US rushes to deploy its first hypersonic weapons

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Lagging behind Russia in developing hypersonic weapons, the U.S. Navy is racing to field the first, with installation on a warship set to begin late next year.

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

The Russian military says it has already deployed hypersonic missiles and claimed to have deployed them both on Saturday and Sunday 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, unleashing a hypersonic glide vehicle that would reach speeds seven to eight times faster than the speed of sound before hitting its target.

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

Work would begin at a yet-to-be-named shipyard sometime in the fiscal year that begins October 2023, the Navy said.

Hypersonic weapons are defined as anything that travels beyond Mach 5, or five times faster than the speed of sound. That’s about 3,800 mph. ICBMs far exceed that threshold, but they travel in a predictable path, making it possible to intercept them.

The new weapons are maneuverable.

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

Russia says it has ballistic missiles that can deploy hypersonic glide vehicles, as well as a hypersonic cruise missile.

The United States is “striving just to catch up” because it hasn’t invested in the new technology, with only a fraction of the 10,000 people who worked on the program in the 1980s, said U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, a Tennessee Democrat who chairs a subcommittee that oversees the program.

“If we want to pursue parity, we will need to back this effort with more money, time and talent than we have right now,” he said.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine serves as the backdrop when the Pentagon releases its budget proposal setting out its targets for hypersonics and other weapons systems later this month.

The three stealthy Zumwalt-class destroyers to be equipped with the new weapons have plenty of room to accommodate them, thanks to a design flaw that benefits the Navy in this case.

The ships were built around a weapons system that was supposed to use GPS-guided rocket-propelled projectiles to hit targets 90 miles away. But those shells 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 angular turrets.

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

“Engineering is not that difficult. It will just take time and money to make this happen,” Clark said.

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

The destroyers would be based in the Pacific Ocean, where they would be a deterrent to China, should it become emboldened by Russia’s attack on Ukraine and consider attacking Taiwan, Clark said.

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

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

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

At the moment Russia does not have many of the weapons and it is unclear how effective they are, he said.