a different issue. But everything that he’s said, I know that Russia’s working on, and we watch them very closely. We also listen to what they say very closely, and none of what he did and none of what he said surprised me.”
Hyten wants the United States to move more aggressively on hypersonics, particularly on conventional weapons that could be of special use in the Asia-Pacific theater.
“There are certain areas where I think we have advantages on Russia and China in hypersonics,” he said. “But what they’ve done, what is significant, is they’ve done full-up integrated testing of those capabilities.”
While the United States has conducted its own tests of hypersonic weapons in past years, “they weren’t fully successful,” so the military stopped development and regrouped.
“From my perspective, I would have just liked to have learned from that mistake and moved on,” Hyten said, but he is hopeful the Defense Department will be moving at full clip going forward.
After years of sluggish investment, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is turning up the funding stream, jumping from $85.5 million in fiscal year 2017 to $108.6 million in FY18 for hypersonic development. The FY19 budget includes a request for $256.7 million — a 136 percent increase.
Part of the reason for Hyten’s confidence is the naming of Mike Griffin, formerly the NASA administrator, for the post of undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, he said.
“If the program is not aggressive right now, a year from now, it’s going to be aggressive, because Mike Griffin has had [Defense] Secretary [Jim] Mattis look him in the face and say we really need to go on hypersonics, and that’s really all Mike Griffin needs.”
But developing hypersonic weapons will only help the United States in solving one part of the problem. The other is ensuring that U.S. missile defense systems will be able to counter an attack by a hypersonic missile — something that is in question.
The administration’s upcoming missile defense review, which is going through the final stages of approval within the Defense Department and is slated for release in May, could address those future challenges.
“Missile defense right now is focused on North Korea. Missile defense is not focused on Russia and China and hasn’t been focused on Russia and China,” Hyten said.
“The missile defense capabilities that we have in Alaska, in California, they can deal with the North Korean threat,” he added. “What I’m worried about is not today, though. I’m worried about five years from now and 10 years from now. Can we move into the direction we need to deal with any threat of the future?”
Valerie Insinna was Defense News' air warfare reporter. Beforehand, she worked the Navy and congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.