U.S. Hypersonic Weapons Program Needs Shakeup, GAO Warns Amid Russia, China Arms Race

The Government Accountability Office has urged the Pentagon to revise the organization of its cutting edge hypersonic weapons programs, warning that the current system risks hampering U.S. research into weapons that could redefine future battlefields.

The U.S. is investing billions of dollars into research and development of hypersonic weapons, the high speed and maneuverability of which can defeat existing anti-air and anti-missile systems.

Russia and China have already fielded hypersonic weapons, raising concerns that the U.S. is lagging behind. The GAO report published Monday warned that the current U.S. research approach risks "impeding its progress" and urged the Pentagon to review the leadership positions and organizations of its ongoing programs.

The GAO identified 70 hypersonic or related projects, accounting for some $15 billion investment from fiscal years 2015 to 2024. This includes cooperation between the DOD, Department of Energy and NASA, though the vast majority of spending was related to the Pentagon.

Most spending now relates to specific product development, though until 2019 spending was dominated by broader technological research.

The report included a letter from the DOD detailing its approach to what the GAO acknowledges is a "complex" challenge, including pursuing several parallel programs to retain a range of options, plus investing in the industrial base, workforce, and infrastructure needed to work such cutting edge projects; for example test ranges and wind tunnels.

But the GAO suggested DOD leadership should reform the structure of its hypersonic research before it undermines U.S. research efforts.

"Without clear leadership roles, responsibilities, and authorities, DOD is at risk of impeding its progress toward delivering hypersonic weapon capabilities and opening up the potential for conflict and wasted resources as decisions over larger investments are made in the future," the report read.

The DOD concurred with the recommendation that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin "should define and document the roles, responsibilities, and authorities of the leadership positions and organizations in DOD responsible for the development and acquisition of hypersonic weapons."

The GAO report did not offer a timeline for such a review. Newsweek has contacted the GAO to request clarification on how long such a restructuring might take and whether the DOD has offered any guarantees.

"Such governing documentation would provide for a level of continuity when leadership and organizational priorities inevitably change, especially as hypersonic weapon development efforts are expected to continue over at least the next decade," the report said.

Hypersonic missiles are made up of a solid-fuel rocket booster topped by an unpowered boost-glide vehicle. The booster propels the glide vehicle and its warheads—conventional or nuclear—to hypersonic speeds, at which point the vehicle detaches and continues on to its target.

Hypersonic missiles fly at high speeds—Mach 5 and above, or around 3,836 miles per hour—and flatter trajectories than traditional long-range missiles, giving defenders a smaller window of interception. The boost-glide vehicles can also maneuver in flight to avoid defensive fire.

The U.S. military currently has two offensive hypersonic weapons programs ongoing, and is also researching defensive hypersonic applications to defend against foreign strikes.

The Army and Navy are working together on the Common-Hypersonic Glide Body, which had its first successful flight in March and hit within six inches of its target. The Navy is hoping to field its first ship-launched hypersonic weapon by 2023 followed by a submarine-launched missile in 2024.

The Air Force is working on its own project—the Lockheed Martin's AGM-183A air-launched rapid-response weapon, also known as ARRW. The ARRW's early testing phase is now complete. Operational testing is due to begin in October 2021 and delivery is scheduled for 2022.

Russia has already deployed two hypersonic weapons with troops. When he unveiled a host of new weapons projects in 2018, President Vladimir Putin described hypersonic weapons as "invincible" and said they would make existing ballistic missiles defunct.

China also has operational hypersonic weapons, and is widely thought of as the current leader in the field. Beijing deployed the ballistic missile-launched DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle in 2019. China is now believed to also be developing an air-launched hypersonic glide vehicle that can be fired from bomber planes.

ARRW hypersonic weapon prepared for launch
The Air Force's ARRW hypersonic weapon is prepared for flight testing at Edwards Air Force Base, California, on August 6, 2020. U.S. Air Force