WASHINGTON — As the Pentagon looks to catch up with China and Russia in the hypersonic arms race, there is a widespread acknowledgement that the technology to defend against weapons capable of reaching Mach 5 or higher simply isn’t there.
“If war breaks out tomorrow, we’re probably not going to kill hypersonic boost glide missiles,” Mike Griffin, the Pentagon’s undersecretary of research and engineering, said during a March 20 speech. “The issue about the higher speed hypersonic systems, the boost glide systems, which are not air breathers, is that they are just so much faster. ... By the time you can see it, they are inside our track loop.
“We are behind on hypersonic defense. We need to catch up, and we will."
But this won’t be a quick process, and the defensive side of hypersonics isn’t a departmental priority.
Mike White, the Pentagon’s assistant director for hypersonics, told reporters during the fiscal 2020 budget rollout that the department sees a three-step plan for hypersonics, and it starts with investing heavily in offensive capabilities first, followed by defensive systems, and then finally, at least a decade away, reusable systems such as airborne vehicles.
“If you look at the portfolio and the time phasing on the portfolio, we are stepping out first on the offensive side as we study and assess the path forward to get a robust defensive strategy, and then I think you will see a commensurate increase in emphasis on the defensive side,” said White, who serves as the department’s de facto hypersonics czar under Griffin.
“It’s clear that we are stepping forward, currently in this submission, with an aggressive offensive portfolio,” he continued. “The defensive aspect, we’re making significant investment in the underlying technologies and the knowledge necessary to move forward aggressively to build a system, and I suspect that’s not very far behind.”
That discrepancy between offense and defense shows up in the dollar values in the FY20 request; while overall hypersonic investments come in around $2.6 billion, defensive developments take up only $157.4 million of that, according to the Missile Defense Agency’s request.
And that figure for defensive developments drops over the coming years, going to $142.3 million in FY21, $116.9 million in FY22, $119.7 million in FY23 and $122.0 million in FY24.
While other work relevant to defensive capabilities is undoubtedly being done elsewhere — the space sensor layer falls under the purview of the recently stood up Space Development Agency, for example — a road map laid out in the MDA’s budget justification book shows no system element tests planned through the next five years.
While warning not to read into that particular budget drop too much, Tom Karako, a missile defense expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, did note “it’s not a positive trend. It’s a bit at odds with the verbal priorities that they’re giving to that mission overall.”
Specifically, Karako was surprised to see the space sensor layer, which was identified by Griffin as the key to the department’s missile defense efforts for the future, receiving only $15 million in FY20 to create “a prototype proliferated Low Earth Orbit (pLEO) communications and data transport layer,” per the Space Development Agency’s budget request.
“That’s just enough to build some paper satellites. That’s not prioritizing the space sensor layer as it needs to be — that’s kicking the can,” Karako said. “This isn’t the missile defense ‘masterpiece,’ this is ‘Masterpiece Theater.’ ”
“I think Mike Griffin has an idea of what’s the path forward. I would have liked to have seen some milestones for that path. But I don’t. It’s just not here. I expected to have more meat here in term of the budget submission,” he added. “It sure looks to me like somebody lost a battle there. They prioritized the offensive side, and that’s fine. But the counter-hypersonic architecture is going to take some time to design, develop and build.”
That offense will be the focus early on doesn’t mean industry isn’t eyeing what it expects will be a lucrative business on the defensive side.
Northrop Grumman, for example, recently launched a new website dedicated to advertising its hypersonic defense strategy. While light on details, the advertising push is a clear sign that the company sees a large potential market, even if down the road.
Joanna Cangianelli, Northrop’s director of business development for missile defense solutions and counter-hypersonics, said it was logical that offensive capabilities are getting the initial funding, as they are further along than defensive technologies. But the company wants to start investing now so it’s ready for when the department pluses up its defensive budget.
“If you look at it from a business development standpoint, 2022 and 2023 are not that far away. and you need to start investing in solutions now, in capabilities and technologies, and pulling those together in order to develop something that can be fielded in 2024 or 2025 when the money starts flowing,” she said.
Added Kenn Todorov, vice president of missile defense solutions and the lead for Northrop’s counter-hypersonic efforts: “We’re investing a lot of our own resources to give us a leg up and to do somethings so we’ll be ready, forward-looking as opposed to reactionary. We clearly are anticipating that those [budget] numbers will come, and we want to be ready for them and be out front when we do so we’ll be well-positioned.”
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.