Who’s Ahead in Hypersonics?

China is “way ahead” in hypersonics, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said Wednesday night. Speaking at an AFA Mitchell Institute event in Washington, D.C., Work said hypersonics technology is “part and parcel” of his “third offset” strategy to recapture a wide lead over adversaries, but competitors are pouring resources into the field as well. “The Chinese are way ahead in terms of hypersonics. The Russians are behind them, and I would say, we’re somewhere in between,” Work assessed. China’s “got hundreds of hypersonic wind tunnels,” he said, wondering “how do they pay for the overhead? But they are pursuing it in a big, big way.” The US wants hypersonic weapons because their speed offers value in penetration of anti-access, air defense networks, and such weapons will have to have a degree of autonomy to react to that environment. Hypersonics expert Mark Lewis, head of IDA’s Science and Technology Institute and former USAF chief scientist, said Work’s observation about China’s wind tunnels is correct. “You use small wind tunnels for research, and big ones for development of vehicles,” Lewis explained. “China’s biggest hypersonic tunnel is about twice the size” of the biggest one in the US. He was slightly less pessimistic than Work, however, saying the US probably has a narrow lead in hypersonics for another two years or so, and could preserve it with proper investment in programs and facilities. (See also That Breath on Your Neck, Stick with the Waverider, and Getting Serious about Hypersonic Weapons.)