U.S. Races to Build Weapon Fast Enough to Stop Russia's Latest Missiles

The U.S. is racing to build missiles fast enough to stop Russia's latest hypersonic weapons, a threat the Pentagon admits it has no defense against.

A hypersonic weapon is one that travels in excess of Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound, and Russia has announced the development of several nuclear-capable weapons systems said to be capable of far exceeding that limit. On Wednesday, Pentagon Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin told an energy weapons summit that "if war breaks out tomorrow, we're probably not going to kill hypersonic boost-glide missiles," such as the one unveiled last year by Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to the Breaking Defense website.

Griffin said the future's answer to taking out such a weapon would be light-speed lasers, but until such technology can be deployed, "we're going to have to go after the launch points" to neutralize the threat.

To do so, the Pentagon has begun investing in its own hypersonic capabilities on land, air and sea. As the Navy and Air Force pursue projects, the Army is reportedly seeking more than $1 billion to build the land-launched long-range hypersonic weapon over the next few years. As The Diplomat reported Friday, despite the weapon's name its range is actually about 1,400 miles, which means it was banned under the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that the U.S. suspended last month, with Russia quickly following suit.

An artist's conception shows a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency project that "aims to develop and demonstrate a novel ground-launched system enabling hypersonic boost glide weapons to penetrate modern enemy air defenses and rapidly and precisely engage critical time-sensitive targets." Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

The U.S. has accused Russia of violating the treaty—which restricts the development of missiles with ranges from 310 to 3,420 miles—through its development of the Novator 9M729 missile. Moscow has accused Washington of failing to provide proof for its claims and of violating the treaty by deploying missile defense systems that Russian officials suspect could serve offensive purposes in Romania and Poland, near the tense borders that separate Russia and NATO member nations.

As the two powers bicker over the suspended agreement, Russia has announced a unilateral moratorium on the deployment of shorter- and medium-range missiles unless the U.S. installs them first. Should the Pentagon use such weapons, however, Putin has warned that he would target not only missile systems based in Europe but also their "decision-making centers" in the U.S., where his hypersonic weapons could reportedly strike within five minutes.

Russia's rhetoric has escalated in response not only to the U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty—and potentially the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which limits the number of nuclear warheads and carriers both countries can maintain—but also President Donald Trump's 2019 Missile Defense Review. The ambitious proposal set out to tackle new cruise and hypersonic weapons technology by shoring up U.S. defenses, including space-based interceptors, which Trump said would "detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States—anywhere, anytime, anyplace."

The plan has played into the Kremlin's fears of a U.S. global missile shield that could neutralize Russia's attack capabilities. In response to Trump's project, both Russia and China warned that the U.S. was threatening to spark an arms race.

Among the hypersonic weapons revealed during Putin's 2018 State of the Nation address were the Avangard glide vehicle and the Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile. Russia has tested both of these weapons throughout the past year. CNBC cited a source close to U.S. intelligence as saying that the Kinzhal had recently been moved to a new military testing site in order to "focus on fine-tuning the weapon."

China too has entered the hypersonic race. Last year, Chinese media announced tests of the DF-17 missile equipped to a glide vehicle and the Starry Sky-2 waverider aircraft. A leading Chinese scientist has reportedly developed a "Great Wall of Steel" to block missiles, including hypersonic weapons.