China Leads in Hypersonics, US Still in Game

A hypersonic glide vehicle is shown in this artist's concept from DARPA. Joint Chiefs Vice Chair Gen. Paul Selva said Tuesday that China is leading in hypersonic weapon research due to its throwing up to "hundreds of billions" of dollars at the technology.

The US has “lost our technical advantage in hypersonics,” the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff allowed Tuesday, but “we haven’t lost the hypersonics fight.”

Air Force Gen. Paul Selva told defense writers in Washington, D.C., that China has grabbed the lead in hypersonics—vehicles that move in excess of Mach 5—because it has made this technology “a national program” and is “willing to spend tens to up to hundreds of billions to solve the problems of hypersonic flight [and] hypersonic target designation.” Both China and Russia “moved out pretty smartly” on this technological enterprise, Selva reported.

For its part, the US has “taken a different approach,” he said. The Pentagon’s notion is to “come up with a family of hypersonic systems that work without necessarily trying to close all the technology pieces at the front end.”

Selva said the US is “working hard” to “make the vehicle survivable and maneuverable, which is a flight control problem.” However, “‘closing the kill chain’ is something that will happen later in the development of the technology.” He suggested that hypersonic attack on a fixed target is “relatively easy,” but using a hypersonic weapon to go after mobile targets “is a really tough kill chain problem. …That’s the second piece we’re trying to close.” Selva said he finds the ability to “do stunning maneuvers and still retain hypersonic flight” is one of the most “compelling” things about the technology, made possible by the “incredible amounts of excess energy in the weapon.”

The jury’s still out as to whether a manned hypersonic system is feasible, he noted. It’s a question of, “Can you scale hypersonics from a small, highly maneuverable, high-G, sturdy machine to something you’d put a human in. I’m not sure that one would invest the money to make that transition. When you can make weapons hypersonic, it’s probably not a requirement to make platforms hypersonic.”

Selva, who is the Pentagon’s top uniformed requirements official, declined to say by when the US must be able to field a hypersonic weapon.

Asked if there is a single entity in charge of coordinating hypersonics research across the vast enterprise of Defense Department agencies and laboratories, Selva said there are “three principal places; two I will reveal, one I won’t.” The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is one, he said, and “the Navy has a hypersonics program” as well.

Not the Air Force?

Selva repeated, “the third one I won’t reveal.”

Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Seve Wilson also acknowledged China’s lead in hypersonics during a recent interview with Air Force Magazine. Wilson said all the services are pursuing hypersonics research, including the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office, an agency which Selva did not mention.